3 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund
When word broke that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were planning on reviving their wildly popular Indiana Jones franchise, the first thought that came to my mind was no doubt buzzing through the brains of fans everywhere: can 67-year-old Harrison Ford still hack it as the iconic hero? Rather than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, titles like Hall of the Golden Walker seemed unsettlingly more appropriate. Thankfully, Ford fits very nicely back into that famous fedora. It's the rest of this new installment that feels like it's been around the block one too many times.
Crystal Skull delivers just what one would expect from an Indiana Jones movie, which is precisely the problem. The formula that worked so well for Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 - and, arguably, for its sequels, The Temple of Doom (1984) and The Last Crusade (1989) – doesn't hold up so well in 2008, after so many other film successors have beaten the formula to death. Dr. Jones may be one of the originators of the cinematic outdoor adventure, but like all things that strive to sustain longevity, he has to be able to acclimate his trademark to changing times. Obvious plot elements and stock characters run through nearly every frame of Crystal Skull, moving it from comfortably familiar territory to tiresome, been-there-done-that land faster than the crack of a whip.
Set in 1957 - nearly twenty years after the events in Last Crusade - this new chapter unfolds during the height of the Cold War, pinning Indy against Soviets instead of Nazis. The film opens in a Southwest desert, where Jones and new partner Mac (Ray Winstone) have fallen into the hands of a Soviet army led by the evil Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett in “Natasha” mode). Spalko and her cohorts are in search of the Crystal Skull, a legendary object shrouded in mystery, which they hope to use to - duh - take over the world. Jones escapes their clutches, but returns to Marshall College (where he's still teaching – for now), to find more characters in pursuit of the Skull, like young greaser Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf). Mutt pitches to Indy his plan to find the idol, thus saving his kidnapped mother and honoring the professor who turned him on to the legend. From there, the two embark on a perilous journey that involves the usual creepy crawlies, cobweb-covered caves, and, oh yes, snakes!
Director Spielberg wisely stages the action to accommodate what can only be described as Ford's “age limitations.” Indy can still kick some serious butt, and the movie certainly isn't short on fight sequences, but many of them are shot so that Ford's naturally diminished physicality goes virtually unnoticed. As the new blood, LaBeouf's Mutt gets almost equal screen time, helping to carry the weight of the heroism and stepping up as a possible heir to the tomb-raiding throne. Karen Allen (who doesn't seem to have aged a day) reprises her role as Ark's Marion Ravenwood, only this time she's doubling as Mutt's mom under the name of Marion Williams (which eventually provides the answer to an only-too-obvious question). These are good characters, but David Koepp's script renders many of them cartoonish. In his first scene, Indiana is revealed the way any beloved character would be: a slow tilt, the rise of familiar music, a triumphant close-up. But once he begins to speak, he sounds more like a caricature of the action star than the man himself. And Blanchett's Spalko may as well have Boris standing alongside of her. It's understood that these movies are meant to be adventure comics come to life, but there are parts of Skull that feel as though some of that life has been sucked out.
The new elements that do pop up here are intended to refresh the series, but instead, feel oddly out of place. One of the foundational characteristics of the Indiana Jones films has been an earthly, archaeological theme, often tied with biblical and/or mythological legend. Not to give away any of its surprises (because there are very few), but Crystal Skull's narrative and the origins of its titular object are more Close Encounters than Raiders. Scientologists will likely rejoice, but devout fans of the franchise may feel like fish out of water.
Without recanting any criticisms, as a summer blockbuster, Indy 4 is a fun ride. It's family friendly, it's never boring, and it's bound to make a killing at the box-office. However, one can only enjoy the same ride so many times before it starts to feel stale. It's no secret that moviegoers are welcoming back Indiana Jones with open arms. Whether or not The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the way they had hoped to receive him is another matter.