Indiana Jones is the kind of beloved cinematic icon whose fourth movie, set age-appropriately years after his last films, could stain his charming persona forever. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull does veer dangerously away from its more archaeologically relevant predecessors, but it is still very much in the spirit of the original series. I could feel George Lucas’ hacky hand occasionally misguiding director Steven Spielberg’s more refined one, and I chafed at every tainted moment. The climax is, sadly, all Lucas bombast and silliness. However, if you can take that for what it is, the rest is a fun trip down Jones lane, with only Lucas-style spoon-feeding and “heart” to mess it up.
You relax when the film opens with a great, Spielbergian sequence – a slice of Americana, setting the stage for the carefree 1957 days when the Red Scare was at its zenith. Jeeps drive into the fenced-off Hangar 51 in Nevada, and the rest of the movie is spelled out for you. The telegraphing is too bad — but we don’t go see Indiana Jones movie for complicated plots or mind-scratching metaphors. Indy is a regular guy, like John McClane used to be in the early Die Hard movies. Dr. Jones is a bookish professor who has now lived an unexpectedly interesting (and long) life, thanks to his passion for archaeology and cultural anthropology. (This passion is belied by the horrifyingly cavalier way he treats countless sites in this film.) He’s forced to be more of a hero than he banked on, and now he’s also (ahem) years old. We love him for thinking fast and for translating Mayan.
At the one hour mark, I noted “it’s not the Phantom Menace,” with a smiley face, and I meant it. My eyes slid back up to the screen just in time to see Lucas jump metaphorically onto the screen with a period-plausible-but-still-massively-hokey plot point. Never fear — it’s not long before an incredibly elaborate car chase-cum-fight scene (most of both ever) which then, unfortunately, returns to Lucasland in a field of lame CGI effects. Every time the movie goes high tech, the entire story and excitement flags. When we’re punching guys or jumping off things or pawing through cobwebs (or steering intently next to a projection), the movie is great again. I think it’s possible to have heart-stopping action with CGI effects — and heaven knows, Spielberg is one of the pioneers of making that work — but Lucas still hasn’t a clue, and you can feel his poisonous influence in these scenes.
If you listen carefully, composer John Williams drops in a few of his greatest hits from beyond the Indiana Jones movies. It’s like one big massive homage to the collaborations of Spielberg and Lucas, and a reminder that Steven at least has still got it. This movie embodies the quality chasm that has grown since those heady days of, well, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The stunts are great. Star Harrison Ford’s double moves with the actor’s thicker joints and sells his character’s age and fitness. The sets are terrific, even the ridiculous ones. Two scenes in particular (first and last reels) are a prop-master’s delight. We saw this with awesome DLP projection and the color and clarity looked pushed somehow, but it showed every little downy hair and dust mote and drop of venom. When the aging can stand up to that kind of scrutiny, I have to applaud the entire art department. The opening credits were a little pixilated, but the overall look of the film is old school all the way. I have nothing good or bad to say about Shia LeBeouf, an affable enough actor who absolutely had no place being in this movie, and therefore was stuck between a rock and a hard place.
It won’t make you cry, it may give you a laugh or two, but mostly it’s the fun action we associate with our favorite whip-wielding professor.
MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 5/22/08
Time in minutes 124
Director Steven Spielberg
Studio Paramount Pictures