Amidst the type of hype and fan anticipation akin to George Lucas’ recent Star Wars prequels, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has finally arrived in cinemas, bringing along with it a gaggle of questions: Can an exciting action film be made with a 65-year old lead? Can old school filmmaking techniques cut it in a cinematic climate weaned on CGI effects and quick-cut editing? Would Steven Spielberg, an entirely different filmmaker today than he was two decades ago, be able to successfully return to his halcyon days as a master of the cinematic thrill ride? Would Skull possess more life and entertainment value than the last franchise entry, 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, did?
Most importantly, would my nostalgia of the first two series installments, 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, shade my judgment on this film? See, nostalgia can be both good and bad”good in that one can feel transported back to simpler, happier times in their lives; bad in the regard that sometimes this sense of fondness can cloud one’s perception of a current experience. Nostalgia can make a person become very, very forgiving.
Nineteen years ago, we saw intrepid archeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) ride off into the proverbial sunset at the conclusion of Last Crusade. This action, often found at the end of a movie, is usually an indication that the filmmakers have reached the creative end of the road and that there will be no follow ups. Considering that Last Crusade was, to this reviewer, the most pedestrian of the popular Spielberg/Lucas cash cow, I read that sendoff image differently. To me, it said that the boys (Ford included) were wise enough to quit while they were ahead. I was more than fine with the idea of no further Indy epics. Why drive something into the ground if you don’t have to? Any pangs of nostalgia I may feel for the adventures of Dr. Jones could always be satisfied through the modern-day miracle of home video.
But as we all know, few in Hollywood ever know when to quit. If there is a way to wring a few more bucks out of a much beloved character or series, filmmakers will find a way to do so, no matter how the final product turns out. After two decades full of false starts, scheduling conflicts and screenplays that couldn’t be agreed upon by Lucas, Spielberg and Ford, it appears that the dust has been blown off of Jones” trademark fedora hat and bullwhip for a new adventure.
Crystal Skull takes place in 1957. Jones, now 65, travels with a young, rebellious sidekick named “Mutt” Williams (Shia LaBeouf) on a quest to obtain the mythical Crystal Skull of Akator. The Skull is an object that will grant its power to whoever returns it to its rightful place. Being an Indiana Jones movie, our heroes aren’t the only ones interested in this fabled relic; a group of Soviet agents, led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), have also been hunting for the Skull, albeit for their own nefarious purposes. As you would expect, Indy and the Reds cross paths on more than one occasion in their pursuit for “fortune and glory.”
I know a lot of people hold the two Indy sequels in high regard, but these films are anything but perfect. Their stories are pretty thin (especially Temple), the supporting characters and villains even thinner (Can you name the bad guy from Last Crusade without looking it up? Yeah, neither could I). Both films also had a tendency to go overboard, be it the gross out gourmet in Doom, cramming every Indy character trademark into a 12-minute prologue for Crusade or just allowing Kate Capshaw to step in front of the camera– intentionally.
Skull shares a lot of these creative debits as well. The bad guys and supporting characters aren’t anything to write home about (Cate Blanchett gives what turns out to be a largely wasted role her best shot, while Shia LaBeouf displays less charisma here than he did in Transformers), the plot holes in David Koepp’s screenplay are sizeable enough to fit the Ark of the Covenant through and the third act’s “Big Payoff” turns out to be a “Big Letdown.” I’m not entirely sure who came up with what they used, so I’ll just come right out and ask both Spielberg and Lucas this: what the hell were you thinking?!?!
But as any Indy fan knows, in these movies the journey has always been far better than the destination (Raiders aside, of course), and it is the thrill created by that cinematic trip that has made this series what it is, not depth of story or character. And a fun, two-hour thrill ride, warts and all, is exactly what we get with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Spielberg has a better handling on the film’s pacing, stunts and set pieces than he did in Last Crusade, and while he isn’t breaking any new ground with this movie, he certainly shows that he hasn’t lost the ability to entertain.
On this film, however, it’s not the action, effects, stunts or sets, all top of the line, that really make this entry stand out or a “must see.” The one thing that truly propels Skull is seeing Ford back in the iconic role, plain and simple. Smartly dealing with his character’s advancing years without turning it into a parody or embarrassment, Ford perfectly conveys the fact that while Indy is older and not necessarily wiser, he still possesses that adventurous spark. Physically, the actor proves to be more than up for the challenge of jumping around between cars, motorcycles and trucks or beating up on baddies half his age. And his chemistry with his fellow co-stars, in particular Karen Allen (returning as Raiders favorite Marion Ravenwood) and John Hurt (playing an old academic colleague of Indy’s named Oxley), helps elevate their performances.
At one point early in the film, Jones tells one of his students that if you really want to learn about archeology, leave the library once in a while. Well, I’m telling you now that if you’re looking for anything but a fun time at the flicks, then you should skip Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. If you’re looking to spend a couple of hours with an old, albeit fictional, friend and partake in his adventures this summer, then you’ve come to the right place. Part nostalgia trip and part thrill-ride, The Man in the Hat is back, and it is a most welcome return.