Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Cannes Film Fest 2008 (World Premiere Out of Competition)“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” the fourth chapter of the Indiana Jones adventure, a successful franchise that began in 1981, is not a good picture by any standard, but it delivers the basic goods, offering old-fashioned fun in both the positive and negative senses of this term.

“Indy Jones 4,” easily the most anticipated movie event of the year and one of the few pictures that's truly critics-proof, world-premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Fest out of competition. Paramount will release the DreamWorks production day and date on May 22, and if my reading is valid, the picture should be bonanza at the global box-office, easily surpassing the records achieved by the previous segments.

Artistically, the fourth installment is not as good as the first, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” in 1981, or the second, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” in 1984, but it's superior to the last one, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” in 1989.

In 24 years of attending the Cannes Film Fest, I have not seen such buzz-driven press screening– not even for Tarantino's “Pulp Fiction,” in 1994. Critics and journalists began to line up a full hour before the show, and were placed quietly in their seats in a fully packed house, the Grand Palais, at least half an hour before the movie began.

The eagerly awaited segment, that took 19 years make due to the lack of an acceptable script, could be described as Spielberg's spectacle for the masses, by which I mean that the movie belongs to the old Spielberg movies of the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, blurring and/or mixing (depends on your perspective) conventions of all the genres that the maestro has worked with-action, sci-fi, and even horror-“Indy Jones 4” at once benefits from and is inhibited by the three-way collaboration of visionary producer George Lucas, who created the concept, brilliant storyteller Spielberg, who directed all four pictures, and star Harrison Ford, reprising the most iconic role of his career.

“Indy Jones 4” is also a “mass market” creation in both the positive and negative senses of the word. The creators have been well aware that there are high expectations and limits as to what the hardcore fans would and would not accept. As Spielberg said in a recent interview: “We created Indiana Jones, but it belongs to the world, and now we're just the custodians.” Precisely.

All along, the goal was to create an experience that would transport audiences into an all-new adventure, set in a familiar world. Producer Lucas has explicitly stated that they wanted “the style to be the same, the humor to be the same, and everything else to be the same.” Whether this is a plus or a minus would depend on your personal perspective.

Watching the action-adventure, you realize what a fine line the movie walks between being “the same,” just like the 1980s chapters, but also being “slightly different and new.” The novel elements have to do with the setting and the introduction of some new characters and new relationships, some of which built on those of the former episodes, while others appear for the first time, but linked to the familiar persona in either biological or professional way.

Let me begin with the star: All fears and doubts that Ford is too old (he'll turn 66 in July) to play again the world's bets-known archeologist, should put to rest as he gives a commanding performance that holds the necessarily episodic picture together. Ford not only look good for his age, but acts better than ever, and moves with the agility of a man half his age. Just the sight of Ford, as the whip-toting, punch-packing, snake-hating, globe-trotting archeologist wearing his signature fedora hat brought a huge applause; it's like visiting an old friend of the 1980s.

From its first appearance, 27 years ago, Indiana Jones has become one of the most beloved heroes of the screen. Moreover, after the release of the second chapter, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” in 1984, and especially, after the third one, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” in 1989, audiences all over the world have expressed their collective desire for another adventure. We all knew it's a matter of time, but no one could have guessed it would nearly take two decades.

It's no secret that various scribes have offered ideas and screenplays for the fourth chapter, among them Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption”). It's also no secret that producer Lucas and helmer Spielberg have debated (and disagreed) over the direction in which the saga and its characters should follow.

Shrewdly, screenwriter David Koepp, with assistance from Lucas and Jeff Nathanson (who get story credit) has penned a multi-generational saga that reunites Ford with his old squeeze (Karen Allen, also looking good, at 56), and has arranged for him to have a younger companion, Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), a rebellious youth sporting a black leather jacket, who may or may not be his biological son.

