Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, Karen Allen, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Despite enjoying the original trilogy, I was never all that excited for the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I’m not sure exactly why not, maybe because it was talked about for so many years that I simply moved on. Had this movie been released ten years ago, I certainly would have been more excited. Maybe its because two out of the three principle figures in the creation of the film (George Lucas and Harrison Ford) haven’t done anything that has interested me in a very long time. Maybe it’s because I can’t think of a franchise that has managed to stay creatively viable over the course of four movies. Maybe it was simply the involvement Shia LaBeouf.
But I figured I’d give it an honest shot, both because huge blockbusters like it are practically pop cultural obligations and because I have faith in Steven Spielberg. Of course, the last time Spielberg did a movie mostly for obligation was The Lost World, which was also the last Spielberg movie that I saw and did not enjoy. And while it’s true that none of the members of this trio are in a particular need of more money, Lucas and Ford, and to a lesser extent Spielberg, could all use a new box office success to improve their cachet. Add to the fact that the screenplay for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull by David Koepp is a pieced together effort from rejected Indiana Jones 4 scripts, and you have to question the motives for making the movie, beyond the obvious financial benefits, and the simple reason that Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford no longer have to answer the question “when are you going to get around to making the next Indiana Jones”.
For a film that may have been less about true creative impulse and more about an attempt to regain old box office glories and to finally put an end to the Indy speculation, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn’t bad. It delivers the big action set pieces one expects from the franchise, with Harrison Ford comfortably fitting into the role he made famous as a much younger man. As a nostalgia vehicle, it hits the right notes in regards to the fedora, the whip, and the iconic John Williams score, along with Ford’s chemistry with returning co-star Karen Allen. All in all, its a perfectly acceptable summer blockbuster.
What it’s not is a satisfying, necessary edition to one of the few truly great trilogies. The earlier films were products of their time, with all the practical effects associated with the era, but they were also fond homages to the high adventure serials of an earlier era. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, on the other hand, is a CGI-heavy blockbuster of the current era, that feels more like a homage to the earlier films of the franchise than an homage to Doc Savage and those of his ilk. The result is a film where all the pieces are in place, but some of the flavour is missing. While there’s several big, fun effects sequences, there’s no big, memorable sequence to rival Indy and the boulder, or the mine carts, or the escape from the Nazi castle.
It’s not that I’m anti-CGI per se, I’d even say that Crystal Skull employs it well in a few instances, but there are times when the actors are standing around looking at where the effect takes place rather than interacting with them that takes away from the experience. Worse is the fact that 65-year-old Harrison Ford isn’t up to carrying the action portions of the movie like he once did 27 years ago. He’s still game enough to throw some patented Saturday afternoon haymakers, but he’s no longer the guy who (probably apocryphally) stapled his fedora to his head to keep the action rolling. So a lot of the big stunt pieces of the film are turned over to his new sidekick LaBeouf, meaning that audiences turning up for a healthy helping of Indiana end up getting stuck with a side of Mutt.
Another troublesome aspect of the film is how most of the climactic finale involves five characters as part of Indy’s crew. Normally when you’d have that many people involved in a chase for the prize, you’d write some of them off as disposable redshirts. But that’s not the case here. It seems like another example of sequel glut, where they stuff a sequel with more characters in order to draw in more viewers, except I can’t imagine anyone is going to see this movie for Ray Winstone or John Hurt. The problem is that the finale adventure is less nimble having to navigate around five characters, who combine to again squeeze out the guy we all came to see.
But, as far as summer blockbuster fare goes, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull delivers more than it disappoints, especially if you’ve managed your expectations going in. Spielberg, Ford, and Lucas may be mostly leaning on nostalgia to get them through this picture, but in doing so, they push a lot of the right buttons. Which is enough to make the movie worth seeing, even if I’m not sure if it is enough to justify its existence.