THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!
It's been a while since I cared enough about a film to catch it on its opening night, and let it be said I did not care enough about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to do so. And yet, the night before last, the curious creature that occasionally steals my sofa appeared at the door and demanded we pay a visit to the new Vue cinema that's opened up in the back end of beyond we call home. My pleas to see Neil Marshall's Doomsday or Iron Man instead went unheard. The continuing adventures of an increasingly decrepit Dr Henry Jones it was, then.
A few days after the fact, I remain pleasantly surprised by almost the whole affair. Of course there's a but – I have a but for everything these days – but Indy 4 wasn’t the sordid grave-robbing I presumed it would be. I don't know that there's anyone around who sat through all three instalments of George Lucas's wholesale rape of the Star Wars saga who still clings to the hope he won't anti-Midas anything he touches in the future into crap. Thankfully, though, it seems Steven Spielberg held tight to the directorial reins of The Crystal Skull – at least until the film's last hokey act.
Whatever the suggestion of heroism and adventure his name implies, Harrison Ford has rarely come across as a particularly accomplished actor. He's easy enough on the eyes and charismatic at times; he can remember lines and remains a master of at least three reasonably convincing expressions (bemused, amused, and neither amused nor bemused). But the role of Indiana Jones doesn't really call for much more than that – I don't know that it ever did. In The Crystal Skull, he performs as expected. Of course he's old, but as boisterous as his character was in some of the set-pieces of the first three films, Indy was never a very youthful hero. He's an archaeologist, after all; more than treasure, he hungers for knowledge, for history, and Ford slips into the role as if it were a long-lost sock of old. It doesn’t always seems as if he’s having fun, but he inhabits his character with the same bumbling camp as ever, and holds the film together well enough.
Spielberg, meanwhile, retains a confident and largely unobtrusive grasp on the narrative. The peaks of the extravagant set-pieces don’t exactly mesh with the valleys of trite sentimentality that link the stunts and the CGI together, but he makes what he can of David Koepp’s script – which, perhaps, is where the real fault lies – with the same flair and panache he’s built his storied career on.
The supporting cast are largely unconvincing. Ray Winstone has precious little to work with, and mimes as much when he doesn’t suspect the camera sees. His character arc is predictable and his performance flat, and it seems a shame to cast such an accomplished actor only to waste him as a banal, is he/isn’t he baddie (he is). John Hurt hardly bears mentioning. Meanwhile Karen Allen looks past the camera as if to reassure herself with the oversized paycheck it must be some poor runner’s job to hold within her line of sight at all times. She’s wooden and absorbs little of Ford’s child-like enthusiasm; her entire purpose in The Crystal Skull seems to be to have spawned Shia LaBeouf, son of Indy. Together, the familial ensemble can at least pull off some self-conscious moments of squabble – although the proverbial hat is not, thankfully, tipped too often.
LaBeouf performs better than many of the old pros as a greaser with a heart of gold, but although he’s on the receiving end of more script and screen real estate than Hurt and Winstone put together, Koepp bestows precious little character development on young Henry Jones the Third. All in all, it seems a script pulled in entirely too many different direction to really satisfy an audience — or, indeed, any of the principals tugging at it. Between the demands of Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford, however, Koepp makes an admirable go of it, and, while it seems somewhat piecemeal at times, more often than not his work suffices.
In order to judge The Crystal Skull fairly, it’s important to put aside nostalgia for the moment. Nostalgia demands that we look upon the trilogy as it was with unwavering love, but time and all our generation’s bank holiday evenings in front of the telly of have coloured it a rosy hue. Nothing – neither The Temple of Doom nor The Last Crusade – will match up with the darkly fantastic Raiders of the Lost Ark. Koepp and Spielberg don’t even try; this is an Indy made for fun, without the pretensions of greatness that many might presume of it. It’s a perfect movie to start the summer with, and almost a match to either of the previous sequels.
Although it’s tough not to yearn for the action of yore – when green screen and CGI compositing were sci-fi, plain and simple – the set pieces are largely excellent. Sure, a few push past sublime and into ridiculousness, but I dare you not to enjoy Indy’s mushroom-cloud escape in a flying fridge. The extended chase sequence in the jungle is great fun, the fire ants are brilliantly gruesome, the lost city of gold is a wonder to behold, and they’re all executed with the canny knack of an old master. The rote action of Lucas’s Star Wars prequels is nowhere to be seen – it is Spielberg’s talent that ultimately illuminates The Crystal Skull. It’s only a pity that Lucas hadn’t removed himself utterly from the filmmaking; his continued influence is all too plain to see in the preposterousness of the last act.
Towards the end it beggars belief that, of all things, it is Roswell that has at last brought old reliable Indy back to our screen; at times it's trite and the supporting cast are empty calories, but with Spielberg at the helm and Ford on the foredeck, Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull is an undeniably enjoyable romp that stands stronger beside its predecessors than any Die Hard or Rambo relaunch. Indy’s here to tell you that summer has officially arrived, and if this rollicking old throwback is anything to judge by, expect to have an excellent season indeed.