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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - Motion Picture Score Soundtrack Review

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by Chris McEneany May 24, 2008

  • Movies review


    Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - Motion Picture Score Soundtrack Review
    In very much the same way as the Spielberg/Lucas/Ford pyramid of power returned perhaps Hollywood's greatest action hero, Indiana Jones, to us in the long-awaited, hugely anticipated fourth instalment, Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, so it would be unthinkable to leave the iconic composer John Williams behind. However, in nearly the same manner as the fabled director/producer/star team ended-up delivering a hugely disappointing and often quite shoddy movie, the great John Williams, too, produces a score that fails to ignite the blue touch paper.

    As sad as it is to report, the soundtrack to the film is nowhere near the standard of the music that Williams crafted for the first three. And the reason for this simple - there is no new theme to join the dots for this outing. What we have here, with a very generous 77-minutes of score, is a multi-mix of the things that you expect - the Raiders March, Indy's secondary theme as well as that for Karen Allen's returning Marion Ravenwood, the ethereal sideline for The Ark - and the new compositions that Williams creates in the hope of evoking the mystery, action and wonder of this oft-delayed adventure. But Williams just seems to supply a generic score that is horribly derivative of his own material - which is fine and acceptable (expected, even) if you are James Horner, Alan Silvestri or Hans Zimmer, but a kick in the teeth coming from someone as gifted as John Williams. Without creating a brand new and memorable theme for this entry, he plays his part in denying the film its own personality and, after almost twenty years since we last heard Indy's exploits brought to musical life, this borders on criminal.

    With Raiders, we had the Ark theme splendidly weaving its way through the score with ominous power and ethereal presence, as well as Indy's signature motif - which, of course, translates into the March. Temple Of Doom fashioned an irresistible theme that combined high exotic adventure with swooning 40's style romance. Last Crusade took the religious route again but managed to combine it with a great Nazi jackbooted swipe. Crystal Skull, by comparison, has nothing but a confused jumble of ideas and motifs that whirl about and collide with one another by chance, but fail to resonate with any apparent individuality, any accurate character association or even a full linear theme. This is a trait that I feel John Williams has been exhibiting much too often in the last few years. Barring his wonderfully atypical scores for War Of The Worlds - to which he actually nods a passage or two here - Minority Report and Munich (all Spielberg movies, incidentally), his once special sound has become turgid, common and full-to-brimming with the same instrumentation, orchestration and execution. His Star Wars prequels definitely benefited from the great new themes he crafted, such as the Duel Of The Fates from Phantom Menace, Across The Stars (Love Theme) from Clones and the Battle Of The Heroes from Sith, but rest of his music for those movies rapidly became tediously crowded and needlessly complex as the new trilogy wore on. And, to be honest, his music for Crystal Skull hails from this same overly-organic and pompously rich place. Nobody, but nobody can come up with a fanfare like John Williams, though, and in the Raiders March he produced one of the best ever. This is not up for debate. But, whilst its inclusion here is vital, it should not have been the only theme that score-lovers take away from this experience. This lack of anything substantially new and memorable in a series that deliberately relies on set-piece episodes that beg for distinctive little voices within a cohesive whole is almost as unforgivable as the film's complete lack of a good story, a fulfilling narrative or any of that certain magic that we all know and love ... and had a right to expect.

    But, on album, the score offers a slightly different experience. Divorced from the visuals, where it becomes a director in its own right - telling Indy when to run, jump or duck - it takes on a life of its own. But, whereas the first three remained exciting and fresh and even managed to tell the stories in pure musical fashion, Crystal Skull comes across as muddy and vague, lacking its own internal narrative, its own voice. Times have changed since we last saw Indy - he is older now and the world around him has accelerated, moved on. Williams' score, at least, concedes that and smuggles in a different flavour or two, but its tone is too reminiscent of the dense writing of the music for Harry Potter and the newer Star Wars films to feel like an Indiana Jones adventure.

    The Raiders March is slightly updated, with some modification and rearrangement, although nothing too drastic, and this probably works in view of the different era in which we now find Indy - faster, hipper generation is squalling all around him. Somehow, it feels less raucous, less Old School blood 'n' thunder but, as I say, this goes hand-in-hand with an older, less impetuous adventurer. Then, we get The Call Of The Crystal, which is the closest that we get to a new theme, par se, for the score. Opening with an eerie, rising four-note melody for flutes that depicts the mysterious aura of the film's trans-dimensional McGuffin, the piece is both smoothly menacing and ethereal. Rising to a crescendo, the track is enveloped within the earthily ethnic humming of a slow oboe. The use of an electronic continuum-fingerboard purposely evokes the atmosphere of all those otherworldly creature-features from the fifties - effecting the type of sound that a Theremin would normally have been brought in for.

