There is no doubt about it, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had a lot to live up to. Like similar franchise revivals – Die Hard 4.0 (Live Free or Die Hard over the pond), Rambo 4, Rocky Balboa – it is not fair to say that “the audiences were begging for it” as if this permits a substandard film, the blame for which can be entirely shifted onto the audience.
But the question can be asked why now, why not earlier? One of this new film’s vital flaws is that it repeatedly hints at the amazing adventures our very favourite doctor of archaeology has had in the interim between this film and 1989’s The Last Crusade. With the entirety of World War II skipped, as well as the early days of the Cold War, audiences might feel acceptably cheated.
The film however makes terrific use of its 50s setting, applying the music and dress perfectly. A fight between Greasers and college boys is particularly emotive of the era’s subcultures, as indeed is Shia LaBeouf’s costume homage to Marlon Brando in The Wild One. More interesting however is the political issues dealt with; nuclear weapons tests, alien paranoia, and anti-communist rallies – Jones himself is accused of being a supporter of the Eastern Bloc in a McCarthy-esque scene.
But these are mere details, excellent ones at that, but it is not the detail that people come to see Indiana Jones. Harrison Ford is back on relative form. He plays the character older, gruffer and grumpier than before. As much time has passed onscreen since Crusade than has passed in our lives, and it certainly feels that way. Believably less-athletic than before, Ford plays the role with the same keen sense of subtle wisdom that Sean Connery brought to Henry Sr. So it is surprisingly like father like son, then. But he still looks good in the now heavily worn jacket and hat (which he tilts downward to sleep as ever), and that’s what really matters.
He is still teaching in his unidentified university (Jim Broadbent replaces Denholm Elliott as the new dean, and rather carelessly wastes away a poor role, once again playing a college professor) and occasionally relic-hunting. Captured by a superfluous Russian villain straight out of a Raiders-reject Nazi group and a slightly more interesting villainess, played by a delightful though insufficiently-menacing Cate Blanchett, the first action sequence brings us back on form, with Indy whipping and punching his way out of danger.
As an aside, and I may be wrong on this, it appears that although he regularly points a variety of different firearms, Indy never actually fires a single bullet in the entire picture, suggesting that the PG-minded Spielberg and Lucas have once again let themselves self-censor.
The plot surrounding the skull and the eponymous kingdom is long and overly-complex, but has a lot to do with an ancient pseudo-Mayan civilisation and psychic weaponry – a Mezzo-American Ark of the Covenant if you will. Indy is aided in his quest by the charming LaBeouf, even more on form that he was in his film-saving performance in Transformers, as Mudd, a wild young rebel without a cause but with a good sense of humour and a fancy handle on a knife and or sword. Ray Winstone plays the other would-be sidekick, and seems so confused by his character’s allegiances that he, and indeed the audience, seem simply not to give a damn. Meanwhile John Hurt takes on the older adventuring academic role, but is a babbling mess for the majority of the picture, while Karen Allen, returning to the franchise after 27 years, is actually quite charming as Marion, though the character is not given the same strength she had previously in Raiders.
As for the action, there are some great set-pieces, particularly the jungle chase, during which a fencing duel is performed across two moving vehicles and a number of characters are devoured by ants (in Raiders it was snakes, Temple bugs, Crusade rats, now ants!). Understandably, these scenes are marred on occasion by the intrusive use of CGI, new to the Jones series, which really takes one out of the action. Some the these effects, especially when LaBeouf swings from tree-hanging vines, are particularly poor. And as for monstrous insects, 3 years after the “bug pit” sequence from King Kong it’ll take a lot more than ants to get most audiences riled-up, I suspect.
Dialogue is relatively strong throughout, with a few hiccoughs along the way. The Russians, like the Nazis before them, never speak any Russian, while some of the exposition is somewhat hackneyed – although that said the story is rather complex. There are some excellent moments of comedy right from the moment the 80s-style Paramount logo fades into the movie, and even the most preposterous escape from certain death is so tongue-in-cheek one can’t help but grimace. There is also a very sneaky reference to the Ark early on in the film, which is a pleasant nod to all the original Indy fans. The only slightly tasteless joke on show is a disappointing nod to the character of Marcus Brody from Raiders and Crusade, which pays no respect either to the character or to the memory of Denholm Elliott, and will likely annoy a Indy purists and film fans alike.
The films sense of energy and buzz keep it going, but alas this is all undone in the film’s last 15 minutes, which is marred heavily by over-reliance on Spielberg’s true popcorn entertainment love; science fiction. This is not something the Indiana Jones series demanded. A sci-fi feeling runs through much of the film, but it always seems comfortably on the periphery until the concluding scenes, when the film begins to feel like a fusion of Raiders of the Lost Ark with E.T. and a splattering of A.I..
The ending will do the film few favours, and may even alienate viewers (pun noted but unintended) who wanted a semi-mythical adventure/romp with an old friend. This sequence also features the film’s weakest line of dialogue, a turkey only Lucas could have written, which echoes strongly the infamous “You only love me because I’m beautiful” “No, you’re beautiful because I love you” from Revenge of the Sith.
Thankfully the very last scene comfortably ties things up and a clever little gag hints at a sequel. The Indiana Jones franchise has returned, it has not been killed off as some might have feared. However, despite the film’s definite sense of fun, it does essentially fail to justify itself as a delayed sequel.
That said, there is a lot to enjoy here provided you like your action/adventure with a ladle of salt. There’s no reason any fans of the original should shy away (although that does not mean there won’t be some die-hards upset), and it will likely win the franchise a few new fans as well.
Alas however, once again, the cinematic event of the year is just a tiny bit too under-whelming for its own good.