Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

David James/Lucasfilm Ltd.
Steven Spielberg/United States 2008

If you take away nothing else from this review, please remember this: Do yourself a favor and dampen your expectations. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull cannot possibly be as good as you dream it will be. Even if — especially if — every critic in the nation gushed in unbridled adoration, it still cannot stand up to the ferocity of your fevered imagination.

The truth is, the latest addition to one of the most beloved movie franchises of all time is not an abomination. But it is, unquestionably, superfluous and arguably needn’t ever have been made.

Crystal Skull opens with Elvis, poodle skirts and drag races. We’re not in the 1940s any more, Toto. The year is 1957, almost two decades after we last saw Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. If you’re concerned that the 65-year-old Harrison Ford is the weak link in this film, think again. The buff sexagenarian may throw fewer punches these days, but the film does a good job of addressing his age without dwelling on it. Ford’s face doesn’t age, it just gathers a few more lines here and there. Rest assured, Indy is the same as when we left him.

Throughout his career, Spielberg has set his stories in cookie-cutter, middle-class neighborhoods. He plays on that motif as well as the artificiality of the 1950s with an early scene set in a clichéd, artificially bright, plastic town populated with mannequins. Yet he is quick to stress the tremendous danger the country faces by using a heaving mushroom cloud to wipe the town off the face of the map in a military test of the atomic bomb. The film even manages to juxtapose today’s political climate with the rabid McCarthyism of yesteryear.

The Nazi’s are long gone and the Cold War is hot. Only a few minutes into the film, Indy finds himself stranded in the New Mexico desert, having just escaped from Soviet officer Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), a military researcher obsessed with the paranormal, and a convoy of Russian soldiers posing as American army troops. Spalko would feel equally at home in a James Bond film, a devilishly smart villain who wields a silver rapier and peers out from beneath a Louise Brooks haircut with blue eyes as piercing as her blade. Using an impending nuclear test as their cover, the Russians break into a remote desert base in search of a coveted object that could end the Cold War the hard way.

Little does Indy know that his run-in with the Russians has everything to do with a visit from Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), a young man who has patterned his persona down to the last detail on Marlon Brando in The Wild One, complete with the motorcycle, leather-jacket and switchblade. Mutt tells Indy of the discovery of a mysterious, otherworldly crystal skull by Indy’s old college pal Professor Oxley (John Hurt), who is now in the hands of the Ruskies. Spalko and her comrades believe Oxley is the key to discovering a golden South American city that houses a psychic weapon of devastating power.

Riding a telltale red line across the map, Indy and Mutt find themselves tromping around Peru, where they engage in some familiarly eerie cave spelunking. It isn’t long before they are reunited with the Russians, a mentally unstable Ox, Indy’s old pal Mac (Ray Winstone), a mercenary who is on the side of whomever has the upper hand, and Mutt’s mom who turns out to be none other than Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Indy’s feisty flame from Raiders of the Lost Ark. If Marion is Mutt’s mom, who is his pops? Like Ford, time has been good to Allen, who is largely unchanged from the last time we saw her nearly three decades ago.

The plot, sparse and convoluted as it is, is just preamble for rip-snortin’ chase sequences through the jungle, saber duels while balanced precariously atop moving vehicles, monkey ambushes, voracious giant ants, plummets over the side of waterfalls and – of course – snakes. The jaw-dropping climax of the film goes into otherworldly territory unexplored by the strictly terrestrial Indy, but is certainly familiar to Spielberg and Lucas.

More a prequel to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind than a sequel to The Last Crusade, Crystal Skull taps the ’50s zeitgeist and comes away with a story involving Area 51, pyramid-building extraterrestrials and enormous flying saucers. While the topic makes sense, given the franchise’s pulp roots and the decade’s sci-fi obsession, aliens don’t pack the same historical wallop as the other films, creating a far-fetched implausibility even this sort of escapist entertainment can’t possibly make convincing.

Some have derided the plot as formulaic. Sure. But what did you expect? Indiana Jones is patterned after the popular, larger-than-life Saturday matinees of yesteryear, not the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. That said, Crystal Skull is an uneven, mixed bag that feels far less polished and holistically complete than its predecessors. Sure, Spielberg is nothing if not competent and consummately talented. However, while the film is always entertaining, it can’t help but smell musty from time to time and appear to be an exercise in going through rote motions.

Half the time you want Indy to shut up and stop delivering lengthy expository diatribes and the other half you’re exhausted to sit through yet one more thoughtless chase, repurposed from the earlier films. It’s great to see Indy and Marion back together, but all too often their relationship teeters dangerously close to a parody of its former glory. And LaBeouf, a fine, young actor, has difficultly gaining emotional traction.

Janusz Kaminski, who’s shot all Spielberg’s films since 1993’s Schindler’s List, had to dial way back on his usual glowing, hazy cinematography to replace the clean, crisp look of the now-retired Douglas Slocombe, who did all three of the previous Indy films. He was not always successful.

Extraordinary as the visual effects are, the digital era has robbed the franchise of much of its magic. There is far too much reliance on CGI and artificial looking sets.

Crystal Skull is pervasively playful but only occasionally fun. And a lack of fun is a failure of the highest magnitude in a film of this nature. In fact, much of the over-the-top comedy is misplaced and completely inappropriate. Several moments induce laughter at but not with the action onscreen.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is like bumping into an old friend you said goodbye to years ago and thought you’d never see again. The reunion is undeniably pleasant but somewhat cheapens the meaningful and eloquent goodbye you once shared.

The final moments of the film are too perfect. If you thought riding off into the sunset as the gang did in Last Crusade was ideal, Crystal Skull goes for a powerfully sentimental, if slightly less iconic send-off.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like an extraordinarily well-funded fan film of the sort you can find on the Internet. It duplicates much of the look of the previous installments, but little of the magic. In the end, it simply isn’t memorable … or necessary.

© 2008 Brandon Fibbs. All rights reserved.

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