Friends, I hope that you’ve had a good Memorial Day weekend. On Saturday, 24 May 2008, Janice and I drove down to Norwood, Massachusetts, for lunch at Conrad’s and to pick up my subscription at New England Comics. From there, we went to the Emerald Square Mall in North Attleboro, Mass., where we ran into Sara F. & Josh C. After walking around a bit, we met Ken G. at the Showcase Cinemas nearby, later followed by dinner at Applebee’s. Here’s my review of Indiana Jones  and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
First, the usual disclaimer: I’ve been a fan of this cliffhanging franchise since seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark with my father back in 1981 (“It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage”). I own numerous DVDs, reference books, novelizations, comics, role-playing games, and toys associated with the works of producer George Lucas, director Stephen Spielberg, and lead actor Harrison Ford. And, yes, I did wear my safari shirt and fedora, but at least I left my whip at home! Thus, this is hardly an objective review, and since a movie ticket now costs about $10 a pop, I tend to like those films I choose to see in theaters.
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, or “Indy 4” for short, picks up the story of our favorite adventuresome archaeologist in 1957. The Nazi and Thuggee adversaries of the earlier flicks have been replaced by Soviets, and the MacGuffin this time is a South American artifact that may be of extraterrestrial origin (I’ll try to avoid “spoilers,” but some of the reviews I’m linking to may give away more of the plot).
The strongest part of this movie is the cast, with Ford only slightly slowed by age as Professor Henry “Indiana” W. Jones Jr. and Karen Allen still attractive as a middle-aged Marion Ravenwood, Indy’s spunky onetime girlfriend. I missed the presence of the late Denholm Elliott as mentor Marcus Broady, John Rhys-Davies as Egyptian ally Sallah, and Sean Connery as Dr. Henry Jones Sr., but their absence was noted, and Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone, and John Hurt do add a bit of gravitas to the ensemble, even if their roles are small.
Newcomers to the franchise include Cate Blanchett as nefarious Soviet paranormal investigator Col.Dr. Irina Spalko and the ubiquitous Shia LaBeouf as youthful rebel without a cause Mutt Williams. As in last summer’s Transformers, LaBeouf acquits himself well and isn’t as annoying as he could be in a blockbuster movie. Lucas’ musings on father-son relationships, human history and belief, and the value of friendship are here as in his Star Wars space opera series.
The cinematography reminded me of how Raiders, Indiana Jones  and the Temple of Doom, and Indiana Jones  and the Last Crusade revived interest in the pulp entertainment of the 1930s. This time, Indy and his globe-hopping compatriots go from the desert of New Mexico to the groves of academe in the U.S. Northeast to the highlands of Peru. Computer-generated imagery smoothly replaced the matte paintings and animatronics of previous films.
Speaking of the previous films, there are several “Easter eggs” for alert fans, including references to the lost Ark of the Covenant, to the camaraderie of The Last Crusade, and even to the instructive Young Indiana Jones Chronicles television series, as well as the novel and comic book continuity.
The set-piece action scenes are also well-done, playing to Spielberg’s strengths. They include fisticuffs in a secret government warehouse followed by a nuclear explosion, a swashbuckling chase scene through the jungle and down some waterfalls, and the usual trap-riddled tombs and temples. There are of course snakes, angry natives, and this time, ants. Yes, the pace is slower than it was in the original movies or in those that would carry on their legacy, such as The Mummy and National Treasure, but I think that gave the characters time to shine.
I would have preferred a more mystical MacGuffin or plot device, in keeping with the previous movies, but I understand the need for more science fictional elements since Indy 4 is set in the 1950s. In fact, I did like seeing the greasers and bobby-sockers of Lucas and Ford’s American Graffiti, visual allusions to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and displays of the patriotism and paranoia of the Cold War that are still strangely relevant. The movie quietly ends on a high note, if not quite the ride into the sunset of Last Crusade. On the other hand, I’m not sure if a continuation about Mutt would really count as an Indy flick.
Overall, I’d give Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which is rated PG-13 for violence and profanity, an 8 out of 10, or a B+. How does that compare with the previous installments? Raiders gets a 9 or a 10, or an A+. I’d give Temple of Doom a 7 or an 8, or a B+, while Last Crusade deserves an 8 or a 9, or a A-. I’d also give the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (now on DVD) an 8, or a A-/B+.
Janice and others at dinner noted that they enjoyed Indy 4 more than Speed Racer or The Chronicles of Narnia : Prince Caspian. We all liked Iron Man, which remains the genre film to beat so far this summer. I don’t know if I’ll get to the theater for computer-animated comedy Kung-Fu Panda, but I do hope to catch The Incredible Hulk in the coming month.
In related news, I belatedly watched Disney’s computer-animated Meet the Robinsons, which was fairly entertaining. The season finales of supernatural slacker comedy Reaper, superhero drama Smallville, and Showtime’s The Tudors were decent, although I’m not sure the latter was historically accurate.
Completely devoid of historical accuracy was Brian W.‘s fun “Savage Worlds: Paranoia” one-shot last week. It was the first of a series of games between the D&D3.5 “Vanished Lands: the Broken Chains” Arabian fantasy campaign and the Boston-area group’s first Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition party. The “Broken Chains” disbanded after many adventures; after fighting monsters, cultists, and demons, it was nice to end that party for now with the birth of one character’s children!
I thought Brian did a good job of melding the Savage Worlds rules-light pulp system with Paranoia‘s comedic cyberpunk. Tonight, I’ll be missing Josh C.’s Everway fantasy session because I’ll be running the D&D3.5 “Vanished Lands: Holy Steel” teleconferencing team. I’ve spent much of the holiday weekend catching up on reading and filing. Janice and I also recaulked our bathroom, although painting and plumbing issues remain. Next weekend, we’ll be visiting my family in Virginia.