Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Reverend's Reviews: Indy Loses Faith -- But Gains Shia

As Jim Broadbent's Yale Dean says to Professor Henry "Indiana" Jones (Harrison Ford) early on in the latter's first big-screen outing in 19 years, "We're at the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them." I don't think Indy's creators (and, now, contemporaries) George Lucas and Steven Spielberg will agree with that assessment when it comes to the new movie's opening box office; their globetrotting archaeologist is clearly as popular and crowd-pleasing as ever. However, in comparing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull with its 1980's predecessors, it becomes clear that, while Dr. Jones gains a couple of significant things, much has been taken from him.

Broadbent nicely acknowledges with his line above the death of Jones' father, charmingly played by Sean Connery in 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as well as the loss of Indy's fellow professor and friend Marcus Brody, played by the late Denholm Elliott in both Last Crusade and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Also, while his absence isn't addressed here, I missed Sallah, played so winningly by John Rhys-Davies in those same prior films. One character from Raiders who makes a most welcome return in the new movie is Marion Ravenwood, here re-christened Mary Williams due to an intervening marriage. Long lost like one of Indy's prized relics, Karen Allen looks great and brings much-needed energy to Crystal Skull after a dull first hour. I can't help but wonder, though, if Marion's re-appearance will be lost on younger viewers or anyone who hasn't seen Raiders.

Indy also gains a brash young sidekick, Mutt Williams, played by Shia LaBeouf in 1950's Marlon Brando mode. With both a switchblade and a comb always at the ready, LeBeouf makes a fine apparent successor to Ford. Speaking of Ford, he remains in great shape, both physically and dramatically. While he doesn't have as many comedic lines or moments as he did in the earlier movies, Ford brings an appropriate spirit of resignation/ surrender befitting his -- and his character's -- age.

Alas, from a creative standpoint Indy has lost more than he has gained in Crystal Skull. The adventurer has taken on some great nemeses, including Adolf Hitler, in the past. Hard as she tries, Cate Blanchett doesn't quite cut it as a wicked, black-haired Commie commanding a squad of Soviet soldiers in a quest for the film's title object. She is too mannered and never becomes as vicious as she ought. Additionally, her nearly flawless Russian accent dissolves into the Queen's English every time she says "Dr. Jones," which is frequently.

Then there is what I previously described as the film's dull first half. The Indiana Jones movies have never had to rely on dialogue, using it minimally in deference to magnificent action set pieces. There is simply too much dialogue and unnecessary exposition in his latest adventure, and most of it is in the initial hour. Indy was historically a man of few words, which was apparently lost on screenwriter David Koepp. He has given Indy an overabundance of words, which doesn't result in a dramatic gain.

But the most significant thing curiously deleted from the new movie is a sense of religious faith. Part of the appeal of the series to date was that, while he wasn't clearly or overtly religious himself, Indy's previous adventures centered on the hunt for religious artifacts: the Ark of the Covenant, the Sankara Stones (in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) and the Holy Grail. In the process, Indy unwittingly became a savior figure, whether it was saving the world from Nazi tyranny, a remote Indian village's children, or his own father's life. Divine forces intervened and aided Indy, which Indy always noted and respected.

This is sadly absent from Crystal Skull, replaced with a dated Chariots of the Gods? scenario that ultimately credits beings from another dimension as having inspired the development of ancient South America and of modern technology. Or something like that. The film's climax is intellectually muddled and oddly reminiscent of the finale of 2001's The Mummy Returns, which was itself inspired by the earlier Indiana Jones movies.

All that being said, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is an entertaining-enough way to spend a summer afternoon and, in Spielberg's hands, is more accomplished than most of what Hollywood is dishing out so far this season. I just wish Indy had been given more than what was taken from him.

UPDATE: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is now available on DVDfrom Amazon.com.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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