In the history of cinema, there are few film characters as iconic as Indiana Jones. His hat and whip alone are enough for most people to instantly recognise the character in question. He is the genius creation of George Lucas, directed brilliantly by Steven Spielberg and brought to life by Harrison Ford. Like many of my friends, I’ve grown up with the character and he’ll always be the quintessential hero to me and my friends. And after nineteen years of anticipation, we are given one more (and possibly not the last, never say never) adventure featuring the brilliant archaeologist. Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.
It’s 1957. Nineteen years since Indiana Jones and his father rode out of the desert after defeating the Nazis’ attempt to get their mitts on the Holy Grail. A group of Russian soldiers break into a secret American military storage facility and force Indy to find the location of a box containing a mummy. Indy manages to escape but not without stopping the Russians who are under the command of a Russian military scientist with a penchant for the paranormal. Later on, Indy is contacted by a young man named Mutt Williams. Mutt needs Indy’s help to rescue his friend, an old colleague of Indy’s named Professor Oxley. It is Williams’ mother, Marian who suggested he seek out Indiana Jones. So Indy and Williams head for Peru to find out what happened to Oxley.
So, almost two decades after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, we’ve finally been given the sequel many of us thought we’d never see. Harrison Ford’s in his sixties, something that could present a bit of a problem considering the Indiana Jones films are action films. However, Lucas, Spielberg and Ford decided to use this as an advantage rather than a hindrance. So we have old Indy. In a play on the line from Raiders of the Lost Ark, ‘it’s the years, not the mileage.’ But is the film a success? With a franchise this beloved, there was a real fear that after so long, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull might be to Indiana Jones what The Phantom Menace is to Star Wars. The good news is, it’s no Phantom Menace. The bad news is, it’s no Raiders. Or Crusade. Or even Temple Of Doom.
The first thing I thought as the credits rolled on The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull was how much of a mixed bag it is. There are some moments in the film that are absolutely akin to what we know and love of the other three films. The opening salvo, the inevitable action sequence that draws you into an Indiana Jones film is as good as the previous films. While Ford definitely looks older, and moves a little bit slower, the action sequence in the military base is brilliant. It really recaptures the feeling of the previous films. After this sequence, I found myself grinning immensely at what I was watching. As the action was moved to Indy’s Marshall College, I felt the old pang of nostalgia for the old movies. Yet as the film progressed from here, the smile began to wane a bit. When the action moves to Peru, it’s here that the film’s major weaknesses takes hold.
The first major weakness of the film is David Koepp’s script. Koepp stated that he wanted to create an Indiana Jones script that wasn’t filled with obvious references. A film that was a mix of the comedy/adventure from Raiders, less dark than Temple Of Doom and less jokey than The Last Crusade. Setting the film in the 1950’s would move the film away from the 1940’s serials-influenced style of the previous films and more into the red-scare sci-fi adventures of the 1950’s. Unfortunately, by doing this, Koepp has fooled around with Indiana Jones too much. As a sequel to The Last Crusade, some of the story elements (without going into too much spoiler detail) are quite logical and don’t seem out of place. But by striving to make the film some-what of an homage to the 1950’s films, this is where it falls flat. It’s almost legend at this stage that George Lucas rejected Frank Darabont’s Indiana Jones script. I really hope we get to read that script someday. Because I’d bet quite a lot that it’s far superior to Koepp’s script.
The MacGuffin, the artefact that Indy is striving to get his hands on just doesn’t hold up to the previous films. There’s no sense of urgency about the crystal skulls. In one way, I thought it might have been due to the fact that the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail are biblical artefacts. However, even the Sankara Stones (and essentially, it’s the village children who are the MacGuffin in The Temple of Doom) have more of an impact. The Crystal Skull just doesn’t seem to be exciting enough of an artefact. And by losing this sense of urgency, the excitement is somewhat killed in The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. By the time the climax of the film comes about, there’s little to the proceedings that really excites. It all just seems a little TOO far-fetched. I know that sounds like a ridiculous complaint considering the subject matter, but there was just something a little more grounded in reality about the previous artefacts. The Crystal Skull requires a leap of faith that’s just too much.
