Thursday, November 22, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

The film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood rounds out the Indiana Jones movies with the last one, 2008's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Yes, the one with Shia LaBeouf in it. Not actual cannibal Shia LaBeouf, fortunately, but still. I remember finding it rather disappointing when I first saw it--the McCarthyite G-Men questioning Jones' war service came off to me as a shot at the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (which questioned the 2004 Democratic candidate John Kerry's Vietnam record) and everybody seemed rather passive standing around with Soviet guns pointed at them much of the time.

So ten years later, was it as disappointing as I remember it? Let's take a watch (here's the podcast) and find out...

The Plot

It's 1957 and although McCarthyism historically would be winding down, it's still possible for academic Henry "Indiana" Jones (Harrison Ford) to get accused of being a Communist. Especially since he's narrowly escaped from a band of Soviet soldiers on the loose in the United States under the command of Communist zealot Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). Placed on indefinite suspension after the FBI searches his office, he meets an angry young man named "Mutt" Williams (Shia LaBeouf) who brings a message from Jones' former colleague Harold Oxley (John Hurt) passed on via his kidnapped mother Mary (ACTRESS REDACTED FOR SPOILER REASONS). The race to prevent the Soviets from seizing the power of the legendary Crystal Skull is on...

The Good

*Some people think Indiana Jones should stay in the realm of fighting Nazis and Judeo-Christian supernatural lore, but after 1945 the Nazis were squashed flat and the totalitarian danger was the Soviet Union (and to a lesser degree Mao's China). You can't have him fighting Nazis after WWII if you want to continue his having adventures, and Spielberg's original idea of having him fight an uprising of Nazi die-hards somewhere after WWII sounded really forced. I had no beef with the Hindu sacred stones of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Hell, I found that one better than the explicitly Christian Last Crusade. And this isn't the first time Indiana has tangled with the Reds--once upon a time there was Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine and other times he fought the Soviets.

*Spielberg cast actual Russians as the Soviet soldiers so they'd have authentic accents. Some of them even look distinctively Slavic. That's some good attention to detail there. The refrigerator from the infamous refrigerator sequence is also one of the older models that latch and cannot be opened from the inside--i.e. the kind that children suffocate in. That also shows attention to detail, as those models would eventually get phased out but that wouldn't have happened as early as 1957 given how I remember my mother warning me as a child (i.e. late 1980s or early 1990s) about the dangers of refrigerators.

*Although I'd griped about the relative lack of action sequences at the time, Indiana and Mutt's adventures following the trail of the kidnapped Oxley and Mary (whom we find out later is a lot more important) utilize actual archaeological skills like excavating, looking for clues, etc. It's not all about throwing down with German and Russian soldiers and Hindu death cultists, people. :) And our heroes are passive captives a lot less often than I remember.

*Blanchett does a good job as Spalko, a Soviet agent who (possibly if you go with the movie; definitely if you include expanded-universe stuff) has psychic powers. Not only that, but she's an extreme True Believer in Communism. Not just Communism, but straight-up Stalinism given how she talks about the man. And she has some very sinister and supremely creepy plans. The Nazis' vast armies and open contempt for freedom, democracy, etc. were an obvious danger, but the Soviet threat was more subtle.

*There's some stuff that's pretty funny, including the diner brawl scene and at least one incident where Indiana tries something that would have worked in the 1930s but doesn't owing to his advanced age.

*LaBeouf is oftentimes aggravating as Mutt, but that may well be intentional. He's an angry young man with a giant chip on his shoulder, apparently a bit of a strained relationship with his mother, and somewhat lacking in male role models. And he can convincingly emote, not just when he's angry but when he's legitimately upset.

*Indiana's interaction with his love interest in the film (not saying who for reasons of spoilers) is pretty funny. They're like an old married couple, except they're not. It's one of the most entertaining parts of the film. And said love interest's age allows for the frame story of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles--at least part of which is canon, considering how in the movie he talks about riding with Pancho Villa--in which he's elderly and living with a daughter and grandchildren to not contradict this one. After all, the record for the oldest natural mother is in the mid-late 50s and Indiana's daughter from the show does resemble this movie's female lead somewhat. Not going into any more details for reasons of spoilers, although you guys should know who I'm talking about by now. Especially since although her showing up is supposed to be this big surprise, she's on the poster.

*Although a lot of people had a beef with the refrigerator scene, there were people who survived Hiroshima despite being within 300 meters of the detonation. Here's some more, with one survivor using a freezer. The landing and rolling should be the problem, but then again, he did drink from the Holy Grail about nineteen years before. Even if you have to drink continuously from it to stay alive, it still might've conferred better-than-usual health.