    The Adventures Of Mutt displays some of Williams' playfully energetic strings, but is careful to pitch in a couple of references to Indy with horns to ensure that we pick up the hints of their connection to one another. This is trademark Williams in happy-go-lucky mode. The mood alters for Irena's Theme, as a sultry, muted saxophone heralds the, ahem, rather naff villainess of the piece. Williams aims for slinky East European menace but still cannot resist the temptation to round the cue off with a blast of brass. The theme, by the way, is considerably more moody than Cate Blanchett's dull dominatrix.

    More playfulness follows with Williams attempting to catch the brilliance of the Basket Chase from Raiders in The Snake Pit. Horns, brass and pirouetting strings race along with each other, the flighty catch-me-if-you-can style is delightfully comedic and here we feel that we are back in pure Indiana - the character, not the state. The Spell Of The Skull takes yet more from Raiders. The Ark Theme begins the track, whilst the old Nazi flourish pops in for a quick reacquaintance with Indy's theme. Darkness rounds out the cue - driving percussion, a spiral of demented strings and a long slow low note of doom. The Journey To Akator takes in the famous Indy travelogue of a red line cutting along a yellowing map as his plane chugs through the skies. Snippets of Flight From Peru (from Raiders) flicker up and then Williams indulges in a lengthy spot of scene-setting with splendid pan-pipes, guitar and mariachi trumpet that I will concede adds a genuinely different beat to the Indy canon.

    Then we blast into the action cues that, whilst plentiful, rapidly become generic of the now too-common Williams vogue of throwing everything into the mix. Short brass hooks, breathless strings, numerous glockenspiel “klocks” and horn-play all vie for supremacy amid ten-a-penny arpeggios. This sort of thing is highly accomplished, very technical and, I'm sure, a delight for the orchestra to play, but end up making Williams' scores - for this genre, at any rate - all sound the same. So much of this stuff - as evidenced in Tracks 8, 10, 12 and 16 - could so easily have been siphoned-off from Star Wars Episodes 2 and 3. What is especially annoying is the giddy relocation of the track Zam The Assassin and The Chase Through Coruscant from Attack Of The Clones into Indy's universe. Williams obviously loves the kinetic energy he created for this and simply can't avoid re-sampling it. So much so that when the percussive, xylophone-punctuated echo from Raiders' famous Desert Chase arrives, it is an absolute blessing. There are still some great little touches, however. I love the inspired use of the tuba's “fat” sound, like a huge bullfrog muscling-in on the act. The sinuous sound of the oboe and the bassoon add a mischievous texture to such pensive sections as found in Track 11, and the darker motifs that can be found here and in Hidden Treasure And The City Of Gold, Secret Doors And Scorpions - “The bigger they are, the safer they are” - and Oxley's Dilemma take the score into a slightly newer direction, diluting the heavy Star Wars referencing. Track 13 actually brings in some elegant spookiness a la Close Encounters with eerie shimmering from slow strings and undulating keyboard as the Skull motif returns. Yet the self-plagiarism also returns when the track then segues indelicately into pure War Of The Worlds territory with churning bass and rapid, raw undercurrents of low strings, maddened brass and a relentless, rising drive. Great in War Of The Worlds - but it doesn't belong here.

    After more ethereal swooning and danger and the odd slow, forlorn “I've got a bad feeling about this” variations on Indy's theme, Williams opts to treat us to a huge Finale with Track 19. Here, unashamedly, the composer revisits the usual cues and fanfares, but also brings in Marion's Theme as well. This full arrangement is a fitting end to the score, benefiting from slightly altered renditions of both Mutt's and Irina's signatures themes and, naturally, the Raiders March. However, instead of feeling suitably exhausted but roused by it all, the experience just seems to leave me wanting. Which is not the right reaction at all.

