Dir: Steven Spielberg
Script: David Koepp (screenplay) George Lucas, Jeff Nathanson (story)
Cast: Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent
Let’s face it: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is never going to top, or even compare to, the holy trinity of action movies. Raiders of the Lost Ark already perfected the treasure hunting, whip-cracking formula. The most we can hope for is a fun, nostalgia-marinated retread, and we received that 19 years ago with The Last Crusade.
The change of decade brings a jarring change of tone, and Crystal Skull is by far the lightest Jones movie yet. Spielberg and Lucas make evident their love of all things 50s, with references to Saucer Men from Mars, Roswell, nuclear testing. McCarthyism and the Cold War effect, rock & roll and, naturally, hippy phenomenon the crystal skulls. Indeed, at times the second act’s evanescence of innocence is highly reminiscent of American Graffiti.
The good news. The factors that most fans have been most vocally apprehensive of, namely Ford’s age and Shia Labouf as Fonz-esque sidekick Mutt, prove no impediment at all. Ford, as visibly fit as any man his age should be, has lost none of the punch that made the role entirely his. Indy is perhaps one of the few pulp action heroes that can age, given not only his academic factor, but his resilient, world-weariness; Henry Jr. is the old dog that will never retire. In Mutt, Shia has subdued the frenetic act that amused Teen America in Disturbia and Transformers, giving us a potential successor to the hat and whip.
Despite the 19 year jump, Crystal Skull resonates with the first and third film more than the darker, comparatively humourless Temple of Doom. Though it’s easy to regard the series through hazy, rose-tinted lenses, the Indiana Jones movies have always, like Star Wars, stood as classics within their own self-created genre, comparable only to each other. Whereas recent attempts at copying this formula have been too self-aware to be effective, Lucas’s presence has ensured that the fourth instalment is guided by – and, unfortunately, at items marred by – the naïve sense of old-school adventure that drove the square-jawed serial exploits that inspired him.
Now the bad news… Predictably, the film is writhe with bloated, gratuitous CGI sequences, some forgivable, many not. Quite why Spielberg, whose role in this series has always been a sort of reality anchor to the ambitious but naïve boy-with-toys Lucas, would permit the travesty of a jeep chase through a computer-generated jungle upon us is more perplexing than the films plot which, by act three, has degenerated into an incomprehensible mess. But its one single moment, in which Mutt recruits a posse of animated monkeys while swinging Tarzan-like through unconvincing vines, which is likely to gain the film its most detractors.
Crystal Skull is best defined as a schizophrenic film, and like Last Crusade, it does occasionally slip beyond tongue-in-cheek and into purest parody. Whereas Raiders of the Lost Ark deliberately followed an episodic structure, Crystal Skull at times feels like a collection of disparate scenes, alternating between cringe-inducing and totally riveting at a moment’s notice. For every moment that evoke the magic and mystery of the original, for every snappy line of dialogue that remind us there really is no leading man quite like Indy/Ford, there is a video game action sequence that shatters all suspension of disbelief; a crucial ingredient in a adventure film such as this.
As plentiful and disposable comic book villains go, the Ruskies are no Nazis. Cate Blanchett’s psychic KGB agent Irina Spalko lacks serious presence, with an inconsistent accent that sounds painfully forced.
With a cast of familiar faces, Crystal Skull at times feels somewhere between a pastiche and a reunion, with numerous references to past movies but little in the way of reason for their inclusion. Jim Broadbent’s bookish Stanforth essentially replaces Marcus Brody’s role but is given scant screen time, while Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) suffers a disastrous introduction, and has little to do.
Ultimately, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull adds nothing to the Jones Mythos, but it does successfully evoke the childhood nostalgia we all cherish, which is worth the price of admission alone. Far from disastrous but not entirely triumphant, it is, to crack the already-clichéd assurance, no Phantom Menace. Maybe more an Attack of the Clones then… or a Temple of Doom.