The teaming of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Harrison Ford was like a match made in heaven back in 1981 when Raiders of the Lost Ark hit theaters. Sure enough that team delivered a genuine classic, the blockbuster against which all popcorn movies should probably be judged. The three managed to follow this up with the often-misunderstood Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the formulaic but still very fun Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The final movie was always envisioned as a grand finale and it ended the trilogy on a high note. The story could have easily ended there, but all three parties found themselves interested in revisiting the franchise, and after twenty years of rumors it was finally revealed that a fourth Indiana Jones film was on the way.
After all those years of waiting the fourth film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, is finally out. Of course now the terrific trio of Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford are at much different stages of their careers. Spielberg seems to be at a creative peak after making such stellar projects as Minority Report and Munich. Lucas on the other hand finds himself richer than ever but hated by his former fans because of the problematic Star Wars prequel trilogy. Of the three Harrison Ford has perhaps fallen the furthest as he has gone from being the worlds biggest movie star to giving wooden performances in forgettable thrillers like Firewall.
These are three very different people than the Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford of 1989 which is what lead many people to question if they could recapture the spirit of the original trilogy. While I’d love to tell you that the three had indeed made follow-up film that felt just like those classics, the fact is that they haven’t and it may have been unrealistic for them to have tried.
This installment opens up in the Nevada desert circa 1957 where our hero, Indian Jones (Harrison Ford), has been captured by communist spies and brought to a government warehouse filled with crates (yes, that warehouse), which has been evacuated because of a nuclear weapons test. Theses communists, lead by the sword wielding Cornel Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), force Jones to identify a crate containing mysterious remains. Jones is able to escape from this predicament, but the communists escape with the remains. Jones returns to his teaching position, where a young man named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) contacts him. Williams informs him that a former colleague of Jones’ named Harold Oxley (William Hurt) had disappeared while looking for a Mayan artifact (a crystal skull) that he thought could lead him to the famed city of El Dorado. Jones and Williams then go to Peru in hopes of rescuing Oxley and finding the crystal skull.
It’s no secret that Harrison Ford is not the young man he once was, and he hasn’t really aged gracefully. At sixty six years old he really isn’t set to do a lot of the acrobatics of the previous films. More importantly, a lot of the coolness and quick witted charisma of the Indiana Jones character just don’t come off as well here as they did in previous films, nor do some of the seedier elements of the character. This is a serious problem, and a big part of why the Indiana Jones feel isn’t quite here.
Presumably because of Ford’s age, Jones is surrounded by more supporting characters than he was in the previous films. The most obvious of these characters is the Shia LaBeouf character who comes to Indy and tells him about the skull. Unfortunately, as sidekicks go Mutt Williams is uninspired. He’s a one-dimensional character without much personality. The best they could come up with to spice him up was to make him a 50s biker along the lines of John Travolta in Grease, a decision that felt tacked on at the last minute and mostly made the character more annoying rather than less bland. Furthermore, the reason this young greaser’s connection to the overall plot is rather confused and feels like a half-assed excuse to put a 20-somthing star onto the film’s poster. What’s worse the LaBeouf character actually takes Indiana’s place I a number of key action scenes like a sword fight on a pair of moving jeeps. This is a poor decision as Mutt Williams no Indiana Jones, in fact he’s not even up to the standards of Short Round as far as sidekicks go.
The film’s villains aren’t thought out much better either, Cate Blanchet clearly seems to be having fun playing Colonel Irina Spalko, but her talents are ultimately wasted on a character that feels like little more than a second-rate henchman straight out of a James Bond film. There’s also a Russian soldier played by Igor Jijikine who is little more than a large intimidating thug. Jones also has to face a traitorous character played by Ray Winstone, who changes sides numerous times in the movie but continues to be given a second chance by Jones. This is a henchman who should have just been shot early in the movie, and then killed again every time he pretends to be on Jones’ side, yet Jones still falls for it. This would be fine if the audience was actually fooled, but that’s just not the case, it’s obvious that he’s just a straight up villain and it’s annoying whenever Jones gives him a second chance.
The audience being ahead of things is a general problem the film has, there are a number of moments that seem like they’re supposed to be genuine surprises but which are fairly obvious to the audience. The movie takes a very strange science fiction related twist midway through that would have been a decent surprise if it hadn’t been so heavily foreshadowed in the film’s rather awkward opening sequence. Similarly there is a surprise appearance of a character from a previous installment that isn’t much of a surprise if you saw the trailer or read the opening credits, and consequently the way that Shia LeBeouf ties in with that character isn’t too hard to figure out either.
The action sequences and special effects in here are not bad at all, but they’re not great or exceptional either. The film opens with a nice fight and chase, although this opening does end with a wildly misguided stunt involving a refrigerator. Later there is a nice jeep chase, a fight involving a bunch of pests and an interesting close encounter in a Mayan temple. These are all good sequences but they aren’t much better than what you’ll see in any other summer action movie, which is unfortunate because people like Steven Spielberg are supposed to be leading the way with this sort of thing, not merely keeping pace with the pack.
Really this is a very silly and shallow film, of course the other films in the franchise are just as silly and shallow but they succeeded simply because there was a certain perfection to them, the characters all worked, the scenes were top notch. Silly movies like this are only as good as the sum of their parts and the sum here just doesn’t add up. The film is certainly not incompetent, the technical elements are all fine, the story flows well enough and none of the actors are bad, but this is not the event everyone was waiting for.
I can’t help but wonder why this film was made, it sure as hell wasn’t because Lucas and Spielberg were just dying to tell the story of the quest for a crystal skull, and it certainly wasn’t because they had dreamed up a lot of kick-ass action scenes that just needed to be filmed. The truth is that the team was probably hoping that if they tried real hard they could make lightning strike a fourth time, which in retrospect was probably a fools errand. This is the same star, the same director, the same producer, the same composer, but the same creative spark just isn’t there twenty years later.
I really just wish Lucas and Spielberg had just left well enough alone. The truth is that three film was more than enough running time to explore the ideas Lucas and Spielberg had with the series. Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade finished With Jones and his posse riding off into the sunset, a perfect ending for the series. The fact that this film ruins that great ending is probably what annoys me most about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it was a sequel that everyone thought they wanted but which really never needed to be made, I hope the people trying to dig up every other franchise from the 80s would take a lesson from this and reconsider.
** out of Four