This review attempts to be as spoiler-free as possible.
If you want to get prepared for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, don’t go back and watch the other Indy movies. Pull out The Lost World instead. Both films are directed by the same Steven Spielberg – bored, only mildly engaged and seemingly going through the motions. In both cases the result is superior to your average dumbass summer blockbuster, but when weighed against Spielberg’s filmography and the previous films in the franchise comes up sorely lacking.
Plenty of people will be entertained by Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and they aren’t dumb for it, and they don’t have bad taste because of it. The film is, basically, entertaining. The movie has lots of problems, is sloppy and deeply flawed, but it’s fast paced and amiable enough. The problem is that Indiana Jones films shouldn’t be amiable enough. They should be transporting. They should be transcendent action adventure experiences. They should be where our master populist filmmaker lets go and flexes his muscles a little bit, having fun and bringing us far beyond the normal movie that’s good enough for a Friday night. The Indiana Jones films are indelible and, even at their worst (Last Crusade or Temple of Doom, depending on what kind of a person you are) they tower above all other adventure films. Crystal Skull is right down with other adventure films; with Brendan Fraser in the lead this would have been the very best Mummy movie yet… but not so much better than the others to make you reevaluate that franchise as a whole. It would be just a really, really good Mummy movie. And from Spielberg, and from this franchise, that’s just not acceptable.
It’s almost too easy to bash George Lucas, but his fingerprints are all over this film. Right from the opening moments of the movie – hot rodding teenagers racing an army convoy, calling to mind American Graffiti – his presence looms large. He’s there in the cute CGI prairie dogs that appear three different times. He’s there when Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt learns to swing like Tarzan by watching cute little monkeys. And he’s really there in occasionally abysmal CGI action sequences that miss the entire point of what made the Indiana Jones movies work in the first place. This is the most George Lucas of all the Indiana Jones films, and that’s not a great thing.
The plot itself is what it is. I have no problem with Indy moving into science fiction territory here, especially since the aliens are firmly tied into archeology through ancient astronaut theories, the Nazca lines and other stuff. It’s certainly a more Indy-feeling MacGuffin than that in Temple of Doom. As in all Indy films the path to the finale is convoluted, and as always, Indy is racing a bad guy to the finish line. What’s weird in this installment is that Indy is mostly helping the bad guys. Commies are the villains this go-round, and they seem to have Indiana Jones captured for the majority of the film’s running time; while in their custody he keeps solving riddles that lead them closer and closer to their eventual goal. At no point does Indy try to fake them out or even attempt to outwit them – he just keeps telling them where to go next. This feels to me like lazy, sloppy storytelling, and that laziness and sloppiness permeate throughout, as if Spielberg and company are saying, ‘Hey, it’s Indiana Jones. Here’s that famous fanfare. Isn’t that enough for you people? Drool, dogs, we’re ringing a bell.’
But critiquing an Indiana Jones plot is a waste of time. I’m sure I could go through Raiders of the Lost Ark and find flaw after flaw; the plot is there to function as a way to string thrilling action scenes, delightful character moments and exotic locations together. In Crystal Skull, though, the action scenes are not thrilling (the centerpiece chase sequence gets really close, but drowns in a sea of pixels), the character moments are hackneyed and the locations are… well, everything looks like it was shot on a stage. This could be the most disappointing aspect of the whole movie; while some people may make claims that the stagebound look of the film is a deliberate homage to the movies of yesteryear, that defense doesn’t fly. If anything, many of the shots look like homages to The Phantom Menace, as characters stand before green screens upon which are painted overly dazzling and fakey sunsets and jungles. I feel like this falseness is a metaphor for the whole enterprise – the movie is kind of a faux Indiana Jones adventure. It feels like an expanded universe book.
Or maybe the most disappointing aspect of the whole movie is the action. Most of it is well shot and edited, but it’s often flat. There’s not only no sense of danger, there’s nothing ever at stake. We all know that Indy will not be killed in this film, but we should be engrossed in figuring out how he’ll survive. Maybe the best example of this in the series comes in Raiders, when Indy is fighting the giant Nazi at the airfield. Our hero is outclassed in every way, and the fight seems way too one-sided… and then that propeller comes around. There’s a scene like that in Crystal Skull (a lot of echoes in Crystal Skull, again a Lucas trademark. It’s no wonder that a man who made his cinematic bones selling packaged nostalgia in his second feature should be so interested in shoe horning callbacks into everything), but this film’s version of the propeller – which I won’t give away – is dead obvious from the first punch that’s thrown. We wait around for Indy to hit the big dude enough to lower his health meter or something and finish him off in the way we saw coming four minutes earlier.
When the action does begin to gel, with a huge and lengthy car chase/fight, CGI steps in to make sure it doesn’t quite work. At one point Mutt is engaged in a sword fight with Commie psychic scientist Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), with each standing on the back of a separate speeding jeep. With stunt men and real vehicles this would have been one of the most thrilling and iconic fights in the entire series. Instead Cate and Shia are standing on obviously motionless jeeps in front of a green screen. (And then branches start hitting Shia in the nuts. A lot. Couldn’t someone have locked George out of the process?) I understand the use of CGI to create some of the imagery during the film that would in the past have been made with models and mattes, but I don’t understand using it time and again in action scenes. The magic of the Indy films has always been the tension between the pulp nature of the material and Indy’s exploits and the physical reality of the stunts. It’s funny how disbelief works: when watching a stunt scene you know that it isn’t the actor doing the incredible feat, but you don’t mind – someone IS doing the incredible feat. With CGI you can see the face of the actor as he does incredible feats, but it feels a thousand times faker because you know that the most dangerous part was the possibility of tripping on a cable while crossing the stage to the greenscreen. By removing the reality of the stunts, Spielberg and Lucas have removed the film’s last tenuous link to reality, turning Crystal Skull into a cartoon. This becomes explicit with one action gag involving a car landing on a huge tree branch, slowly descending, driving off and having the tree branch snap back up at some baddies. This isn’t pulp material, it’s Bugs Bunny.
