I just saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and this blog entry constitutes a ridiculously long description and critique of the movie, at a level of detail you almost certainly don't want if you intend to see the movie. In fact what follows is a level of detail probably no one wants, but I have been boring people with scene-by-scene recitations of movies since I was four years old, so I see no reason to stop now. But you, really: stop reading now if you do not want the movie spoiled for you. There will be another blog entry in a day or two.
The very first image on the screen (not counting movie trivia, ads, previews, and a warning to turn off my cellphone) was a dissolve from the Paramount mountain logo into a gopher mound, with a distractingly unrealistic gopher bursting through the soil. Do they even have gophers in New Mexico? Unfortunately, distractingly unrealistic is a phrase that applies to a lot of the movie, and do realize this is coming from someone who loves Indiana Jones movies and desperately wants to suspend disbelief for an hour and a half. It just seems as if a lot of the effects and sets were rushed, or not carefully evaluated for impact.
The gopher runs away as his mound is hit by (I warned you this would be detailed) the wheel of a convertible roadster full of 1950s teenagers. In case you missed the period costumes and make-up, Elvis' You Ain't Nothing But A Hound Dog plays on the soundtrack. The roadster cuts across the desert and then meets a road where it weaves through a military convoy of troop transport trucks led by a staff car. We see some armed soldiers look at the kids briefly and disinterestedly. I thought that was unrealistic for American soldiers, who should have at least grinned at the pretty girls, but with the tone set by the gopher, I missed the foreshadowing.
The teenagers try to persuade the driver of the staff car to race with them, and for a while the staff car speeds away from the trucks. I figured it was a ruse to lure the car away from the troops in order to capture some military secret or individual, so that was fun and exciting, but that doesn't happen. The teenagers continue on the road to the "Atomic Cafe" ; they were just there to set the era, because otherwise a military convoy is timeless. An overlay title proclaims it 1957, while the convoy turns in to stop at the checkpoint gate of a military facility. The guards there salute and apologize to the colonel who steps out of the convoy, but explain that the entire facility is off limits to all personnel today, for nuclear testing. Suddenly the colonel ducks down, and from behind him soldiers gun down all the checkpoint guards. Next, they open the trunk of the staff car and throw a couple of bodies on the ground, with a fedora hat. One of the 'bodies' picks up the fedora and --cue the classic music-- we see him put it on as a shadow on the side of the car. For a moment we revel in the familiar and famous silhouette, then the focus shifts and we see Harrison Ford reprising the character in his sixties. It was a very nice way to say that Indy's got a few years on him, but he's still the same guy. I think that last bit was in the trailer.
The other body is also alive. He's your standard slightly overweight sidekick, reminds me of dependable Sollah from Raiders. And the ruthless soldiers are Russians who say they found Indy and his companion searching for antiquities in Mexico. The Russian army, and specifically Irina Spalko (standard issue, ramrod straight, smart brunette Russian operative boss chick) wants Indiana to find them a box in a military warehouse. There's also a tall expressionless tough guy and a lot of interchangeable soldiers who yell «давай» a lot.
The warehouse looks a lot like my local lumberyard/hardware store and just like the warehouse from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a massive high-ceilinged space containing row after row of high stacked wooden boxes. The commies aren't after the ark, though. They want a mummy they say Indy found. Under threat of death, he cooperates, disassembling bullets and shotgun shells and using McGyveresque techniques to find the highly magnetized items. This is the standard opening scene of an Indiana Jones movie, so you know they find the prized artifact, introduce the characters and then Indy loses the prize to his adversary. We don't actually get to see exactly what they've taken. It's just something alien-looking inside what might be a mylar bag inside the presumably magnetized sarcophagus. During the ensuing chase/fight scene one of the vehicles smashes open a crate and only the viewers get to glimpse what is inside: the Ark from the first movie. Perfect. Indy escapes with his life, despite the fact that his companion turns traitor, and runs out into the picturesque desert, towards a settlement.
When he gets there it's all candy colours, an over-the-top set piece of 1950s homes, yards, furniture, decor, brand name products and the TV show playing in the background. In fact, even the people are plastic. Literally. I guess some folks younger than me needed the subsequent announcement of the imminent bomb drop to tell them that this is a model town set up for the sole purpose of researching the effects of nuclear weapons on civilian areas. Indy doesn't. He can't get a ride out of there with the Russians, so he crawls into a lead-lined refrigerator and shuts the door. It's the old-fashioned kind of refrigerator, of course, the kind that can only be opened from the outside. (When I was a kid the dire warnings to never play in a refrigerator were still around, but those lever-lock refrigerators weren't. I always wondered what kind of idiot couldn't push the door open again). I guess Indy hadn't received those warnings, or he prefers slow suffocation to instant nuclear immolation. The bomb drops, all the happy innocent 1950s kitch is turned to ash, and the refrigerator is blown clear of the ersatz subdivision. Duck and cover, indeed.
