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Empire List #453: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

A military convoy enters Area 51 in the Nevada desert. The vehicles stop in front of an enormous hangar. Soldiers throw a man out of the trunk of a car. He gets up and puts on his fedora. You can clearly see from the outline of his shadow who this is: Indiana Jones. That’s right, the man with the hat is back, 19 years after “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” It’s about time.

“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” was my first time watching an Indiana Jones movie on the big screen. I had seen the entire trilogy on VHS in the mid-90s. My brother and I loved everything about these movies: the humour, the action, the characters, and that awesome score by John Williams. It didn’t hurt that they made a pretty decent Super Nintendo game for it too.

After years of bickering and tinkering by George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Harrison Ford, Indiana Jones came back to the big screen in 2008. Man, that was a great year for summer movies. “The Dark Knight”, “Iron Man”, “WALL-E”, “Hellboy II: The Golden Army”, and Indiana Jones. All that was missing was a James Bond movie and it would have been perfect.

After nearly two decades, things have changed for Indy. This time the villains are not Nazis, but Russians. The soldiers who have taken him to the most secret of American military bases work for Soviet agent Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). She needs Indy’s help to locate a crate containing the remains of a mysterious being that crash-landed in the desert years ago. Anyone who is familiar with the legend of Area 51 will not be surprised by what they find inside the crate.

The villains aren’t the only ones who have changed. As Indy tries to escape his captors, he swings across the ceiling using his whip. He overshoots and crashes into an incoming vehicle. Everybody gets old, even adventurous archaeologists.

Once he does escape, Indy returns to Marshall College. His return to work is very short. The dean of the university (Jim Broadbent) informs him he is no longer welcomed on campus. It is the 1950s and Indy’s escape from Soviet troops seems too convenient. In this age of communist paranoia, the government chooses to ignore Jones’ heroic war record and question his allegiance.

Feeling defeated, Jones decides to leave town. Just as his train is leaving, a young man (Shia LaBeouf) dressed like Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” calls his name. This greaser calls himself Mutt Williams and says his mother is an old friend of Indy.

Mutt tells Indy his mother went missing while looking for Harold Oxley (John Hurt), an old colleague. Oxley was looking for a mythical crystal skull in Peru when he disappeared. This leads to one of those exposition scenes during which Indy explains to a character, and conveniently enough to the audience, the legend of the artefact. Once that is explained the treasure hunt can begin.

Just like in every Indiana Jones adventure, their search takes them to various exotic locales. They travel to the Nazca lines of Peru, to the Amazon jungle, and discover a lost city filled with treasures from the world over. Along the way they must evade the relentless agent Spalko, who wants to get her hands on the power of the crystal skull. This leads to a spectacular chase in the jungle involving several vehicles, a bazooka, and man-eating ants.

(I’ve actually been to the Amazon jungle and I can tell you from personal experience: stay away from red ants. They have sharp teeth and they think human flesh tastes pretty damn good.)

Despite getting everything right, there are a few flaws in this latest adventure. Some of the computer generated animals and critters in the movie look almost cartoonish. You would expect better quality from Lucasfilm.

Much has also been said of the way Indy escapes a nuclear explosion by hiding inside a refrigerator. The audience found it so ridiculous it became a new expression. From now on, whenever a franchise goes too far in terms of logic, people say, “they nuked the fridge.”

Yes, it was a ridiculous moment. But was it more ridiculous then when Indy survived getting shot in the shoulder and being dragged under a truck in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”? Or how about in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” when a guy gets his heart ripped out but still lives for another five minutes? I am just saying, why draw the line at the nuking of refrigerators?

Is this the best movie in the franchise? No, but who cares? After all these years, I am just glad Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas managed to team up once again to bring back one of cinema’s most iconic character. Lets see you crack that whip Indy.

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