As someone who never really cared all that much for the Indiana Jones movies—apart from Kate Capshaw singing “Anything Goes” in Chinese in the second one—I can’t say I’m surprised that I was far from overwhelmed by this late-in-the-day fourth installment. (Hey, now it’s a tetralogy—just like Wagner’s Ring cycle, but with CGI prairie dog action!) I am, however, surprised at the expressions of disappointment—and even outright anger—I’m hearing from a lot of fans. (Not all, mind you. There’s someone running around on Rotten Tomatoes attacking every negative review on the basis of, “It’s Indiana Jones…….shut the &^%$#@! up!” And people wonder why fanboys have a bad name.)
While I agree that turning the thing into a kind of Close Encounters of the Indy Kind was a truly horrible idea, I thought that, overall, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull at least deserved an “It’s OK” assessment. But I think it’s fair to say that “It’s OK” really isn’t good enough for $125 million or so worth of movie coming from the two aging wunderkinder of the blockbuster mindset, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
A lot of the negativity seems to be directed at Lucas and his fondness for CGI effects, but let’s be honest here—this movie plays like a Spielberg checklist. From the cute animal antics to the dysfunctional family schtick (Spielberg’s the guy who turned War of the Worlds into a domestic bonding drama) to the sci-fi trappings (completely unlike Lucas’ space operas), this is Spielberg country. However, the clunky storyline, which thinks it’s surprising you at every turn when it isn’t, is Lucas-like in the extreme, while the 1957 setting is edging into American Graffiti (1973) territory. But come on, both Spielberg and Lucas are fascinated to the point of obsession with their respective childhoods. In the end, it’s probably a wash as concerns which of the two pop culture auterists is to blame or praise.
Crystal Skull accomplishes the unthinkable by both expecting too much of its audience and simultaneously insulting their intelligence. It asks viewers to grasp the idea that duplicating the look of cheesy 1950s-‘60s process work is deliberately meant as homage to films from that era and not merely bad effects work. And it does this without stopping to realize that a lot of their viewership consider Raiders from 1981 a really old film, and have little knowledge of or interest in “antiquities” from a period as remote as the ‘50s.
Then the filmmakers turn around, introduce the viewers to plainly Russian bad guys and insist that Indy say “Russians!” just in case anyone didn’t get it. Worse, the scene is set at Area 51 and the object of the Russians’ interest is clearly a vacuum-packed alien (they show us the damned thing!)—but they assume the viewer can’t guess where this is all going. Even if the audience doesn’t feel talked down to, they’re apt to wonder just how dumb Indy must be to not figure out what’s going on. This runs through the whole film. The viewer knows what Indy’s gotten himself into in that model suburban neighborhood before he does. It’s pretty obvious just who “Mutt” Williams (Shia LaBeouf) is from the onset. And on and on. Indy is surprised on every occasion.
Moving the story to the 1950s was essential to explain Harrison Ford’s age, but it’s also where the film starts to go wrong. The earlier films tried to recreate the feeling of a 1930s-‘40s serial, which gave them a template that’s missing here. The last-gasp serials of the 1950s were, to put it kindly, not very good, even by the none too exacting standards of the serial film. It’s perhaps not coincidental that Crystal Skull takes place a year after even the indefatigable Sam Katzman called it a day as concerned knocking out serial films. The simple criminal mastermind and a world stage with clearly identifiable bad guys didn’t work so well in the Cold War days. This plagued the later serials and it plagues Crystal Skull.
Injecting a note of anti-McCarthyism is nice liberal lip-service, certainly germane to the era, and probably sincerely felt by Messrs. Spielberg and Lucas. Indy being unreasonably blacklisted as a commie and losing his teaching position is workable, but it’s a plot device that never plays out, especially since Indy returns from his adventures with no kind of proof of his innocence. The matter is just dropped and his name is mysteriously cleared. As a stand against 1950s red-scare witchhunting, it’s remarkably weak tea.
The hoke value is remarkably high, but that’s not the real problem, since that’s a staple of the series. The flurry of monkeys is pretty cool simian-value stuff, but Shia LaBeouf turning Tarzan is just silly. The crystal skull itself is plain awful. It looks for all the world like a bad plastic model with crumpled cellophane at the center. The action sequences try too hard and are often risible. Just who are these guards of the “Kingdom” and do they simply loiter inside those plastered-over columns on the off-chance that someone will happen by? Who plasters them into the columns anyway? Why does Spielberg end the film on the most boring image imaginable? Shouldn’t the final shot of such a film be iconic? What do we get? A dull shot of a remarkably sterile empty church? What?
Surprisingly, the main thing that I thought wouldn’t work—does: 65-year-old Harrison Ford as Indy. Yes, there’s occasionally a feeling of “Boy, they sure are giving Ford’s stunt-double a workout,” but all in all, it’s easy to forget that Ford is too old for this kind of thing. (This was something Firewall (2006) couldn’t pull off.)
In the end, if you’re willing to go with it, Crystal Skull can be an amusing couple of hours, even if it’s hardly the “event” it ought to have been. More, it’s possible to look at the way Spielberg puts scenes together, and realize you’re looking at the work of a true craftsman who understands filmmaking. At the same time, it’s impossible not to realize that this craftsmanship is at the service of a screenplay that doesn’t deserve it. Rated PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images.