Sunday, June 01, 2008

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, Karen Allen, John Hurt
Director: Steven Spielberg
Rating: ****
Runtime: 124 min
Genre: Action, Adventure

I have this recurring dream, or you could rather call it a nightmare. I’m standing in the middle of a road, with trees hiding residential quarters on one side, the left one that is, and a huge football playground on to the right with shops beyond. I’m always this kindergarten kid in my school uniform, and my bag and my water bottle. And the whole goddamn place is swarming with slithering shining pitch black snakes. Snakes on tree branches, snakes on the playground, snakes sliming their way all over the tar road. The only place there isn’t a snake is where my feet are. And I keep screaming my lungs out, until I wake up. I’m terribly afraid of snakes, so much so that I can’t stand them even on the television. Fans of the Indiana Jones’ films would now have a fair idea where my nightmare finds its source from.
Father used to take us to a lot of films when we were kids, and one of the earliest was the Raiders of the Lost Ark. This picture, as well as The Last Crusade, was probably the biggest visual influence on me as I got through my childhood. There were images that would just never leave me, and indeed they were all over me. There were many a nights I spent wondering about the Holy Grail, and what a horrifying death it would result in if drunk from the wrong cup. Whenever I hear that age old adage – all that glitters is not gold – I still am flashed with that image of the body withering away to bones. And when the secret buried inside of the lost ark melted those faces it was straight horror for a little kid of my age, I asked father what was it. As we walked back to home from the local theater, father must have got an early wind that putting forth the mythical theory would be liable to prolong a spate of questions. He instead opted for uranium, and a nuclear reaction and I was buried beneath my wide-eyed wonder. That was, when I was still in my upper kindergarten, when I first thought I had a glimpse what it would be in a nuclear blast, and I was terrified. Petrified. But the explanation was essentially science. Four films afterwards, the series has reached an ending, a revelation that is more along the lines where my dad treaded that night. I don’t know what that means, but one thing is certain. These movies are that rare thing, a world in themselves. Those films with a genuine sense of place to them, to which we’re transported to during those two odd hours. And I might never be able to thank father enough.
It has been nineteen years, and you and me have changed, but be glad, Indiana hasn’t. Maybe a trifle on the sides, maybe the old men have gotten a bit lethargic, but that goes with the age. As Indiana once said, it is not the years that count, it is the mileage. Back then, Indiana had a look that said – been there, done that, still interested. It seems to say now – been there, done that, and yawn. And that is most certainly not a bad thing. I had created for myself the impression that Spielberg, especially after The War of the Worlds, had grown into a reluctant entertainer, and that child in him of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Indy films was all but lost. But as if a most pleasant slap on my face, he has given me Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The kind of film that leaves a big smile on your face as you leave the premises, with the feeling of satisfaction all about you for having seen a movie.
The template is essentially the same old one. The Paramount logo still dissolves into something on the ground, and this time it is an anthill. Another film and another director would have sat down to bring us on board to what has happened all this while, and bore us, but not Indiana and Spielberg. It is the good old fashioned cut to the chase. It starts off with a bang, at that military warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant found itself sealed and lost all those years ago. And the adventures just keep piling on top of one another, with the Ark making a special appearance. There’s the signature chain of chases with the invention being almost all the participant vehicles run parallel to each other, all the while passengers juggled back and forth with great frolic about them. Indiana is pulled from a Harley into a car and he doggedly finds his way back on to the pillion seat, just as he did it with the truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark. They fence swords across parallel jeeps, they fire bullets, and the object of everyone’s attention, a Crystal Skull keeps changing a hell of a lot of hands. This Skull is one out of a set of thirteen, and it holds the key to another treasure long sought by humanity – El Dorado. The bad guys this time around are the Commies, headed by one hell of a woman in Irina Spalko (Blanchett). And Indy’s partner is Mutt Williams (LaBeouf), who is as good on a Harley, as he’s fleet-footed with a sword in his hand. And then, there’s a monster snake too, which makes an appearance as a rope.