    I always try to seek out the fullest and most complete scores and I simply adore long compositions - but, in recent years, whenever a new John Williams score comes along I've felt that I had to treat it with kid gloves and a real determination on my part to invest time and effort into it. Long regarded as a genius - indeed I would place several of his scores close to the top slots in any favourites-list - Williams has, perhaps inevitably given his formidable track record, slid into a sticky patch when it comes to action/fantasy from which he cannot seem to extract anything that comes close to that magical quality that he made his name with. In the seventies he was broadly experimental and/or profoundly symphonic, with Jaws, Close Encounters, Superman, John Badham's Dracula and The Fury to prove it. The eighties saw Indiana Jones and the transition from unashamedly heroic and rousing to warm and heavily melodic, a period which was equally rewarding. But the last couple of decades have, in my opinion, been altogether more hit and miss. Great main themes, seemingly all the time but, overall, his scores have evolved into a sort of “lush-mush” that may be instantly recognisable as Williams' work, but is decidedly less compelling and exciting. Less dangerous than it ought to be.

    Too much of this score is self-referential and unoriginal. It doesn't matter that this is revisiting much-loved characters - the first three chapters did that quite successfully, but combined their familiar themes with strongly developed new ones to create full, rewarding scores that would stand the test of time. Crystal Skull just melts away into the Star Wars cacophony and refuses to have a life or a personality of its own. Now, you could be forgiven for assuming that I am disappointed with this score just because I was disappointed with the movie. Let me assure you - it's just an unhappy coincidence. Whilst there may still be much to enjoy about both, the dizzying lack of wonder, thrills or anything approaching the magic of the original trilogy leaves a sense of stale emptiness which I find hard to reconcile. Immediately after seeing Crystal Skull - and after the few post-movie beers, of course - I returned and watched not Raiders, but Last Crusade, the previous worst entry in the series, and thoroughly enjoyed it in a way that almost took away the bitter aftertaste of the ridiculous Part 4. The curious thing is that after hearing the score for Crystal Skull for the first time, I did the same and dug out the score for Last Crusade - and, once again, the power and wonder and sheer exuberance of Williams in his prime proved immediately medicinal.

    It is all well and good for people to claim that detractors for this entry are just living in the past and not accepting the new movie - and its score - for what they are ... simple, fun-loving adventure yarns. But when you compare the talent, passion, wit and energy that went into creating the Indiana Jones phenomenon back then to the lacklustre, half-baked and anaemic imitation doing the rounds now, I don't see how you could not pine for what once was. Everybody is older now, but that is no excuse for slap-dash, play-it-safe writing, either script-wise or musically.

    Like the film it embraces, John Williams' score for The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull has moments that shine, moments that just regurgitate past glories and moments that just blur into one bland and under-developed sequence that forgets to be either original or exciting.

    That's not Indy, is it? No ... that's Star Wars.

    Full Track Listing is as follows -

    1. Raiders March 5:06

    2. Call of the Crystal 3:50

    3. The Adventures of Mutt 3:12

    4. Irina's Theme 2:26

    5. The Snake Pit 3:15

    6. The Spell of the Skull 4:24

    7. The Journey to Akator 3:08

    8. A Whirl Through Academe 3:34

    9. "Return" 3:12

    10. The Jungle Chase 4:23

    11. Orellana's Cradle 4:22

    12. Grave Robbers 2:29

    13. Hidden Treasure and The City of Gold 5:14

    14. Secret Doors and Scorpions 2:17

    15. Oxley's Dilemma 4:46

    16. Ants! 4:14

    17. Temple Ruins and The Secret Revealed 5:51

    18. The Departure 2:27

    19. Finale 9:20

    Total Album Time: 77:30


    If you are a fan and follower of John Williams, then this score is definitely what you tend to expect from the composer. All his trademarks are here with flourish. However, this is still a huge disappointment in that no single track sounds unique or refreshing, and that there is no new theme to become synonymous with the fourth instalment. Instead, Williams seems content to crowd his music with the same self-conscious sound that made much of his work for the first and second Harry Potters and the latest Star Wars trio ungainly, laborious and ultimately quite boring. The last score that I reviewed before this was for the pilot episode of TV's Buck Rogers In The 25th Century - a soundtrack that lasts for less than half of Crystal Skull's running time yet contains more energy, style, individuality, wit and pure satisfaction. The sooner John Williams shakes off his Star Wars obsession, the better. A disappointment all round from someone who could, perhaps, have salvaged something from Indy's poorest outing.

    The Rundown





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