You may recall that when we last saw Indiana Jones, it was 1938, and the world stood on the brink of war, with our hero chasing down evil-doers to find the Holy Grail. This time around, the saga is set in the Southwest desert-Nevada to be specific–in 1957, during the height of the Cold War and Senator McCarthy's communist witch-hunting.

Paralleling screen history, 19 years later, the saga finds our Dr. Jones facing again a world at a precipice, this time caused by the specter of nuclear annihilation. Similarly, in the new movie, Dr. Jones is once again struggling to ensure that a precious, mysterious object (which explains the title) remains safe from those bent on destroying humanity–who else but the Soviets–even if his task takes him to Peru, among several exciting sites.

Setting the picture in the 1950s is a perfect fit for Spielberg, who has visited that crucial decade in pop culture in the film he directed as well as those he produced (“Back to the Future”). With meticulous attention to detail, we see hot rods, girls wearing letter sweaters, ponytails, and saddle shoes.

The picture begins on a high, exciting note, with a chase scene in the desert. On the road, there is a convertible, loaded with beautiful girls who are teasing the soldiers, while the soundtrack plays Elvis Presley's tunes. The mid-to-late 1950s were emblematic of music, of the beginning of rock 'n roll, of Technicolor, of suburban dreams by bright young faces that Norman Rockwell immortalized in his paintings. (Spielberg grew up in the 1950s, and I will not be surprised if it's still his favorite decade as far as Americana and pop culture are concerned).

A convoy of Soviet military camouflaged in American army vehicles drives into a remote nuclear testing base, desperately looking for some object. Held prisoner, Dr. Jones helps them with his knowledge and skills. Few minutes later, Indiana and his sidekick George “Mac” McHale (Brit Ray Winstone, excellent as usual) barely escape a close scrape with nefarious Soviet agents on the distance, secretive airfield.

Professor Jones returns home to Marshall College, only to find things have gone bad. The dean of the college and close friend (Jim Broadbent) explains that Indy's recent activities have made him the object of suspicion and that the government and the FBI have put pressure on him to fire Indyalbeit with full salary and benefits.

On his way out of town, Indy bumps into Mutt (LaBeouf), a youth whose physical appearance pays tribute to Marlon Brando's iconic role in “The Wild One” (1954), wearing a white t-shirt, sexy leather jacket and jeans, and riding a motorcycle. Proudly introducing himself as a dropout, Mutt describes his family background, revealing anger, grudge, and dissatisfaction. But he also makes an alluring proposition for the adventurous Indy: If he'll help Mutt on a mission with deeply personal stakes, Indy could make one of the most archeological finds in historythe Crystal Skull of Akator, a mysterious, legendary object that holds fascination, superstition, and fear.

In short order, Indy and Mutt set out for the most remote corner of Peru, a land of ancient tombs, forgotten explorers, and rumored city of gold. As expected, the odd couple soon realizes that they are not the only ones in search of the treasure. The Soviet agents are also hot on the trail of the Crystal Skull.

Chief among them is Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, sporting a Louise Brooks hairstyle and heavy Russian accent), the icily cold but devastatingly beautiful commissar who was introduced in the very first act, during a search of a military warehouse. Like Indy, Irina and her elite military squad is scouring the globe for the eerie Crystal Skull, which they believe can help the Soviets dominate the world through brains-washing, or control of the human mind. The “only” problem is how to locate it, and once found, how to unlock its ancient secrets.

The saga's running theme is rather simple: Indy and Mutt, later joined by Mary, must find ways to evade the ruthless Soviets. The two groups follow seemingly impenetrable trails of mysteries, grapple with human enemies (primitive tribes that look as if they were taken out of Mel Gibson's “Apocalypto”) and friends of questionable motives, and Nature itself, in the form of monkeys, ants, water falls, and so on.

To that extent, the narrative is structured as a series of chases, encounters, separations, and reencounters between Indy and his group, which also includes Mac (a man with at least two or three identities) and Oxley (John Hurt), a somehow damaged and bruised man who knows more than given credit.

