There is a distinct difference between revisiting a franchise and just mooching off one and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is sadly a trademark example of the latter. A revisit would have required the recognition of the passage of time from The Last Crusade (which, based on this film, should have stayed true to its title). At last, despite having many of the trademark amusing ingredients from the past films, the ultimate folly of this fourth film is that it acts like a man in a midlife crisis – one who only wishes to recapture his greater youth without admitting his own true age.
Before people bark at me saying that I am not a true fan of the earlier films, I will first clarify that I admire all of the first three Indiana Jones films and believe that Raiders of the Lost Ark in particular is a goofy action masterpiece (with The Last Crusade coming pretty close). Although I questioned the clamoring need to make yet another one, I was certainly game for another chance to see Harrison Ford cracking the whip, evading his paralyzing fear of snakes and decoding more indecipherable clues. It is disheartening to see that director Steven Spielberg and writer George Lucas cannot provide enough of a distinctive joyride here turn the answer to that question into a resounding yes.
In this film, following the Nazis, Chinese gangsters, and an ancient terrorist cult in India, the Russians get their turn to face off against Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in 1957. True to its predecessors, of course, the title already gives away the crucial object both parties are looking for. The head of the villains, Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), a former hire of Stalin and now an elite KGB agent, apparently believes that the crystal skull will grant infinite knowledge and paranormal powers to whoever retrieves it.
Indiana Jones barely escapes the first extended attempt on his life after a close friend of his has betrayed him and even manages to avoid the effects of a nuclear blast by locking himself in a refrigerator (I am not sure that would necessarily help but it goes without saying that logic is never warranted in an Indy film). He returns to teaching as an archaeologist professor but is suddenly given an indefinite leave of absence after his friend’s betrayal leads the police to suspect that he may also be a Communist sympathizer. Soon thereafter, he is approached by a young hotshot biker, Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) who shares his own interest and knowledge in the crystal skull and informs Indy that a close professor friend, Harold Oxley (John Hurt) has been kidnapped. Along the way, he also runs into a past flame, Marion (Karen Allen, from the first film).
This story is, needless to say, just as outrageous as the others and relies on puzzles that would remain forever unsolved if it were not for Indiana Jones. What the film lacks is the sense of sweeping joy throughout in its goofiness. Spielberg shows that he is still an old-fashioned, seasoned pro when it comes to staging action scenes and he throws in everything from left-field as he can, including some truly random, swinging monkeys (and Mutt becoming just like one out of the blue). Other than a truly nifty chase scene with Mutt and Indy through a campus library during an anti-Communist rally, however, much of the choreography here seems too workmanlike compared to the other films and feels, after a while, like it is just piling on one stunt or special effect after another.
Another problem is that the film and all of its characters fail to acknowledge their years. Yes, it is certainly welcome to see Karen Allen as Indy’s past flame and I don’t certainly expect true realism in their relationship. But wouldn’t they have more to say to each other after he has been in absentia for 27 years? There is a bit of squabbling in the beginning but the film does not reignite much of a spark, whether romantic or abrasive.
Also, the film sets its time almost 20 years since the last film acknowledging a few other characters from earlier films. Yet, beyond the opening scene where he complains about missing a truck to which he was aiming to swing, Indiana Jones in his 60s seems even more agile and nimble than he was before. I don’t want to be ageist but since LaBeouf is obviously placed there to be a young protégé/successor for Indy, how about really going that direction by having Indiana Jones acting like his age and needing to be rescued from time to time by Mutt? Think of Clint Eastwood who, as an actor and director, has enjoyed greater creative success in his films because he paid attention to his years instead of getting himself stuck in a Dirty Harry time-warp.
Then there is the ending, which reveals the nature of the crystal skull and is, in all honesty, quite lame. I won’t say what it is but it leads the franchise into a territory it should have steered clear of. It is also disappointingly simplistic from a cultural and historical standpoint and indicates how Spielberg and his writers, Lucas, Jeff Nathanson and David Koepp are really starting to run out of ideas.
In the middle of all this, Ford, of course, exudes his usual charisma in the definitive role of his career (and no, it is not Han Solo, Star Wars fans) and is an actor who can make just about anything halfway believable. LaBeouf also shows that he is a rising star and I only wish that Spielberg and Ford trusted his star potential more as aforementioned. The big miscasting, however, is the usually excellent Cate Blanchett, who sports a terribly caricatured accent and thus never truly becomes menacing.
I asked myself after seeing this film whether my disenchantment with the film is because it just didn’t live up to the original franchise. Many of the reviews I have read seem to like it simply because they embrace seeing Ford back as Indy. I enjoyed seeing him, too, and some of the nostalgic charm from the originals. But then, why should I have another movie merely reminisce the first three films for me instead of being its own film when I can just check out the original ones myself again?
Bottom line: Mediocre at best.