Friday, 23 May 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Director: Steven Spielberg
Story: George Lucas and David Koepp
Starring: Harrison Ford, Shia LeBeouf and Cate Blanchett

It has been 19 years since Indiana Jones graced the big screen with his presence and I’m glad to say he’s back in style and it feels like he never left.

Few big screen trilogies have been as highly regarded as those written by George Lucas. He captured the imaginations of an entire generation in 1977 with Star Wars and then did so again in 1981 with Indiana Jones, this time bringing in old friend, Steven Spielberg, a man with a record as impressive as Lucas’. In both trilogies Lucas also had found a leading man capable of carrying both trilogies in Harrison Ford. Ford, a star in the making thanks to Star Wars, cemented his leading man status with Indiana Jones and became an idol to many fans.

Now, fast forward to 1999 and Lucas is releasing his first new Star Wars film in 16 years. Filling in the history of the galaxy he established in his original trilogy, armed with the latest special effects but minus most of his original cast, The Phantom Menace brought in a lot of new fans to the Star Wars franchise but almost alienated many fans of his original trilogy. While some respect was regained with the following two Star Wars prequels, it certainly cast some doubt over whether Lucas still had all of that old magic. Now, it is 2008 and we are seeing the return of another Lucas creation in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It has been 19 years since the last Indiana Jones film was released and despite the return of Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg, there has been a fair amount of fear in addition to anticipation over whether this new film would capture the magic of the original films.

I am happy to say that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not only a fun, action packed summer blockbuster, it is also an Indiana Jones film. I can think of no higher compliment to award it. It has been 19 years since the last film and Harrison Ford is older than and not as spry as he was and it has been a long time since Lucas and Spielberg have worked with these characters but it doesn’t take long for them to find that old rhythm. Opening with action and intrigue, the film feels a little uncertain at first, no doubt reflecting the feelings of audiences that have been around to remember the earlier Indiana Jones films before we had CGI. But after the opener, we get a moment to stop, breathe, and catch up with what has happened with our characters in the 19 years since we last saw them (the film taking place 19 years after the last, from 1938, now to 1957 reflecting the real world time gap between films). These scenes add a new spin to our old character. Like the audience, Indiana himself doubts his abilities and future in these new times and different attitudes (again a comparison between the 1930s and 1950s of the film and the 1980s and 2000s for audiences). This sets the stage for the new film and for the characters as Indiana is quickly involved in a new adventure as he’s brought in to rescue an old friend, lost on a quest and facing a new enemy (the Soviets of the 50s filling in for the Nazis of the 30s).
Almost everything from here on is vintage Indiana Jones. Indiana, and Harrison Ford, find new energy, reunite with old friends (seeing Karen Allen return as Marion Ravenwood is a heartwarming sight for any old fan), being brought in a mystery of a lost civilization, finding the clues, fighting the enemy, big action and a bigger finale. Everything that’s old feels fresh again and while the film injects a little of the Sci-Fi sensibilities of 1950s cinema into the plot, it feels natural rather than forced.

There are some flaws however, and most of these lie with the film’s appeal to newer audiences. There are many nods to old fans and successful attempts to appeal to the nostalgia possessed by old fans of the franchise that might not appeal to newer audiences who have never seen an Indiana Jones film or came to them after growing up on a diet of CGI blockbusters and superheroes. The romantic subplot in particular might not appeal to newer audiences that haven’t seen Raiders of the Lost Ark. Also, while Spielberg has only gotten better over the years at delivering exciting action sequences (and there are some fantastic ones here, a jungle chase sequence in particular is stunning), the occasional uses of CGI feels oddly out of place and sometimes make the dangers our characters face seem less real than those faced in the past.

In the end though, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull succeeds admirably in its goal of being an Indiana Jones film. Performances are mostly top notch. Ford and Allen recapture their chemistry as Indy and Marion, Cate Blanchett is an effective villain and Shia LeBeouf holds his own admirably and certainly proves capable of carrying the torch should rumors of a new Indiana Jones franchise prove true. Ray Winstone and John Hurt provide decent support, although their roles are fairly underdeveloped. Hurt’s character in particular serves mainly to be an expository device. But everyone works together well and the most important performance, Harrison Ford’s, captures his old character perfectly.

Overall, while there are a few minor nitpicks for old fans and some aspects might seem unappealing to new fans, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is fitting addition to the Indiana Jones series and can stand proud alongside the rest. Not the best Indiana Jones film but certainly an equal. Indy is back!

Rating: 4/5