It was never going to be easy for me to objectively review Steven Spielberg’s INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (***1/2). The original trilogy is such an important and beloved part of my movie-watching childhood that the mere thought of seeing Harrison Ford back up on the big screen as Indiana Jones was enough to send me into geeking spasms of joy. Not getting caught up in the excitement and hype of Indy’s latest adventure was never going to be an option for me. Before watching the new installment, I watched all three of the original films, to get pumped up, and to remind myself of the love I have for this character and these films. When I was growing up, I had a rotating line-up of movies on VHS (thanks Mom and Dad!) that played almost on a loop: the original STAR WARS trilogy, the original INDIANA JONES trilogy, the BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy, THE MONSTER SQUAD, MY SCIENENCE PROJECT, EXPLORERS, and HARRY & THE HENDERSONS. There were a few others but those were the standouts. I never tired of any of those films, but my favorites were always the INDIANA JONES series. I was also obsessed with science and fossils and archeology, so for there to be giant action-adventure films that revolved around a scientist...well…that was it for me. What I am pleased to announce is that not only did I love INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, but that it felt, for the most part and with a few minor exceptions, like a logical and sensible extension of the series. It wasn’t perfect but it was a thrilling blast of old-school movie nostalgia that doesn’t come around too often.
Part of the fun of the Indy movies was not knowing too much about the film before watching it, so I am hesitant to reveal too much of the plot and its various twists. What I will reveal is that Indy is up to his old tricks again, but some time has passed since the events of INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE. It’s the 1950’s, the Red Scare is everywhere, and Indy is looking a little more weathered since we last saw him. The action kicks off in the Nevada desert with Indy being blackmailed by some renegade Russian soldiers, led by the villainous Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, what can’t she do at this point?), into breaking into a top-secret government facility (Area 51, maybe?) There seems to be something of great importance inside one of the many, many boxes in the facility, which looks eerily similar to a certain facility glimpsed at during the final moments of INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The Russians find what they’re looking for, only to have Indy escape, in the first of many thrilling action sequences.
Cut to Yale. Indy is back behind his desk, teaching one of his history classes. He’s told by his boss that he’s being suspended pending a formal F.B.I. investigation into his work. Indy crosses paths with a young kid named Mutt Williams, played by rising star Shia LaBeouf. After a rollicking car chase which takes them through the streets of Connecticut and into the campus library, the plot kicks into high gear. Mutt tells Indy of the supposed Crystal Skull of Akator, which may or may not be otherworldly. They head to Peru (yes, we get to see that awesome connect-the-dots map from the original trilogy when they’re in the plane) where Mutt seems to think the skull is located. What Mutt doesn’t tell Indy is that his mother is being held captive Spalko and her brutes, who are already in the jungle, looking for the skull. Mutt’s mom is a familiar face to Indy – it’s Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), last seen bickering with Indy during RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Also being held captive is wild-eyed scientist Professor Oxley (John Hurt), who happens to be one of Indy’s old cohorts, who is also an expert on the crystal skull in question. One event leads to another and through a series of chases, fights, shoot-outs, and revelations, Indy, Mutt, Marion, and Oxley stampede through the jungle, in and out of underground tombs and caverns, and even encounter…well…I won’t spoil. I didn’t know how the film was going to wrap up before I entered the theater and neither should you. If you’re an Indy fan don’t let anyone spoil any of the surprises.
One of the many delights of this new Indy adventure is that everyone involved, from the actors to the filmmakers, look like they’re having a blast. Ford slides right back into the action heroics without ever missing a beat, tossing off one-liners with a gruff snarl, and cracking his whip with veteran authority. LaBeouf is terrific as Indy’s smart-ass side-kick, though I think it would be silly to spin off the franchise with Mutt as the lead, an idea that’s been floating around the internet ever since the film became a lock for $300 million domestic. Blanchett is awesome as the lead villain. She bites into the role with gusto and really has some fun with it. Wielding a sword and speaking in a bristling accent, Spalko ranks as one of the top foes that Indy has ever faced off against. And while it was a nice idea to bring back Marion into the fold, Allen seemed awkward during most of her scenes. I’m not sure whether that’s due to her not being in much over the years, or if everyone was having too much fun while filming; she seemed a little loopy. But that smile of hers is ear-to-ear and she and Indy waste no time in getting back into the bickering swing of things. Hurt is perfectly cast as the crazy scientist who knows more than he realizes but Ray Winstone, saddled with nothing role as a duplicitous treasure seeker, is completely wasted.