Wait, maybe the most disappointing aspect of the whole film is the flatness of the characters. Harrison Ford often seems addled as Indiana Jones, Karen Allen is just bad as Marion Ravenwood, and nobody else has anything to do. John Hurt plays a crazy old professor, and the only thing I can imagine that attracted him to this film was his quote being met. Jim Broadbent shows up as Denholm Elliot’s replacement – but again, with nothing to do. And in the most bizarre bit, Ray Winstone shows up as Indy’s sidekick turned traitor… who has nothing to do. Winstone’s character is what pushes it all over the edge, especially as it becomes apparent that where Broadbent is an ersatz Brody, his character is an ersatz Sallah. This is a film filled with reunions and ‘old friends,’ but the only characters we know are Indy and Marion. Yes, I realize this is the case with all the films – they are set in a continuous universe that exists outside of what we see, and many characters are treated like repeats when they are in fact being introduced for the first time. That’s charming, and it almost works here with Winstone, whose character has a history with Indy that will surely be explored in myriad books, comics, video games, pajamas, snack items, cartoons, radio plays, zeppelin moorings, footwear and action figure playsets. But the tone of Crystal Skull is different from the rest of the films in that it’s a movie about endings, and the reunions with these new characters don’t feel like clever intros but being too lazy to rewrite a part originally intended for John Rhys-Davies.
To be fair, even an addled Indiana Jones is a good Indiana Jones. Despite the fact that the movie spends the entire first act desperately reminding us how old Indy is, Harrison Ford still has the roguish charm (although when he says ‘I have a bad feeling about this,’ you get worried that all that pot smoking has made him forget which Lucas franchise he’s doing here), and his chemistry with Karen Allen remains strong (caveat: the arc of their relationship is sort of exactly what’s wrong with the characters in this film. The two actors are good together, and there’s a touching scene or two, but they’re just hitting marks where they deliver one-liners). Most shockingly, though, is the way that Ford and Shia LaBeouf work together. LaBeouf’s Mutt shows up in full Marlon Brando in The Wild One drag (and considering what subculture has taken over leather biker fashion, drag might be the best word), and there’s not a moment where I believe him as a tough, switchblade-wielding greaser. That whole schtick is dropped pretty quickly, though, and LaBeouf proves to be a completely able sidekick to Indy. More than that, he proves to be not annoying, not useless and one of the brighter spots of the whole film. I like LaBeouf as a screen presence, but even I was surprised at how well he works in this film, once his unbelievable Fonzie crap gets dropped to the wayside. In fact, once Marion re-enters the film and he turns into something of a momma’s boy it seemed like the script really found his character’s niche.
That’s one of the things the script gets right. All of the Indy films have had one liners and gags, but here they fall flatter than ever. And the sloppiness of the script is almost inexcusable – early on Indy finds himself on a government blacklist, making him lose his teaching position and almost forcing him to leave the country. Except that nothing comes of this subplot. Literally nothing. Once the adventure begins, this is dropped, and then at the end of the movie it’s all magically solved. The same sloppiness afflicts the final act – the movie’s climax comes at the end of that centerpiece chase, and all of the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull stuff is essentially an anti-climax (although with some nice Rube Goldberg business. And I always love seeing people walking through cobwebby temples and stuff), leading up to a gaudy special effects extravaganza that’s just a reheat of the ending of Raiders.
There’s a lot of complaining here, but I don’t think there’s a lot of nitpicking (and believe me, with the sheer volume of goofiness on display right from the opening action scene, I could nitpick like a motherfucker. For instance, the film establishes that the crystal skull is highly magnetic… except when it’s hidden behind a piece of cloth or something). This is a movie that got made simply because it could get made, not because there was a particularly great idea or a particularly important thing to be said about Indiana Jones, and that shows. Quite simply, not enough work went into this film. Nobody seemed to give a big enough shit (or gave a big enough shit to stand up to Lucas, at any rate). This is Spielberg making movies like a 9 to 5 cubicle worker, doing just good enough but never going above and beyond.
In some ways Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull brings up the Live Free or Die Hard dilemma, but times ten – unlike that series, the Indy films have always had a guiding vision, and most of the original creators are back. When reviewing Live Free, I had to wonder whether to treat it as a Die Hard movie or like a summer action movie; as it was sold as a Die Hard movie, I felt that it was fair to critique it as one. That fairness applies even more here, where it’s not just the franchise but everybody else back for a belated fourth round. It isn’t just that I expect more from an Indiana Jones movie, it’s that I expect more from a Steven Spielberg movie. As much as I cringed at the things that felt all too Lucas in the film, I have to lay the blame at Spielberg’s feet. He’s the one who kept coming back to those CGI prairie dogs.
I will say that Crystal Skull does answer one question: Can Steven Spielberg direct a modestly decent action film in his sleep? Yes.