Monday, February 24, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (2008)

No, we're not reeling back very far this week. The fifth installment of the Indiana Jones chronicle was supposed to come out in 2020, but has been pushed back to the following year. That gives us a chance to look back on the mightily controversial previous one, 2008's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

It seems like it's been forever since that film, but if the schedule holds it will have only been 13 years since the last Indy movie, whereas it was 19 years between 1989's "The Last Crusade" and "Skull."

This seems like a good time to ruminate on the passage of time in film franchises and the aging process of actors.

There were a whole bunch of old jokes about the movie and in the movie, as star Harrison Ford was in his mid-60s when "Skull" was made. (The original trilogy roughly covered his 40s.) Pop culture was inundated with quips about him being the same age as Sean Connery was when he played Indiana Jones' doddering old dad in "Crusade."

In point of fact: Ford was several years older than Connery was, since in actuality the two actors are merely 12 years apart in age.

Ford will be 78 or 79 as they wrap up shooting of the sixth Indy movie, whose title is still a secret. Since all the movies have roughly tracked with the actor's actual age at the time they were made, it would seem the new one will be set in the 1970s.

Thanks to "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," the underrated TV series that ran from 1989 to 1993 (plus a few made-for-TV movies that were later re-edited into more serial episodes), the character's birth year is firmly established as 1899. Easy for me to remember, as it's also my paternal grandfather's.

George Hall played "Old Indy," the contemporaneous "host" of the TV show, who then would have been in his 90s. Notably, by then Indy had lost his right eye and wore a patch beneath wire-rim glasses. I'll be interested to see if this injury is explained in the new movie, sort of the way Ford's real-life chin scar was added into "The Last Crusade."

Astounding fact: When he stars in the next movie Ford will be older than Hall was when he played Old Indy.

Seeing "Skull" for the first time in many years, I was struck how frail Ford already appears to be in the action scenes. He actually moves around pretty well, including some jumps and swings he apparently executed himself. He even wriggles feet-first through a small opening between the cargo area of a truck and its cabin, looking relatively spry.

No, it's the punches where this Indy pulls his.

Old-school stunts have been a calling card of the Indiana Jones series, including plenty of fistfights. Punches are always accompanied by a signature sound effect that sounds more like a whiplash than the collision of flesh and bone.

Here we get the same aural crack while Ford's punching arms appear to be moving in slow motion. Indy's enemies -- the Russians this time -- still fly around the screen like they've been struck by a charging bull. The result is the fight scenes seem comically fake.

In general Indy subcontracts most of the heavy fighting to the greaser teenage character, Mutt Williams, in what is seen as Shia LaBeouf's breakout into adult roles. Of course (half-hearted spoiler warning here), about halfway through the movie it's revealed that Mutt is the son of Indy and his long-lost (or mislaid) lady love, Marian Ravenwood (Karen Allen, eternally radiant).

It's Mutt who takes on Irina Spalko, the sword-carrying scientist/kook played by Cate Blanchett in a torrid Ukranian accent that's just begging for a "moose and squirrel" reference. They duel with blades while each standing in the back of vehicles speeding through the Amazonian jungle in one of the film's signature scenes.

Spalko and Indy never exchange more than a few harsh words. Oh, I think she slaps him once.

Mutt first appears wearing EXACTLY the same outfit Marlon Brando did in "The Wild One," right down to the motorcycle and skewed riding cap. Once he and Indy start talking and he references his mother, I think most people guessed at his progeny. When Marian turns up as his mom, the cat's out of the bag and we're just waiting for the reveal to arrive. Mutt and Indy look nothing alike though there is a resemblance to Marian.

From this point on the movie (intentionally) becomes a hammy family sitcom, as the three exchange quips -- "Honey," "Daddy-O," "Junior" -- while fighting the rooskies and, in Mutt's case, literally swinging with the monkeys.

Ford's Indy has definitely mellowed at this point. He's not as excitable or egotistic. I enjoyed the part where they get caught in quicksand and Indy begins patiently explaining the difference between quicksand and a dry sandpit, emphasizing the difference in viscosity.

He's more pedantic professor than grim grave-robber these days.

Perhaps my favorite moment in the film is soon after meeting Mutt, when Indy tosses a line about having known "a lot of Marys" in his lifetime, and the young man leaps from the table, ready to fight a perceived insult of his mother. The Indiana Jones from "Raiders" or "Temple of Doom" would've quickly taken up the challenge, warranted or no.

Instead, he holds his place, looking directly but softly into the younger man's eyes. "You don't have to get sore all the time to prove how tough you are. Sit down. Please, sit down."

Pat Roach, the hulking wrestler who was Indy's punch-pal in the first three movies, had died in 2004 so Igor Jijikine was recruited to play the muscleman antagonist in this movie. He and Indy actually exchange a few good hits before the Russian is eaten alive by giant Amazonian ants. The CGI in this scene was attacked as hoky, but I think it still looks pretty good and certainly was fine compared to contemporary films.

With regard to the two biggest knocks against KotCS:

Yes, the "nuke the fridge" bit is ridiculous. Even if the blast didn't kill him the impact from traveling a few miles like being shot from a cannon would've. But plausibility has not been a hallmark of Indiana Jones movies.

I mean, in "Temple of Doom" an evil shaman reached into a dude's chest and pulled his heart out. Or take the scene where they're flying along in a mine cart, jump across a huge chasm and land exactly on the skinny rail lines on the opposite side.

Gimme the algorithms on that actually happening, perfesser.

On the space aliens revelation, I'm actually 100% fine with that. The film is set in the late 1950s, and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas explicitly said at the outset they wanted to do a science fiction  Indiana Jones flick. I mean, we see the incredibly elongated skull about halfway through the movie -- did you think thiswas going to end anywhere other than (not so) little spacemen?

Again, the first movies involved 1) the Lost Ark of the Covenant, 2) Evil demon magic, and 3) the actual frickin' Holy Grail. To those who loudly pshawed at lead fridges and aliens, I pshaw right back.

I'm genuinely curious what the forthcoming -- and, I've got to think, last -- Indiana Jones movie will hold. I can't imagine they'll try to present Indy as still being capable of even the scaled-down feats of KotCS. We've already heard Mutt won't be back, so is Indy going to recruit another stand-in for the boldest stunts?

They're also not going to kill him off, not without upsetting the established canon that has Indy living until at least the 1990s. There was a lot of talk a few years back about rebooting the franchise with Chris Pratt or someone else starring. The reaction was overwhelmingly negative, and perhaps even provided the final push needed for a fifth one starring Ford to get made.

Ford has joked about wanting to kill off all of his iconic characters, and he finally succeeded with two of them, Han Solo and Rick Deckard, just within the past few years. Curiously, he has never expressed similar thoughts about Indiana Jones, and in fact has been quite vocal about wanting to bring him back.

Indy's already older than his dad, so to speak, and is even senior to the eldest version of the character ever depicted. Whither Dr. Jones? Only time can tell, and how much can truly be left?

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