by Jon Quixote
It turns out that it is the mileage and not the years. Given the pop culture throne upon which Indy sits, it feels as though there have been more than 3 Indiana Jones movies (especially considering that Last Crusade is practically a remake of Raiders). Indy’s place in movie history is up there with Bond's, and Bond installments left double-digits (no pun intended) behind long ago. But given the current age of the principals, the fact that the series went out on a high-note back in 1989, and some of the rumored ideas George Lucas had for the 4th installment, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had bad idea stink-lines radiating from it and across the internet since it was officially announced.
As familiar and aged as Indy feels, this is only the 4th big screen adventure for Dr. Jones in his 27 years as the reigning king of Summer movies. And Crystal Skull proves that even if the leather is a little stiffer than it use to be, there's still a lot of crack left in the old bullwhip.
That's partially because the transplant to the 50’s is largely successful in giving this installment a fresh pallor. But it’s also because number 4, for better or for worse, has enough familiar beats in key places that the only Indy movie that doesn’t feel as part of the pattern remains Temple of Doom. Crystal Skull feels different without actually being different - it's Indiana Jones for a new decade, but it's still Indiana Jones.
Still, I think people are going to dislike Crystal Skull because of that feel. I accepted it as a welcome change. If Raiders was based on 30’s adventure movies like Gunga Din, then giving the 50’s Indiana Jones a plot with a hint of Invaders From Mars is both imaginative and natural. It comes across as a logical extension of that time-period vibe, and less like crazy George Lucas throwing his poo at the walls and interpreting the patterns. McCarthyism, overzealous FBI agents, Area 51 & little green men, Nuclear Bombs, and a Soviet plot to brainwash the entire West. To me, these were the best things about Crystal Skull. Those who see a world of difference between alien visitors and a cup full of immortality might have some difficulty getting on board.
I had a harder time with the movie when they tried to wedge conventional Indy moments into the framework. Many felt awkward, not to mention exhausted. For example, you only have to have seen one of Raiders or Last Crusade to guess how this one ends, although the climax here makes far less sense than either of the previous two. The supernatural powers turn on the bad guys here not because they chose the wrong cup, but because they’re villains in an Indiana Jones movie, and that’s what happens to villains in an Indiana Jones movie. I’m not even putting a spoiler tag here. You know it’s coming before you even sit down, and the movie even goes out of its way to confirm it for you at a point where the closing credits are still in the far-off distance.
Maybe there’s an Indiana Jones movie in our future where the villain actually makes good on the bedtime story and Indy has to deal with the threat that’s loomed over the entire movie, instead of it turning out that he could have stayed home while the bad guys destroyed themselves. It’s not this one though.
My thumb still points skyward though. I had a good time and it did feel like I was watching an Indiana Jones adventure. Harrison Ford still carries the day in a Fedora and bullwhip, Shia Labeouf was very “young Indy” in his sidekick role (and I can see why Spielberg cast him – he looks mini-Ford throughout), and Cate Blanchett is in full-on Natasha Fatale mode. The real selling point is the highly-choreographed chaos that runs rampant through the set-pieces, and too much of the movie is marked by a fluid, high-octane manic energy that I just couldn’t resist. There are a couple real groaner moments, true, but most of it is an absolute joy to behold in the best summer-movie fashion. Stuntwork, CGI, imagination and a master's touch all conspiring to make sure I got my money's worth.
Crystal Skull can’t stand proudly shoulder to shoulder with either Raiders or Crusade, and it doesn’t have the “let’s try something really different” feel of the hit-and-miss Temple of Doom. But it does still feel like a worthy addition to Indy’s adventures, and the combination of action, humor and historical ambiance still make a powerful entertainment cocktail. It’s considerably smarter and grander than any of the Jones-clones we’ve seen try to step up and fill the slot in the near-20 years since Last Crusade hit theatres. It’s still got it, and even if it creaks and sags in a way that it didn’t used to, Crystal Skull should have most moviegoers thinking about downloading the theme as their ringtone when they leave the theater.
Grade: For an Indiana Jones movie, B-. For a typical summer movie, A.
by Jon Quixote