Some critics may have issues with this adventure's old-fashioned nature, but I think it was consciously done to fit into the general pattern of the three previous chapters that were made in 1981, 1984, and 1989 respectively.

Inevitably, “Indy Jones 4” is self-conscious, self-reflexive, and self-referential. How could it not be You'll smile when you see again the map, the old vehicles, the plane. I got a kick out of watching the red line, which in Hollywood movies of the past was used to show viewers that the hero is hop-scotching across the globe.

With the exception of some state-of-the-arts special effects, technically speaking, the art design, costume, and the staging of the various action scenes have the feel of late 1980s pictures.

The 1950s setting almost calls for references to Cold War pictures, and in moments, particularly those featuring Cate Blanchett, you're fondly sent back to the early James Bond flicks, such as “Dr. No” and “From Russia With Love,” in which the villains were communist spies.

A good deal of the humor derives from the banter between Indiana Jones and former lover Marion Ravenhood. We learn that he broke off his promise to marry her, that in his view, she married a man not worthy of her.

The tale's second part revolves around a newly formed group, headed by Jones, Marion, and Mutt, and also including Mac, who keeps changing identities and loyalties, and Professor Oxley, the most bizarre character, made even more bizarre by John Hurt's eccentric performance. Jones and Oxley were colleagues, who went to school together until their paths separated. (I can't reveal more than that). Just watch Hurt's expression when he finally recognizes his peer and exclaims, Dr. Jones Junior (emphasis on junior), which of course immediately signals Jones' troubled (and Freudian) relationship with his own domineering father, played by Sean Connery; at one point, Jones sits at his desk and looks at Connery's photo. For younger viewers, sections of the film–around the middle of the saga–might feel too verbose, with long speeches and explanations of the origins of the mysterious object and its powers.

But then comes the last, most thrilling reel, which, again, may be too desperate to entertain, disregarding coherence and genre conventions in the name of exciting fights and special and sound effects that include attacks by monkeys, lethal ants, scary water falls, and a long sword play between Irina and Mutt, positioned on parallel cars, that would make swashbuckling heroes like Errol Flynn proud. Most of the film's visual motifs borrow from (and pay tribute to) to seminal mythic adventures that both Lucas and Spielberg have made, in such films as “Star Wars” (the first series), “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), “E.T.” (1981), and of course, the “Indiana Jones” series that began in 1981 with “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the first and (for me) still the best of the four chapters.

Spoiler Alert

Spielberg has never been very good with endings, and this picture is no exception. The very last scene depicts a wedding ceremony (I won't tell who are the newly wed), attended by the friendly protags, and with Indy's notorious and magical fedora flying into the church and landing where it belongs.

Cast

Indiana Jones – Harrison Ford Irina Spalko – Cate Blanchett Marion Ravenwood – Karen Allen George “Mac” McHale – Ray Winstone Professor Oxley – John Hurt Dean Charles Stanforth – Jim Broadbent Mutt – Shia LaBeouf Col. Dovchenko – Igor Jijikine

Credits

A Paramount release of a Lucasfilm Ltd. production. Produced by Frank Marshall. Executive producers, George Lucas, Kathleen Kennedy. Co-producer, Denis L. Stewart. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay, David Koepp; story, George Lucas, Jeff Nathanson, based on characters created by George Lucas, Philip Kaufman. Camera: Janusz Kaminski. Editor: Michael Kahn. Music: John Williams. Production designer: Guy Hendrix Dyas. Costume designer: Mary Zophres. Sound: Ronald Judkins; sound designer, Ben Burtt; supervising sound editors, Burtt, Richard Hymns. Visual effects supervisor: Pablo Helman. Visual effects and animation: Industrial Light & Magic. Stunt coordinator: Gary Powell. Assistant director: Alan Somner. Second unit director: Dan Bradley. Second unit camera: Flavio Labiano. Casting: Deborah Zane.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 123 Minutes.