Back in 1981 when Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford were all untarnished by future choices, they made a homage to the 1930s and 1940s adventure serials and called it “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, and it’s a film that still holds up over a quarter of a century since its release. Unfortunately, in those twenty-seven years, talent has waned, audience expectations have grown, and Indiana Jones has remained absent from theatres for almost twenty years. Maybe it was nostalgia for their nostalgic films that brought Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford back for a fourth film; maybe Ford desperately wanted a hit film before the decade was over; maybe Lucas wanted to continue to get rich off his creative bankruptcy; maybe Spielberg was just being a nice guy and wanting to help out his friends between making real films. The reasoning doesn’t really matter (but boy it’s fun to speculate), because it’s here now and so we take a deep breath and hope that the film is better than being tossed into a pit of snakes.
The film is better than being tossed into a pit of snakes. It shares the same basic plot structure of “Raiders” and “Last Crusade”: Professor Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr. (Ford) goes on a quest for a mythical artifact. Bad guys (some in it for their government others for petty personal rewards) want the artifact too and so this hunt weaves the protagonists and the antagonists together before well…I don’t mean to spoil this film but hopefully you’re not going to an “Indiana Jones” film for a twisty narrative. This time around, the artifact is a crystal skull that must be returned to an ancient Mayan city. Accompanying the old, old Dr. Jones is greaser Mudd Williams (Shia LeBeouf), old flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), and Harold Oxley (John Hurt). And the larger-than-life villain at his back is the psychic Spalko (Cate Blanchett).
That’s right: I said “psychic”. There’s an unsettling amount of science-fiction in this Indy film and I don’t want to say who included it but my guess is that he may have raped your childhood back in 1999 (unfortunately, the statute of limitations has run out so tough luck). And yet, considering the time period of the 1950s and the space race with the Soviets (the new baddy army now that the Nazis are kaput), science fiction elements don’t automatically ruin this film but their inclusion is just sloppy and in bringing Indiana Jones out of the 1940s, they’ve lost the reason for why they brought him into existence.
But as I said earlier, “Crystal Skull” is not a bad film. It fluctuates between high adventure (there’s a great sword fight between Blanchett and LeBeouf), that old Indiana Jones charm (the cast seems to be having a lot of fun; that includes Ford who seems to have been stuck in a permanent state of grump for God knows how long), and moments so sloppy that you feel embarrassed just watching it. Everyone has differing opinions on the quality of “Temple of Doom” and “Last Crusade” but I think we’ll all agree that neither of those films has anything even remotely as silly as Indiana Jones crawling inside a lead refrigerator and being blasted a few miles by an atomic bomb only to exit unscathed.
“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is an Indiana Jones film but just barely. It didn’t really need to exist and this isn’t a story that just needed to be told. American cinema owes a great debt to “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. It’s just a debt that doesn’t need to be paid by seeing this latest and too late sequel.