The Bad

*The earlier films had German soldiers operating in other countries during peacetime in full uniform and in large numbers and nobody seems to care. The opening sequence features at least a couple squads and maybe a platoon (40 men) of Russian soldiers roaming around Nevada. The fact they're in stolen U.S. uniforms makes it less ridiculous than I remember--I'd thought they were wearing more distinctive Russian gear--but still. Infiltrating a few agents here and there isn't hard, especially in an open society like the U.S. But dozens of men? The Germans tried to infiltrate saboteurs into the U.S. during WWII and they got caught pretty quickly. Surely in this more paranoid time someone acquiring that many U.S. military uniforms, vehicles, etc. for disguises would be noticed. Maybe if it was obviously older stuff like WWII-era Lend Lease material from when the US and Soviets were allied that might work, but nobody mentions that. A snarky "thank the Lend Lease program for their generosity" would be all that was needed.

And later they're in actual Soviet uniforms in South America. You know, where the U.S. had a history of slapping down anything remotely resembling a Communist movement. This is not to say that U.S. intelligence is omniscient, but surely somebody would notice something. Especially, you know, the whole "in Soviet uniform" part. Very obvious, especially with the ludicrous amounts of equipment they bring with them that has Russian writing on it. The Soviets had better HumInt than we did; they'd be better at subtlety.

*For reasons of realism/plausibility, I would have set the film in 1954-ish. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin died in 1953 and Stalin's successor Khruschev might've wanted Stalin devotee Spalko out of the country and not potentially threatening his reforms. Ergo, send her off on a spying mission where her occult talents could be useful. McCarthy's colleagues turned on him in 1954, but the harassment of Indiana could be part of the Red Scare's death spasms. Indiana's love interest would be younger and thus more likely to be the mother of Indiana's daughter as depicted in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. I could easily imagine him having a daughter of out of wedlock given how much of a cad he was as a younger man, but if said daughter was the product of a fling or one-night stand and he had no involvement in her life, why is she looking after him in his old age? Do her kids need a father figure that badly that she'd be willing to take in a man who left her mother "in trouble" decades prior?

Yes, I am that much of a stickler for continuity and plausibility and IJ has a well-laid-out timeline.

*Mutt refers to having attended prep schools with fencing and debate, the former of which he puts to good use. Given his familial situation, how exactly could they have afforded that, especially given the implication he was kicked out of many of said prep schools? Colin Williams must've had quite an RAF pension.

*The monkey sequence is entirely too over-the-top. There's pulpy (like Mutt's sword duel with a Soviet agent, which according to the almighty TVTropes was actually filmed for real aboard two speeding jeeps) and then there's just ridiculous.

*A character who was Indiana's war buddy betrays him to the Soviets for money and then is entirely too aggressive in chasing him around. One's switch doesn't totally flip from "friend" to "enemy" like that--the slide to damnation is typically more gradual. Maybe if they'd been injured somehow as a result of their betrayal earlier in the film, then they'd blame Indiana rather than themselves and pursue him vindictively. Think Darth Vader blaming Obi-Wan for his crippling in Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader, which fuels his further descent into evil rather than making him reconsider his actions. But that's not what happened.

(In his defense he does later seem to try to be friends with Indiana, recruit him for another money-making scheme, etc., but if his heart really isn't in it, why is he following him to South America? Even if in addition to paying off his gambling debts the Soviets were blackmailing him--they were very good at that--he seems way too enthusiastic.)

*And given the importance of what's going on at the base in the opening sequence, it seems unlikely there'd only be a few guards at the gate even though it's out in the middle of nowhere.

*There's a fair bit of obvious CGI, especially where small animals are concerned.

*In the movie, Indiana references having been at one point a double agent in Berlin during WWII. Basically he would have pretended to be working for (presumably) the Nazis while really working for the U.S. Thing is, given the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade and some of the non-movie adventures, it's clear he's no friend to Hitler and his goons. The Nazis would be fools to think he'd be willing to betray the U.S. for them after all that, and the sheer amount of bad blood between him and them would make working together very difficult. Better to leave that out and make it that he was a commando or something. Per the other Indiana Jones material, he spent most of WWII keeping the Axis from getting their hands on various supernatural super-weapons like he was doing in the 1930s, so they should have left it at that.

The Verdict

I expected it to suck. It didn't. Pleasantly surprised. 8.0 out of 10.

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