Has there ever been a more incongruent movie than 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?' I don't think I've seen a cinematic stew with so many clashing ingredients as this -- it's as if creators Steven Spielberg and George Lucas couldn't decide on a single recipe, so they just threw together as many tastes and flavors as they could, hoping something would stick. Even the title is a mouthful, an ungainly tongue-twister recalling both '50s sci-fi cheese and the classic '30s serials of the original Indy trilogy. It's a bad sign when even saying the name of a movie gives you a toothache.
Almost two decades in the making, 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' went through as many screenwriters and re-writes as the original Indy trilogy combined. Heavy hitters from M. Night Shyamalan to Frank Darabont all tried their hand at contributing drafts, but Spielberg and Lucas eventually settled on David Koepp ('Jurassic Park,' 'Trigger Effect'), who managed to craft a usable screenplay that juggled all the disparate story and tonal elements needed to satisfy the pair. Unfortunately, watching the final film, one wonders how such a mess was greenlit -- 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' is an disastrous mishmash, introducing so many half-baked ideas, plot situations, and characters that you almost need a notebook handy to keep track of it all. Add to that the misplaced introduction of sci-fi elements that would feel more at home in a second-rate episode of 'The X-Files,' and I was left scratching my head, wondering how Spielberg and Lucas thought their goal was even possible -- a nostalgic pastiche that wants to simultaneously progress the series into new stylistic territory while still quarantining it firmly in the past by retaining all the elements that made the original series so beloved.
Though the plot of 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' is no longer a secret, I'll just give the basics. It's now the '50s, but Indiana Jones (a very grizzled Harrison Ford) hasn't changed much. He's just an older and crankier version of his previous dual selves -- bookish professor by day, whip-cracking archeologist by night. Somehow (apparently during recess and summer break), he finds time to hunt for supernatural artifacts, and as our film begins, he's stumbled into the clutches of the evil Soviet Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) while searching for a rare find deep in Roswell, Nevada. Indy's eventual quest for the otherworldly "macguffin" -- crystal skulls that purportedly were borne from an alien race -- will lead him all over the map, from America to Peruvian graveyards to giant Aztec temples. Along the way he'll bring teenage whipper-snapper Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf) along for the ride, bump into his old flame Marion Ravenswood (Karen Allen), tangle with gun-toting Russians, survive an attack by man-eating ants, and eventually discover no less than what could be a portal to the cosmos and our first contact to a whole new race of alien beings.
On paper, 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' may have sounded like a plausible idea. With Spielberg and Lucas deciding to move Indy ahead almost twenty years since his last adventure (in 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade'), it makes narrative sense to have the new film take place in the '50s. And both filmmakers have never hidden their obvious love for old-school sci-fi (just witness, of course, the 'Star Wars' films and Spielberg's 'Close Encounters'). Unfortunately -- and as funny a criticism it may sound of an Indiana Jones flick -- the change in decades results in a huge lack of credibility. It's uncomfortable seeing Ford still lumbering around in his dirty leather jacket and hat, toting a bullwhip, in the era of sock hops and alien invasion. Nowhere is this more evident than in the early scene where Indy roams about the deserted homes of a nuclear testing site, eventually taking refuge in a refrigerator(!) to escape an atomic bomb blast. The clashing of these visual ideas and timeframes is jarring to the extreme -- this just doesn't seem like Indiana Jones, and for the first time we question the sanity of this character. Just who is this guy, and why the heck doesn't he just get with the times and go buy a raygun?
'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' is crippled by too many missed grips on potentially good ideas. This is a kitchen sink movie -- we get a bit of Spielberg's love for UFO lore, a dash of Lucas' affection for '50s rock 'n' roll rebellion, and even a pinch of 'Temple of Doom'-like horror with Indy and Mutt's late-night stroll through a graveyard. But none of these elements coalesce, instead feeling like borrowed parts stuffed together to fill some agenda tossed out at a story meeting. Further draining the overly-convoluted plot (believe me, I couldn't explain it all if I tried) are an assortment of paper-thin characters. We learn next to nothing new about Indy. Mutt initially displays some dimension (LeBeouf acquits himself admirably despite the early cries against his casting by the fanboys) but he's all but dropped in the third act. Blanchett is initially fun as Spalko, but she's soon just an accent, not a character. And the return of Allen is the film's biggest disappointment. She displays some of the original fire that made her the best of the Jones women, but the familial melodrama cooked up by Koepp is too obvious and Allen just seems happy to be there. There's a weakness in spirit to all involved -- as if the weight of carrying the Indy torch of nostalgia was eventually too much for them.
The film also fails on an action level. I was initially heartened by Spielberg's pre-release interviews, where he claimed he was largely eschewing CGI to do 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' old school. Fat chance. Much of the new Indy looks like it was ripped from one of Lucas god-awful 'Star Wars' prequels, with tons of CGI creatures (monkeys, ants, and even gophers!), and some of the worst blue-screen work I've seen in ages. Unlike the wonderfully practical original Indy trilogy -- which had a breathless sense of derring-do thanks to the you-are-there stuntwork -- 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' is just a bunch of actors miming in front of fake backgrounds, looking panicked. Worse, Spielberg has fallen victim to the approach that so many of these CGI-laden spectacles take, by putting their characters in such over-the-top situations that the only way out requires the characters to violate the laws of physics. Mere mortals simply cannot do most of the things seen in 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,' and that takes all the fun away.