The screenplay, which is credited to David Koepp (JURASSIC PARK, PANIC ROOM) based on a story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson (CATCH ME IF YOU CAN), is brisk and straightforward, though at times, a little too expository. Koepp’s talent as a writer has always been pace and structure, and in this respect, he keeps the film moving at a brisk clip. However, while some of the dialogue is witty it’s mostly serviceable, and there is a heart and depth that was achieved during parts of LAST CRUSADE that don’t reappear in this new adventure. The action sequences are all first rate under Spielberg’s classical direction. Just like in the original three films, Spielberg is patient during his action scenes, never over-cutting or shooting the footage with an overly stylized, Michael Bay eye. The standouts are a rousing amphibious-vehicle chase set in the jungle along a cliff with sword fights and shoot-outs happening simultaneously that ends in a spectacular water-fall plunge that has echoes of TEMPLE OF DOOM. The climactic action set-piece, while a bit rambunctious, is extremely satisfying as well. Again, at the risk of mentioning any spoilers, the last few beats of action during the finale had my head spinning with geeky glee.
However, there were a few, small things I didn’t like. There’s a sequence with Mutt where he essentially becomes Tarzan for a few minutes that was beyond stupid, both in idea and execution. Some of the CGI is on the sloppy side, which was a big surprise, considering that Spielberg is usually works on the cutting edge with this stuff. The filmmakers certainly tried to remain faithful to the old-school spirit of the original trilogy but it’s obvious that computer-aided temptations might have gotten the best of them at times. The film is no more ridiculous or over-the-top as the original three so any complaints on that end aren’t justified in my opinion. I just wish that Lucas, Spielberg, and Koepp had devised a better way to fuse the action and the plot together during the film’s mid-section. It’s not that the film drags per se, it’s just that there is a hold placed on the momentum of the story as Indy scrambles to figure out what’s going on. In the other movies, Indy was more of a doer than a looker; he spends a little too much time as an observer rather than an adventurer. But again, these complaints are minor, and if you can’t just sit back and enjoy an IDIANA JONES film for what it is, then there’s no reason to even attempt to watch it.
INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL was never going to reach the heights of the original trilogy. There’s just no way it could. The first three films were made in a different time and climate in the Hollywood studio system. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was a go-for-broke experiment made by a filmmaker who was just beginning to flex his blockbuster muscles. TEMPLE OF DOOM was a dark sequel that took what was started in RAIDERS and brought it to the next level. It was also the film that helped create the PG-13 rating when parents flipped out that people were having their hearts torn out of their chests in a PG-rated film. Then, in LAST CRUSADE, the father-son dynamic between Indy and his dad, played by Sean Connery, lent a certain degree of heart and class that hadn’t been touched upon in the first two installments. Over the years, Spielberg has matured as filmmaker and storyteller but he hasn’t lost his whimsical touch. Nobody does action-adventure stuff the way he does it; there is a classical handling of these sequences that is both thrillingly old-fashioned and refreshingly simple. Lucas, who is probably to blame for the film’s few shortcomings, is still a big kid in a candy store with his take on this material, and it would be unfair not to heap a little praise on the man for simply creating this character. INDIANA JONES has always been Spielberg and Lucas’s homage to the Saturday morning television serials that they grew up with as kids, and their love for those programs is still very evident. INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is a fitting conclusion to this massively entertaining series of adventures. It could have been a total disaster, but thankfully, Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford have reassured audiences that there is still life left in the old archeologist. I had a blast with the film and I can’t wait to see it again and again on DVD. Grab some popcorn and get ready to have some serious fun.