Last night I took my ten-year-old son to a screening of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. On the way there, I kept calling it “the new RAIDERS” and he kept correcting me.
But that’s what it is. It’s so great to see “Marion Ravenwood” (Karen Allen) back on the scene in this series that it’s worth the price of the movie (full disclosure, she’s one of my best and oldest friends, but as everyone who knows me knows, that doesn’t keep me from telling the truth as I see it).
In fact, for my taste, she elevates the movie to almost the level of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK with her spunky character and beautiful smile. Pretty much the way she is in real life. My little guy said afterwards: “Karen’s always got a great attitude in movies,” referring mostly to RAIDERS and the new one (we watched RAIDERS together a few days ago, so he’d be prepared for THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL).
As for the story, it gets a little too complicated at times, a mistake often made in sequels trying to keep in touch with the original movie and yet make it all new at the same time. But also a result of the time it’s set in. RAIDERS dealt with the seemingly simple (at least in retrospect) good vs. evil dichotomy of the WWII era.
KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is set in 1957, a time not as easily rendered in simple strokes, “The Cold War” being a lot more complicated and nuanced, since actual military fighting was done mostly by proxy nations and groups, and a lot of the direct encounters between the Soviet Union and the USA had to do with atomic bomb chest thumping, spying and other clandestine activities, and propaganda presented as reality.
The movie tries to touch on most of these topics and does a great job with a lot of it (the sight of a mushroom cloud done so well as a special effect actually thrilled my little guy, never having seen anything like it in a movie before), including McCarthyism, the homegrown right wing movement that accused the guilty and the innocent alike of working for the “enemy” (a convenient way of using fear for political purposes and also eliminating rivals, sound familiar?).
But the nuances of such subtle political realities are too difficult to capture in a movie image or scene or two, as this movie tries to do, and so I suspect will be lost on the younger members of the audience and not played fully enough for the older ones.
As he did in RAIDERS and other films, Spielberg uses movie shorthand to convey a lot of the complicated issues of the period, including direct references to Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones. But he also pushes the envelope of real possibility with non-English speaking Russian military, as well as KGB agents, running around creating havoc in small town 1950s “America.”
It’s a movie, and one based on old movies rather than reality in the first place. So that kind of thing is acceptable, but like I said difficult to pull off for this period, especially for me, since the 1950s is an era I feel like I own. And yet, the movie won me over, thanks in part to the great actors cast in it.
Seeing Shia LaBeof as the Marlon Brando WILD ONES character, your first reaction might be, “I knew Marlon Brando, and you sir, are no Marlon Brando.” But LeBeof is so obviously imitating a movie image initially, before he reveals his endearing side, that you give in and accept it eventually and are rewarded with a masterful performance, as usual with this young actor who always strikes me as someone I am not going to accept in whatever role he’s playing and then always wins me over with his ability to not only come across as a likeable every kid, but as the character he’s playing in the circumstances he’s playing it in.
He does the same here and rescues the movie from any fustiness it might have had after the twenty year absence since the last installment. Him and Karen Allen.
It’s so refreshing to see a grown woman playing opposite a grown man in a movie that it almost seems revolutionary or avant-garde or something similarly upending. Harrison Ford is obviously old(er), (my age I suspect) and looks it. He and Speilberg are smart enough to make use of that by making him not quite as movie star handsome and capable, but at the same time pretty super human in his capabilities with a whip and pair of fists.
And the presence of his first love from the original Indiana Jones story in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, helps us accept that this old guy can still boogie with the best of them, as she too proves to be just as tough and tender, sometimes at the same time, as the original Marion Ravenwood from Raiders, while also allowing the character to be obviously older as well.
The rest of the cast is just as good, including the chameleon-like Cate Blanchett as the Russian villain, the always great Jim Broadbent and Ray Winstone, and one of the greatest film actors of our times or any times, John Hurt in a caricature of a role that he makes real and relevant in ways only he can.
And the special effects are pretty terrific as well, with a few scenes as shocking and/or overwhelming as some in the first movie were when it first appeared. In the theater where we saw it, the Loews on Broadway a few blocks up from Lincoln Center, the sound was so intense that a few times I thought it was going to lift my body out of my seat and throw me around a little.
If you go in looking for some fun, along with some resolution of some fond memories of the first Indiana Jones movie, you’ll have a blast. If you go in looking for a consistent and thorough rendering of the complications of “The Cold War” and/or the oversimplified unrealities of recent comic book super hero flicks, you might be a little disappointed, but I bet you still find yourself laughing out loud several times and at least internally going “ooh” and “aah” a few times, and leaving with a smile on your face. As I did.