Perhaps 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' is just a film that arrived too far past the sell-by date for the franchise. You can't recreate past glories, which may be the ultimate lesson for Spielberg and Lucas. As beloved as the original films are, it's because they are of their time, and you can never go home again. Transplanting the same conventions to a new, more modern era -- the '50s of the narrative, and the CGI excesses of today -- robs the original conceit, as well as the franchise, of its power. Much like the crystal skulls of the title, 'Kingdom' is one big macguffin -- lots of clanking sound and sci-fi fury, but signifying nothing. Of all the Indiana Jones films, 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' is by far the weakest, and the first that has absolutely no emotional resonance other than as pure nostalgia. For my money, Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford should have left well enough alone.
I may not have liked 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,' but it remains an exciting milestone on Blu-ray as it is the first Indiana Jones film to hit high-def. It is indeed quite a thrill to see Indy on Blu-ray at last (if only to whet our appetites for the original trilogy). And if this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is any indication, we have a lot to look forward to. Though I'm not a fan of the film's CGI-laden landscapes, this transfer looks pretty sweet.
Despite the use of the classic '80s Paramount logo before the film, Steven Spielberg's intention of keeping 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' consistent with the visual look of the previous Indy flicks does not appear to have been a success. The use of extensive CGI backgrounds, as well as considerable post-production polishing, is readily apparent. The transfer never looks film-like, with a "plasticine" sheen and such a clean print that there is little apparent film grain (non-fans of digital grain reduction probably won't be pleased). That said, it's hard to fault the generally highly-detailed presentation that almost always appears three-dimensional. Blacks are excellent, and if contrast runs a bit hot it's purposeful and does not usually distract from image quality. There is a bit of softness at times (the film's look appears intentionally diffused), but it's never a major problem.
The film's color palette can be uneven. The film appears intentionally desaturated at times to lend a "vintage" look, while scenes with more sci-fi elements boast deeper colors. For example, the eerie graveyard search sequence with Indy and Mutt boasts vivid blues and dark oranges, which are in stark contrast to the dried-out, acidic Nevada scenes of the film's opening. Somehow, it all manages to maintain a consistency that works for the film. Hues are certainly always stable (if a tad oversaturated), and reproduced with great cleanliness. Fleshtones are spot-on.
Finally, Paramount has also delivered a fine encode for 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.' There are no noticeable artifacts, and even the vast CGI backgrounds hold firm with no visible noise or major anomalies such as posterization. The studio and Lucasfilm have done a fine job in bringing Indy Jones to Blu-ray -- now, let's hope they get going on the rest of the original, classic trilogy.
Paramount and Lucasfilm provide an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit) for 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,' and it's even better than the video. Right from the opening THX logo sequence (the nifty one featuring CGI plants and flowers), you know you're in for a treat, There is rarely a dull sonic moment in 'Crystal Skull,' and this TrueHD track makes for great demo material.
As you would expect from a Steven Spielberg and George Lucas production, this is a first-rate soundtrack with Oscar-caliber sound design. The depth and realism of sound is excellent, with the full frequency spectrum robustly-rendered. Low bass is tight as a drum, and the dexterity of the mix is a corker -- just check out the early fight scene with Indy boarding a rocket -- it's typical of the bombast this track is able to convey . Composer John Williams' iconic (if now boring) Indy themes have also never sounded as lush and dynamic. The score is well integrated with all aspects of the mix, including sound effects and dialogue, the latter of which is finely-balanced throughout.
Surround use is also always engaged. Discrete effects dart from speaker to speaker with finesse, and the wall-of-sound effect is in full evidence. The film's extended, sci-fi-flavored climax is likely to be a choice demo moment, as it creates a wholly-immersive, 360-degrtee soundfield that home theater is all about. Atmosphere is also finely-attuned, with Indy and Mutt's skullduggery during the film's middle third the biggest beneficiary of the subtle uses of atmosphere. And as you would expect for an Indy flick, the source is impeccable. This TrueHD track will not disappoint.
Lucasfilm has pulled out all the stops for its debut Blu-ray release, working with longtime Steven Spielberg documentarian Laurent Bouzereau to create a two-disc set that's extensive and comprehensive. Although Spielberg continues to eschew commentary tracks on his video releases, there's enough high-quality video material (presented entirely in 1080 HD) that it's more than enough to take up the slack. It's also nicely organized to play out like one long movie, so the narrative arc is strong and satisfying. (Optional subtitles are provided on all video material in English, French and Spanish.)
'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' is a film I just did not like. The elements of '50s sci-fi and '30s serial adventure don't gel, they clash, and even the filmmakers are off their game. Steven Spielberg directs with a heavy hand of nostalgia, and Harrison Ford simply seems weary. This Blu-ray, however, is everything a fan could want, with great video and audio and two full discs of supplements. I would definitely recommend 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' for a rental, but unless you're already a fan of the film I wouldn't suggest a blind buy.