Thursday, May 22, 2008

Welcome Back, Indy!

It would be impossible to capture the first-time magic of a movie that launched one of the most popular cinematic serials of all time, so Steven Spielberg and George Lucas wisely don't try to one-up "Raiders of the Lost Ark" with their long-awaited sequel, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." "Raiders" was made in a different time, when special effects referred more to model-making and matte painting than the computer-generated mayhem that is now in the DNA of every blockbuster.

"Crystal Skull" is of a different time, too. In the picture, we have jumped ahead to 1957, and Spielberg lets us know this with a hot rod careening across the desert Southwest, Elvis on the soundtrack and the wind whipping ponytails and the sun kissing crewcuts. This happens after a clever framing device with the Paramount logo, one that signals both that Spielberg is back in familiar territory and that he is not above a slap at the studio heads with whom he has had a prickly business relationship.

The opening scenes slyly suggest we are in the federal government's alien lockdown No-Man's-Land called "Area 51." Right away we know Dr. Jones is about to jump down a rabbit's hole that will involve "Saucer Men from Mars" in some way. Actually, that was the title of an early draft of the screenplay.

So there are crazy Russians on the trail of some mysterious and all-powerful crystal skull and none crazier than Irina Spalko, the psycho Soviet head-case with the bowl cut played with B-movie brio by Cate Blanchett. Her accent is as thick as borscht. And she's all business in the early going, proving in a confrontation with the famed archeologist that she won't take "Nyet" for an answer.

And it's here where Spielberg sets the tone for the rest of the movie. The scene is in a government warehouse that, when the camera pulls back, turns out to be the repository that appeared at the end of "Raiders," the one that holds not just the Ark of the Covenant but something even more valuable, or why make this picture at all?

What happens post-warehouse is a loose, loud, thrill-a-minute adventure that manages to set itself apart from the previous three pictures while also tipping a fedora to elements from all of them. Let's go down the list: attacking jungle natives from "Raiders," a white-knuckle river escape from "Temple of Doom" and an obsession with the iconic hat from "Last Crusade."

But the story is, for the Jones character, an inventive pastiche of all the alien myths and legends that were born in the post-nuclear era. In those days, the screenwriter's friend was the atomic radiation that gave rise to giant spiders, 50-foot-women and a fear that we had unleashed a power we could no longer control. Spielberg makes a pointed reference to nuclear testing in an early scene that packs a visual wallop but that defies both logic and physics. For me, it was the only flaw in an otherwise crackling good adventure yarn.

I always looked at "The Last Crusade" as the perfect Indiana Jones movie, both in tone and execution. But "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" deserves a place right alongside. It's not better, but it lives up to the expectations I had as I walked into the theater and heard the 20-something audience singing the theme song. Imagine. All this from a guy with nothing more in his arsenal than a whip and a hat.

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