Next scene does not address his escape from either the refrigerator or the fall within, but has Jones being scrubbed and showered by radiation-suited men, and then grilled by suspicious communist-hunters. He is under suspicion for his long association with the sidekick character (no, he wasn't interesting enough for me to bother learning or looking up his name). They fill in the back story of what Dr. Jones has been doing all these years. He was a war hero of course, but his interrogators have war records too, and this is the McCarthy era, so everything about him is suspect. He finally gets someone to vouch for him and goes free, but then we see him back teaching at his old school, his class being interrupted by the Dean, with orders for him to take a leave of absence. He is still a suspected communist.
It's the first time I've seen a movie that wasn't specifically about the McCarthy witch hunts deal with the suspicion that fell on academics in that time. It was ironically similar to what the communists themselves did, killing off the intelligentsia. Neither regime wanted people who thought for themselves and communicated their thoughts clearly.
Jones is on his way out of town when a motorcycle-riding teen named Mud chases his train along the platform to deliver a message. The message is that the kid's mother and stepfather have disappeared and there's a coded letter in an ancient language for Indy to solve. The kid seems like someone who is trying to cultivate the image of a bad boy--and he's obsessed with image, doing his hair at the most inopportune moments, throughout the movie--but he hasn't actually got involved in anything bad. He has followed mommy and daddy's instructions to find Professor Jones and hands over the letter. Almost immediately the Russian bad guys reappear, so Mud starts a soda shoppe (he's too young for bars) fight and in the ensuing confusion he and Indy can escape on Mud's anachronistic (it's a modern model with retro styling instead of being authentic to the era) motorcycle. They use Indy's knowledge of the university campus to go through narrow archways and elude their car-driving pursuers, who for some reason aren't clever enough to regroup and find Indy and Mud back in Indy's study. There, Indy pulls out a couple of books, and demonstrates to multiple school dropout Mud the value of an education by solving the riddle, determining where in the world the next scene should show red lines across the map. Their transport in what appears to be a Russian airplane with Pan-American paint: I think the person tasked with producing the travel graphics got the airplanes mixed up.
Once in Peru they find out that the stepfather went insane, but that he is no longer in the asylum. The multilingual graffiti on the walls and floor of his cell has the message "return/go back" and includes a map of a local graveyard where they discover a tomb containing the well-preserved mummified conquistadores who stole the titular skull in the first place. And it contains the skull, stashed inside the wrappings of an already opened mummy. Or something. It's hard to see with all the spiderweb set dressing. It is gigantic, clear, with clearish stuff inside.
At some point they 'realize' that the scrawled word "return" means "give back" not "go back." That's kind of silly because they made a point of it being in multiple languages, and that would have resolved the English ambiguity of give back vs. go back. The same double meaning isn't going to exist across languages. But now they are going to give the skull back to where it came from, the City of Gold, elsewhere in Peru.
Of course as soon as they emerge from the cemetery they are captured by the Russians again. The Russians take them more or less where they were going anyway, where they have a jungle camp. They not only have Indy and Mud as prisoners, but Mud's mother, who turns out to be Marion Ravenwood, the female lead from the first movie, Ox, Mud's now insane stepfather, and sidekick traitor guy. One big happy family. The evil Russian lady makes Indy look into the eyes of the crystal skull, the same thing that drove Ox mad. It's not just an ordinary skull of course, it's a plotomagnetic (attracts anything metal, including gold, but only when it's convenient to the plot) big headed alien skull. Indy goes all droopy after a while of staring, so they let him stop, at which point there is a lot of punching and everyone escapes into the jungle and Indy and Marion get stuck in quicksand. The Indy and Marion bickering is just like the first movie, and it's great to see a female lead who has been allowed to age like a real person. Just before they drown, Marion reveals what all but the densest audience members have already figured out: Mud is Indy's kid. His real name is Henry Jones III. Mud returns and rescues them using a snake (why did it have to be snakes?) as a rope, but it's all in vain because Indy send Ox for "help" and so he went and got the Nazis, I mean Commies. That entire sequence, well except for the snake, was completely predicable.
Eventually they have another go at escaping, this one in a goes-on-way-too-long jungle car chase extravaganza, with more distractingly unrealistic effects. It would have been better to have the Russian tank-cars just racing along a realistic forest track than it was to have them racing along a forest track impossibly close to the edge of a dizzying precipice above a roaring river. In the first movie I was actually worried about the proximity of the cliff to the tracks of the vehicles, but this one was so overdone it took away from the excitement of the chase instead of adding. When junior gets separated from the party after an intervehicle epee battle and then sees a monkey in a tree, that's fine. But then when he rejoins the party by swinging on vines like Tarzan, there was a distractingly unrealistic quantity of CGI monkeys all joining in. When you ask the question "why?" about an effect it is suspect, and when the only answer is "George Lucas likes animals" or "because we can," it doesn't belong. And I liked all the weird alien animals in the Star Wars remakes.