I think more than most films, and that includes any product from the geniuses at Pixar’s, the adventures of Indiana Jones are the perfect outings for a little kid and his papa. The elder partner would enjoy goofy fun and all the wry humor, and the younger one would find it all fascinating where he would incessantly wonder about the mythical-real world of Jones days and weeks after he has seen the picture. Not that he wouldn’t get some of the jokes. Last night at the screening, I was sitting besides two kids, and they seemed to be having the time of their laughs. They were scared, and they often withdrew deep into their seats, and yet they would still manage the audacity to laugh out loud. As I walked out, I was sure there must be some little one clutching the index finger of his papa, hurling at him a thousand questions, and the papa, in return, would be more than enthusiastic to supply answers to each one of them.
Think of it as not a story, but an expert vaudevillian’s act. Only that, there’re three of them here, and the picture in their safe hands is warm and exactly the way you wanted it to be. Spielberg transports himself to his glory days, and making this film seem to be just an extension of reveling in the nostalgia of those years. Everything conjured up here seems to be a homage to his own films from yore, and that includes Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He throws at us one spectacle after another, and I wish he had kept the same dirt-laden look of the earlier films. Here, it seems a bit too neat, and compared to the earlier films, the CGI seem to have taken that much more of a center place. I for one prefer real action, and I prefer the sun beating down heavily in my adventure films, which by the way doesn’t make much of an appearance, since much of the action is in the Amazon. There’s plenty of the next best thing though, mountains filled with deep ravines. As I said, the Indiana Jones films have a sense of place, that perfect blend of a fantastical world which so very appeals to the treasure hunter inside of us.
That, and the dry wit that is so rare in the modern blockbuster. That is what separates Dr. Jones from the rest of the pack, and probably, only Captain Jack Sparrow deserves mention in the same breath. Harrison Ford makes a glorious return to form, after giving tired performances for over a decade. He may be 65, but the smile, and those easy eyes still are the definition of cool. When it comes to his laconic style, there is still no competition. A general sense of droll does sure go a long way in cementing a friendship, especially on globe trotting adventures, and that is one reason why we can watch these films again and again. After probably a year (At World’s End), I again got around to one in which I desired to be lost in.
The repartees are the one to be savored, and although they’re not the best (Last Crusade was the winner in this department, in my book) they’re clever and sharp nonetheless. Ford and Winstone crack it up, and so does old John Hurt holding dearly to the Crystal Skull. Then there’s the most pleasing return of Allen, who simply makes for the best female in the whole of Indiana Jones’ world. Without her, the two intermediate films seemed that bit incomplete. ‘Junior’ finds its way as well, and we realize Ford is no Connery, just as LaBeouf is no Ford. I was glad at the end, when the fedora goes on top of the right head, that of Dr. Henry Jones Jr.
Where does it stand in the franchisee, you might want to know. Let us be honest here, it is tough to falter on an Indy film, simply because it has got a formula going for it. All the films are essentially the same, and everybody might have his own favorite. I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, there’re many who simply find The Last Crusade a joy, and there’re others, film buffs like Jim Emerson who’re nuts on Temple of The Doom and its references. Roger Ebert called it right on the money; these films are like four pounds of sausages. I sure was a bit disappointed with the final few moments of the ending. But then, I realized, I’ve myself changed over the years. I look back at the earlier films, and I’m not sure what was exactly that left such an indelible impression. Though I do discover a sense of nostalgia. Maybe I got to ask that kid next to me what he felt about the ending. What did he think of those images, such mixture of the mythical and the scientific, taking a cue from what Erik Von Däniken said in Chariots of God.
My room partner, who had never watched an Indy film before is now the newest member into the club, and he was so geared up he wanted to watch the other films before daybreak. And I, a veteran, was thoroughly entertained, and as a fan, couldn’t have asked for more. I’m not sure if there’s anything more anyone can do when you decide to pick up the long dormant reins of a most beloved franchisee.

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