Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

***1/2

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

You cannot always teach an old dog new tricks, but sometimes it's good to show the new dogs how good the old tricks can be.

Starting with Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981), the unbelievably successful Indiana Jones films have always had, amidst all the derring-do and supernatural shenanigans, a strong element of nostalgia at their core. Much like its titular hero, an archaeologist who digs up ancient treasures from long-forgotten ruins, this franchise looked back not only to the black-and-white morality of the fight against the Nazis, but also to the serial adventures that George Lucas so loved when he was a boy – and by the time of the Last Crusade (1989), age and the generation gap became themes in themselves as Indy was joined on the quest by his crusty (but no less adventurous) father, and there were even flashbacks to Indy's own boyhood.

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Of course nostalgia has a double edge, reminding us as much of where we are now as where we came from. To watch Harrison Ford in his fourth outing, now himself looking as leathery as the old hat and whip he is still wearing, is also to realise how much older we ourselves are – and Indy's advancing years, far from being glossed over, are endlessly topicalised here. Like Rocky, like John McClane, like Rambo, Ford's Indy has now become a dinosaur of his times twice over – a hero who was old-fashioned from the very outset, but who now seems as antiquated as any of the cobweb-covered relics he pursues. As each of the Indiana Jones films has demonstrated, however, iconic talismans from the past can still conceal an awesome power - and so it is also with Indy himself, still able to whip up a box office frenzy even when his last field trip took place an extraordinary 18 years ago.

This older Indy, however is not having to find his way through the moral quagmire of our own postmodern times, but rather through the Cold War politics of 1957, offering ample opportunities for yet more nostalgia. The film opens with young joyriders tearing down the highway to the tune of Elvis' Hound Dog, in a scene that could have come straight out of Lucas' earlier American Graffiti (1973) – which was even in its own time a nostalgia piece. After Indy has a run-in at Hangar 51 with a group of murderous KGB agents led by paranormal expert Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), and ends up in a nuclear test village at just the wrong moment in history, he is approached by a young juvenile delinquent named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) who is first glimpsed in leathers on a motorcycle looking the spitting image of Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953).

Mutt's patron Professor Oxley (John Hurt), whom Indy knows from way back, has been kidnapped by the KGB after finding a crystal skull in Peru, as has Mutt's mother Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), also once an intimate of Indy's – and so the aging adventurer and his young ward set off together to raid some old tombs, remake some old acquaintances, and solve an ancient mystery. They face all manner of jungle perils – scorpions, quicksand, man-eating ants, ravines, waterfalls, unfriendly natives, and of course a snake – while also kicking bad-guy butt aplenty, but while director Steven Spielberg may be looking back to the lost adventures of Tarzan (here expressly signalled by the sequence in which Mutt is shown swinging from tree to tree with an army of monkeys), he is also, it turns out, dusting off some of his earlier ideas from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977).

Remember that moment in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge Of The Sith (2005) when Anakin Skywalker is at last seen donning Vader's mask for the first time and at last heard drawing that first metallic breath? It was a moment that almost made the many inanities of the second Star Wars trilogy seem worthwhile - a moment of pure cinematic nostalgia, where the circle between a long time ago and an even longer time ago was finally closed. Well, this new Indy film feels like an extended compilation of such moments, as Lucas and Spielberg show their profound understanding of the value of nostalgia, and milk every piece of Indy iconography for what it is worth. If you're a fanboy, this film will make you only too happy to keep up with the Joneses.

Just as well, really, because there is not much else to The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. Cate Blanchett makes a wonderful villainess, but even she cannot elevate her character beyond the cartoonish. The set-pieces (and they are wall-to-wall) are shot with all the accomplishment that one expects from Spielberg, but they are merely ends in themselves, never actually taking the viewer to a place any more interesting than the next set-piece. The plot is gleefully, unapologetically ridiculous, in a film that never really seems to be about anything (although the part played in education by hands-on experience forms something of a recurrent motif). And despite its Cold War setting, A-bomb anxieties and Soviet antagonists, the film studiously avoids any reflections on the politics of today. It is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Perhaps, though, that is precisely the point. For although you may well leave Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull astonished at its lack of substance, as long as it is still playing out in the cinema, you will be transported back to a different world and a better-seeming time, where there is no room for today's concerns. So take this nostalgic "pathway to another dimension", and for two hours your mind, like Oxley's, will be blissfully empty.

Reviewed on: 21 May 2008
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The whip-cracking archaeologist hero returns.
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Director: Steven Spielberg

Writer: David Koepp, based on a story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson, and characters by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman.

Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Shia LaBeouf, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Igor Jijikine, Dimitri Diatchenko, Ilia Volok, Emmanuel Todorov, Pavel Lychnikoff, Andrew Divoff, Venya Manzyuk, Alan Dale

Year: 2008

Runtime: 124 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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