[This review is as spoiler-free as possible]
It’s too easy to review a film like this with your heart.
It’s an Indiana Jones film, by God. Despite my lack of love for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade there’s no denying the fact that the films brought to the masses by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford are cuts of movie magic. Rarities. Legendary creations born smack-dab in the middle of my formative years that I was able to watch bloom before my impressionable eyes. The heart has a way of overriding the brain at all the worst times. If I could go back in time and rewrite all of the reviews I did for the Star Wars prequels, I would. The haze around my brain held thick and despite repeated blows of logic and reality, the heart pumped double time to keep the illusion alive. I felt that haze creeping on once the Lucasfilm logo appeared. It’s amazing how powerful these two franchises are. Their ability to ride our love and emotion sometimes makes it hard to know what we’re seeing until long after we’ve had time to let it marinate. More than nearly any other franchises, these are like loved ones whose faults we overlook for the greater good.
Adversely, it’s unfair to approach a film of this significance strictly as a cynic, because there’s no denying the stamp and signature the Indiana Jones films have had on the adventure genre. The last time we met Indy was before the digital age and arrival of waves of filmmakers wanting to ride Steven Spielberg’s adventure coattails. In some respects, the Indiana Jones films constituted the last analog franchise in the world of cinema. Instead of seeing the world of adventure through a world of matte paintings, phenomenal stunts, and intricately conceived action beats, we now see Indiana Jones and his associates as indestructible digital avatars on the rails of one pretty but benign sequence after another. I’m sure there’s still plenty of old school technique on display, but I’ll be damned if it feels the same.
It certainly doesn’t look the same. Though occasionally bathed in the warmth and glory of the original films, Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography lends a much colder and synthetic look to the proceedings. In the film’s introduction to the now grayed Indiana Jones, the look is so oversaturated and laden with glare it nearly overrides the content. Never before has a film in the series felt as much pieced together as here – almost as if the audience is seeing a high budget fan film or some connective Indiana Jones content for a DVD-ROM or online presentation rather than the genuine article. Never should one be reminded of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow when watching an Indiana Jones film. And though this early scene isn’t nearly as overt in its stylistic choices, it certainly provides a disconnect from the job at hand: bringing a beloved character and his universe back to life. The film looks a lot more like “the New Spielberg” with its more metallic palette rather than the warm and comforting celluloid of the old days. The first moments where we’re reintroduced to the leading man in particular have a very weird look to them, somewhere between feeling too manipulated in post or reeking of the soundstages they were filmed on. The lighting, tone, and mood are simply a poor conductor for the Indiana Jones magic so desperately needed to get the film out of the gate on the right foot. Eventually the look achieves more balance, but it’s an uphill battle. The film should have captured the mood and delivered the Indiana Jones we know and love immediately. Instead we’re graced with a clunky introduction that delays the payoff the film needed to deliver just to simply remind us this is a legitimate Indy film. Luckily there’s still joy in seeing the Man with the Hat on the big screen.
It takes a while, but once he’s given a chance to do more than participate in a few somewhat uninspired action sequences (including a ludicrous nuclear explosion that is pretty to look at, but requires the biggest suspension of disbelief in the series), Harrison Ford manages to remind us why we love him in this role so much. The fedora and whip go a long way, but the man still looks good. And when given the time to lecture the young Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) or interact with his peers we get to see the charming and rakish Indiana Jones we remember. Sadly, too much of the time the actor is forced to deliver line upon line of expository dialogue or solve puzzles in his head and then explain them to one of his cohorts. It doesn’t feel organic like it used to. Worse yet, this Indiana Jones is more resilient and indestructible than ever before, a trend we’ve seen all too much of late. Though this is escapism at its most obvious, the character who in the past had to cheat a swordsman and have rotors and grinders and flocks of birds take out his enemies seems awfully content to go toe-to-toe with anyone who crosses his path. More often than not the result is a stunt double or CGI version of the man being slammed, bashed, or otherwise creamed in a manner that lessens the fun and humanity of the professor with an active lifestyle.
This man was aching from the mileage in the first film, one which takes place 21 year before this. Here he seems older-looking, but otherwise a lot more up to fisticuffs, smashing into vehicles, dodging gunfire for great lengths of time at close range [and in one little moment it seems like the Russian soldiers actually wait to fire until he’s almost out of sight, which is probably more a case of sloppy editing than anything else]. It becomes tedious after a while. One of the opportunities of this film should have been a chance for fans to say goodbye to an icon, though he did ride fittingly off into the sunset 19 years ago. There’s not a sense of Indiana Jones winding down or conceding to time. That’s an aspect of the film which is sorely lacking, especially when Ford is asked to carry both the action hero responsibilities as well as the mentoring ones. If the goal is to showcase that Indiana Jones is timeless and impervious, job done. Otherwise, the fallibility and waning physicality of a man who has done it all [the film alludes to extensive work with the military between the last film and this one] is something we’re not able to see. Ford has some very solid moments and some lesser ones, but when it’s all said and done he does a better job than his behind the scenes collaborators Lucas and Spielberg. More on that later.
The supporting cast ranges from solid to forgettable. Shia LaBeouf is engaging as Mutt Williams, especially considering the one-dimensional look they gave him. Mutt’s obviously the heir apparent to Indy. The mystery regarding his connection to the mythology is wafer thin, but anyone coming into a film like this to be surprised by plot turns is fighting a losing battle. Mysteries surrounding the possibly otherworldly origins of the Crystal Skulls of the title, the allegiance of Ray Winstone’s character Mac McHale, and Mutt’s relation to Indiana Jones are dealt with quickly and early so that they’re not mysteries at all. When asked to help carry the action workload, LaBeouf does an able job. He is maturing into a good physical performer in addition to his excellent comic timing and naturalistic acting. Unfortunately he’s given a truly horrible action sequence late in the second act that seems too cheesy even for a Mummy film. Vines. Monkeys. Laughs. If this is truly the passing of the franchise baton to the younger man, it could be worse. But I can’t imagine this film generating enough interest to sustain any additional cinematic adventures.
