The best way to describe Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is to compare the film to a reunion over your favorite rock band from high school after they had gone their separate ways almost two decades earlier. Sure, their respective solo careers have taken them to places far different than their joint work, but the idea that they are getting back together to rekindle the magic that only their unique dynamic can create.
In this instance, the rock band in question is the trio of producer George Lucas, director Steven Spielberg and star Harrison Ford. Joining them is Ford’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark costar, Karen Allen, the band member whose contribution to the first “album” stood out all the more for her absence in subsequent outings. The filmmakers themselves acknowledge this when Indy tells Allen’s Marion Ravenwood that none of his subsequent relationships with women ever worked out because, “None of them were you.” It is a pity then, that they couldn’t find more for her character to do in the film’s final third.
But beyond the nostalgic thrill of seeing the band back together, the question of how good the music is still remains. In this case, many of the familiar notes are there, played and played well. Some themes receive new variations, but that’s to be expected given the nearly twenty years of experience accrued since a new Indiana Jones adventure last graced movie screens.
The film’s 1957 setting is a different era than we’ve seen Indy in and it feels a bit jarring at first. The fantastical possibility for adventure offered by the 1930s has given way to the specter of the Cold War and a growing, Joseph McCarthy-fueled paranoia. The Soviet Union has replaced the earlier films’ Nazi menace, but the bad guys are still after extraordinary artifacts of great power. In this case, it is a crystal skull believed to be able to amplify psychic powers. It is a shift from the more supernatural spawned objects of power in the original trilogy of films to one with an origin more rooted in science-fiction. That’s ok, though, as it draws a parallel to the grade B science-fiction films that were just emerging in that decade.
Hot on the crystal skull’s trail is Soviet Army officer Col. Spalko, Cate Blanchett in a Louise Brooks bob. The chase will run from Area 51 in Nevada through the jungles of Peru to a lost city near the Amazon River. Along the way, Indy will meet up with the love of his life that he let get away, Marion, and discover that she has had a son, played by Shia LaBeouf, in the time they were apart.
But for everything that is done right, there is still something missing, that spark of youthful energy that propelled the original films. Some of moments of comic relief seem out of place, especially a few pratfalls that Indy does in the first third of the film, which only serve to undermine him as a hero. A few of the cliffhanger escapes defy even the reality level of the previous films, and that’s including Temple Of Doom’s escape from an airplane/landing on the side of a mountain in a blowup raft. In some cases, such as the trio of waterfalls Indy and his companions encounter, it seems as if the film isn’t even that interested in the peril at all, anxious to get past it and on to the next plot point. The second half of the film moves a bit too briskly along, tossing much exposition and action sequences at the audience in a mad dash to get to the end credits. This is especially distressing as the film’s final reveals are so underwhelming.
After doing Schindler’s List, Spielberg had often stated that if he were to do another Indiana Jones film, the villains would not be the Nazis as he felt he couldn’t return to their cartoon-like portrayal. As a replacement for the Nazi presence in Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, Blanchett’s Spalko is a poor second. There’s not much about her character except that she exists to drive the plot, showing up to kick Indy in the pants when he needs to get moving again towards the film’s third act finale.
That’s not to say that the movie fails. There are plenty of great sequences, most notably the truck chase through the jungle sequence which gives Ford, Allen and LaBeouf moments to shine. Though admittedly, they went a bit too far with one of LaBeouf’s pieces of action during the sequence. And Harrison Ford is the most engaged he has been with a role in years. As a friend of mine used to say, “Even bad pizza is still pizza.” Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is not bad pizza, but it certainly isn’t great pizza. It is, though, a pizza that moderately satisfies your craving for a well made action film, even if they went a little heavy on the cheese.