Just when you thought the car chase is over because they've all smashed into things and can't drive any more, there's an attack of giant killer ants and we all have to run away from the ants. The skull (which has been back and forth between parties like a ping pong ball) repels the killer ants, so only a couple of the bad guys get eaten alive and the good guys escape. There's more punching, I think, too. Marion then drives an amphibious vehicle over a cliff far too high to be driving over, but she cleverly gets the car-boat caught in a tree, which slowly falls over and lowers the boat perfectly to the water. Good classic moment. I wanted to see more instances where old age and guile trump youth and strength.
Meanwhile mad-Ox is going on about three drops, but the party, despite the fact that they are floating down a river, doesn't figure out what these drops are until after they go over the first waterfall and are about to go over the second. I was finding this a little dense of them, but then it got really stupid when they did nothing with the information and just pile over the third, impossibly high rock-strewn waterfall destroying their vehicle but with no personal injury. The first waterfall was funny, but after that they should have used brains rather than movie invincibility to escape.
Next they go inside the veil of the waterfall, and did I mention that sidekick traitor guy has now joined their party and they don't seem to care? He is dropping little flashing homing beacons to leave a trail of breadcrumbs for Irina, in case she can't follow the railroad plot otherwise. The chase leads through an ancient temple, filled with the requisite naked blowpipe-wielding natives (Indy's party dispels them by uncovering the magic skull while Team Soviet just shoots them all), mystic frescoes and advanced primitive trap technology.
Eventually they reach the top of the appropriate sacred mountain/temple/obelisk thing, but there is no city of gold there, just a big wheel-shaped thing with an obelisk and lots of face-carved stones at the hub. Moment of disappointment, especially from traitor guy. They then discover that if they bash the face-shaped stones out of the hub, sand pours out of the hole. At first I thought this was gold dust, so wondered why they weren't collecting it, and thought it was a somewhat lame treasure, anyway. I also thought Indy was lifting his rock to bash traitor guy over the head so he'd stop following them, but he was just knocking the faces out of the obelisk pedestal. See the sand is not gold but actually a counterweight; like so many of the primitive mechanisms Indy discovers, it's a delicately balanced machine. Once enough of the sand has poured out, the obelisk sinks down and the spokes of the wheel are raised up to make a larger obelisk. Then the floor drops out from under them, and they are on a spiral staircase going down, but they can't run fast enough so they all fall down to their deaths. No wait, there is water at the bottom and apparently they all can survive anything as long as they land in water, so they're fine.
They're now on the set from National Treasure, with antiquities from every era and area all in one big jumbled room. Saves the set decoration people from having to do any research or special construction. Plus there's another mystic door to open, but this one is keyed biometrically to the magnetic skull. Airport security of the ancients. Inside the chamber are the skeletons and skulls of twelve aliens and the headless skeleton of a thirteenth. They place the skull on the headless one, and it raises its head to begin the special effects extravaganza. Lets see ... the walls rearrange, all the aliens merge into one alien, Irina (well of course she turns up) demands payment for the return of the skull, specifically "all knowledge." Predictably, her head explodes when she gets it.
Meanwhile our heroes escape, once again courtesy of vast amounts of water. (Oh by the way they are always dry immediately after getting out of the water). They stand on top of the mountain and watch the surrounding countryside become a whirlpool of CGI, and then a traditional flying saucer emerges. It flies away into another dimension, because these aren't space aliens, they're interdimensional hive mind beings.
So lets see, the bad guy has a supernatural comeuppance, the good guys have found the artifact but been forced to relinquish it for the greater good, and then they all go home to live happily ever after. Indy actually marries Marion, which is about time, as considering the backstory from the first movie, he first seduced her as an underaged child. A magical gust of wind opens the church door at the end of the service and Indy's fedora blows into the aisle. Mud picks it up and is about to put it on, but Indy takes it smoothly out of his hand and puts it on himself as he escorts his new bride out of the church. "Not yet," he says, or something of the sort. Roll end credits.
So I liked it, but the sets or the effects (I can't really tell which is which anymore) were disappointing. I don't look at the screen to criticize the set. I'm happy to take it at face value, but as they entered the graveyard it reminded me of the tin man set from the Wizard of Oz! It's still an Indiana Jones movie, and I'll buy it on DVD, even if just for the director's commentary, but it wasn't the best ever.