Karen Allen looked great in the photographs leading up to the production, but she seems out of depth in live action. The character of Marion Ravenwood (now Williams) was always the best foil for Indy. Gritty. Sly. Able to hold her own. Not as whiny as Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott and not as boring as Alison Doody’s Dr. Elsa Schneider. Here she feels tacked on, a device to bring Mutt and Indy together. The relationship feels forced between the two Raiders of the Lost Ark leads, and though there are a few moments intended to inject emotion and warmth into the film, it doesn’t register. It’s nice to see Marion back, but perhaps a cameo would have sufficed. She feels shoehorned into the rest of the film.
Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko doesn’t fare much better. There’s no real sense of adversarial chemistry between the Russian scientist/sword lover and Indy. She simply arrives with her cronies, says her lines, gets thwarted, and moves to the next scene. It’s nothing against Blanchett, she knows what kind of movie she’s in and does decent work. There’s just not that much work to do other than to deliver lines, swing her weapon, and fire an amazing amount of bullets that miss their mark. Also, a possibly interesting subplot involving Spalko having extrasensory powers is abandoned almost immediately.
John Hurt, Ray Winstone, and Jim Broadbent are along for the ride but of little consequence other than to deliver exposition and lots of it. The CGI gophers, ants, Crystal Skull ‘owners’, monkeys, and other assorted minutia range from horrible to moderately entertaining. The less said the better.
The film is simply on rails too much. All of the films in the series are globe-trotting affairs that take Indy and his friends from one set piece to the next. But without the crackerjack little moments present even in the third film it just feels fast and overdesigned in lieu of actual meat. A fun and potentially wonderful quicksand sequence is ruined by a bad snake gag. The massively scaled and potentially show-stopping climax is betrayed by a lack of tension and elaborate effects substituting for the sort of adventure we expect from the series. A waterfall sequence breaks no new ground and once again assumes the audience is dumb enough to buy a group of misfits surviving fatal fall after fatal fall into raging and rocky shallows (in a big metal open air car no less) with nary a bump on their head to show for it. It goes on and on. Killer ants (that feel like the beetles from the Mummy movies) being thwarted by the simple presence of a crystal skull, and in fact a few sequences that are solved simply by holding the crystal skull. This is a far cry from Kasdan. There’s a cool blow gun moment that’s rendered much less cool when you consider that the darts aren’t double sided. Little things. The way during the chase sequence with the voracious ants that Marion disappears in her vehicle until she’s needed to save the day a few beats later. The Tarzan sequence with LaBeouf. The horrible nuclear explosion evasion sequence…
This is lazy stuff, and filmmakers who pride themselves on storytelling should know better. Especially Spielberg. George Lucas, because of his massive molestation of the Star Wars prequels, as well as his inability to use the apparently fantastic Frank Darabont draft of this film, will get the brunt of the complaints. But Steven Spielberg is no pushover. Nor is Harrison Ford. This is a team effort, and there’s really no excuse for this to be anything less than well-conceived. It’s almost as if the false starts and numerous changes in content, balanced with the ever difficult schedules of the involved parties took a front seat to actually deciding if this was an adventure worth pursuing.
They should have known better. Especially Spielberg. He’s too good to settle for this. As disappointing as it is, The Lost World still felt like Spielberg was having fun. I almost expected him to overpower his collaborators and make this film as seamless a companion to the other films as possible, adhering to the same techniques and materials as he used from 1981-1989. Though the film owes as much a debt to the science fiction of the 50’s as its predecessors did the serials and pulp of the 30’s, there are still ample moments where it seems as if the filmmakers are overcompensating. A set piece where a line of smart dialogue would suffice or a superhuman act where a knowing nod towards the lead character’s advancing age would deliver more impact. This is not the graceful and eloquent Spielberg of recent memory nor the wunderkind that redefined nearly every genre he took a stab at. This is a concession. The Indiana Jones franchise had already embraced mediocrity with the third installment [the less said about the television series the better]. But even with that in mind this installment delivers the latest critical strike, yet another in a steady stream of seemingly invincible properties whose luster has been rubbed off enough to make them just plain old movies rather than the seminal cornerstones they earned the right to be. In a way it makes the first film that much more astounding, but the bottom line is that a truly amazing character has been stripped of his grace to die perfectly fittingly of natural causes. It’s been nineteen years. Interest had waned to safe levels. The great archaeologist had delivered his last adventure on the big screen and it was just fine that way.
This isn’t archeology as much as it is grave robbing. When it’s all said and done, Indiana Jones was better left alone. I understand when creators need to dip into the well one last time whether to finish their story, make up for a lackluster entry, or most commonly to pay the bills. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Harrison Ford are three people who haven’t needed to worry about such matters, which makes the existence of this Indiana Jones film that much more inexplicable. Even with lowered expectations and a place of being weighing the heart and brain equally, this one falls short. It’s a decent diversion, but do we need any more of those?
My expectations were reasonable. Skeptical even. But still this one didn’t click. It’s not the years nor the mileage that have made this film a disappointment. It’s the fact that by stepping into the digital era Indiana Jones has lost his magic.