Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Poster

Nineteen years is a long time to wait, a long time in which expectations can be fertilized and grow. The biggest challenges faced by Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull have less to do with entertaining an audience than competing with the ghosts of movies past and expanding the mythology of a character who has been out of the limelight for two decades. Perhaps it is too much to hope that this new movie, coming so long after its predecessors, might recapture the magic that infused Raiders of the Lost Ark and sporadically sputtered to the surface in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The latest effort is the most lifeless of the series, and feels more like an overplotted, confused reunion than a legitimate action/adventure outing. It would be a failure even without the impressive pedigree - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull simply isn't a very good motion picture.

Still, good or bad, everyone will see it. But the film doesn't work on the most basic level where even The Temple of Doom succeeded: getting viewers on the edges of their seats. That's not to say the film is without action; it features a number of such sequences. But a key element is missing: excitement. There's no suspense and not a lot of energy. We never believe that Indy or a member of his entourage is in danger. There's never any sense of "How's he going to get out of this?" The cliffhangers are easily shrugged off. The reason to see The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not to rediscover the joy and thrills of the Indiana Jones of old but to connect with familiar friends. This movie is comfortable, and that's the problem. It's too comfortable. For George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Harrison Ford, it's a matter of putting on well-worn slippers and bathrobes. The result is a sloppily made opportunity to spend a few more hours with a character who has put on a lot more years and miles since the last time we encountered him in a darkened theater.

The curtain rises in 1957 Nevada, where a captive Indy (Ford) and his latest sidekick, Mac (Ray Winstone), have been taken by a Soviet squad led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). She leads them into a huge warehouse where all the American military secret artifacts are stored (including, as we see in a "cameo," the Lost Ark from Raiders). There's something she wants and Indy is expected to locate it for her. An escape later, Dr. Jones is back in class teaching about the wonders of archeology to his students. That's when Dean Stanforth (Jim Broadbent) informs him that he's being given a mandatory leave of absence. Before he can get out of Dodge, however, he is cornered by a twenty-something guy named "Mutt" (Shia LeBeouf). The leather-jacketed Guys and Dolls reject needs Indy's help to find Professor Oxley (John Hurt), who has gotten mixed up in a treasure hunt involving crystal skulls and the Lost City of Gold. Soon, Indy and Mutt are on their way to South America, where their paths cross with Spalko and her Soviet comrades and a figure from Indy's past - the irrepressible Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen).

In bringing back Marion, at least The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull does one thing right. She and Ford exhibit a little of the same chemistry, although the sexual element is toned down significantly now that they're old enough to be grandparents. The screenplay also makes frequent and pointed references to Indy's age. There's never any pretence that this guy isn't ready to start collecting Social Security, and the character of Mutt is added as a way by which the series can continue. Although numerous "old friends" are missing, each has an analog of sorts. Marcus Brody, portrayed by the late Denholm Elliott, is no longer around, so Jim Broadbent's Dean Stanforth fills his place. Sallah, who helped Indy in Chapters One and Three, is left off the screen (reportedly due to "unreasonable" salary demands by John Rhys-Davies), so enter Ray Winstone's Mac. Finally, with Sean Connery electing not to come out of retirement, there's no way to bring back Henry Jones Sr., but John Hurt's Oxley functions in a similar capacity. Everything old is new again, or something like that.

Every Indiana Jones adventure has a central action sequence, a "tent pole" around which everything else is constructed. In Raiders, it was the segment where Indy hijacks the vehicle in the convoy containing the Ark. In Temple, it was the mine cart ride. In Crusade, it was the tank encounter. There's one in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, as well - a multi-vehicle chase through the jungle that ends with a lot of red ants and an amphibious landing. Unfortunately, not only is the level of tension at an all-time low but the choreography is dubious. The film can't keep track of all the characters so one car disappears for half the chase only to reappear at a critical juncture near the end. The movie contains its share of other action scenes that, while less lavish or extensive, are no more thrilling.

As was true of the previous films, this one attempts to balance light comedy with action. The jokiness that occasionally damaged The Last Crusade is more pronounced here with one-liners punctuating the dialogue. There are some clever ones, to be sure, but most are perfunctory. And there are times when things get silly, even for the comic book-inspired calisthenics of Dr. Jones. For an example of this, consider the scene in which Mutt makes like Tarzan and swings from vine to vine on the way to a monkey-accompanied rescue. The movie's decision to add aliens to the mix isn't a problem, especially considering the supernatural underpinnings of the previous installments, but the resultant anticlimax is. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull shoots its feeble wad early and stumbles to the finish line with a lot of effects, none of which are special.

Still, even considering the poor focus of the screenplay and the lackluster nature of Spielberg's normally sure-handed direction, it's as tough to dislike this movie as it is to champion it. That's because, while nearly everything around him has changed, Ford has no trouble sliding back into the costume and character. His performance sells this as an Indiana Jones movie no matter how much nearly every other aspect of the production cries out "imitation." The pleasures to be had from the film, meager though they are at times, are almost all delivered by Ford, and his scenes with Karen Allen bring a long-desired closure to the relationship they initiated nearly 30 years ago. Shia LeBoeuf doesn't show that he has what it takes to fill Ford's shoes but, as a sidekick, he's effective. Mutt could easily have been annoying but he stays in his place.

In the end, however, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull can't be seen as anything other than a very minor chapter in the adventures of one of cinema's most beloved action heroes and a disappointment for those who have waited patiently for his return. George Lucas knows a thing of two about disappointing fans when resurrecting long-dormant franchises, but what he does here is a far worse crime than he perpetrated with Star Wars. In that saga, there was still a story to tell. The episodic nature of this trilogy meant no follow-up was needed. And, if this is the best the filmmakers could come up with, the wisest course would have been to leave movie-goers with their memories.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (United States, 2008)

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Harrison Ford, Shia LeBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent
Screenplay: David Koepp
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
Music: John Williams
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 2008-05-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1