The other major problem with the film is that there is way too much of a George Lucas influence on the film. Far be it from me to criticise the man. He’s an incredibly successful business man. Without him, there would be no Indiana Jones at all. But as we have seen in the Star Wars prequels, some of his decisions when it comes to his films leave a lot to be desired. And unfortunately for Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, there are moments that have his fingerprints all over them. There are some completely unnecessary cutesy animal moments that had me shaking my head in disbelief. These stood out like a sore thumb and did not belong in an Indiana Jones film.
The action sequences are staged very impressively. As I’ve mentioned, the sequence in the storage facility is particularly impressive. The chase in Marshall College is very entertaining. But the main showcase of the film, the chase in the rainforest, while impressive, again, doesn’t feel like it belongs in an Indiana Jones film. It attempts to replicate some of the great chase sequences from the previous films, but ups the ante too much. Everyone seems to be a superhero in it. And amazingly, after a short burst of action at the beginning, Indy takes a back seat for the rest of the sequence. The focus shifts to Mutt Williams as he swash-buckles, and leaps between the chasing vehicles. And in one stunningly ill-conceived moment, swings from the trees like Tarzan. It’s this one moment that really took me out of the illusion that I was watching an Indiana Jones film. I understand the purpose of that sequence was to hark back to the Tarzan films of the 50’s, but it’s such a bad idea, it’s so out of place that I’m still astonished it was put into the film. The climax of the film, the inevitable moment where the villain succumbs to their greed is also quite disappointing. It’s a CGI-fest and a little over the top. I’m all for progressing the technology of film, but at this moment, I really missed the stop-motion moments from Raiders and Crusade. Don’t get me wrong, Steven Spielberg is the greatest of all popcorn directors. But there’s just something lacking here.
Harrison Ford steps back into role of Indiana Jones and is quite successful, at moments. While he’s older and a little bit slower, there’s still a sparkle in the eye, and a wry grin at the appropriate moments. But then, there are problems with the script that affect the character too. For some reason in the film, Indiana Jones is rarely referred to as Indiana Jones. He seems to insist (as does everyone else) on calling himself Henry. I seem to recall a line in The Last Crusade that went ‘I like Indiana.’ And so do I. Yet he’s rarely referred to as such, and it’s quite unsettling. Another thing missing from the film is the sexual tension between Indy and his leading lady. Cate Blanchett plays Irina Spalko, the Russian agent. But the opportunity to have something between herself and Indy is missed. And it’s a wasted opportunity considering Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood turns up. There could have been a great competitive subplot going on between the two women, but again, a lost opportunity.
Many balked at the fact that Shia LaBeouf was cast in the film. But I have to say, he’s one of the stronger elements of the film. He fits in quite well within the canon of Indiana Jones, and the way they’ve switched the relationship elements that existed between Ford and Connery in The Last Crusade works very well. It’s quite obvious that Lucas and Spielberg are setting Mutt Williams up as a new adventurer. And while that’s perfectly fine, it does distract attention away from Indy, which is a damn shame.
It saddens me to be disappointed in an Indiana Jones film. But as the credits rolled, I found myself willing the disappointment out of me. But it remains. There are some brilliant moments in Indiana Jones and The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. Some quite authentic Indiana Jones moments. But they’re not moments that will stand out compared to the previous films. There’s no shooting the swordsman moment. There’s no melting faces and exploding heads. There’s no rope-bridge stand-off. There’s no brilliantly played out father-son one-upmanship. And there’s no rapid aging showdown. There is some very sweet action sequences, and Ford does have flashes of the old Indy. Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is a decent action film. But it’s not a very good Indiana Jones film. And that’s the real disappointment.