Every summer, there are a number of films so highly anticipated that when they don't meet those expectations, even slightly, people badmouth the end result, angry they wasted their time and money. The film could be 'good', but because it isn't 'great', many people aren't happy. If the expectations weren't so high, the film would receive better word of mouth.
"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is such an example. Not a perfect film, or a great film, it is, nonetheless, a fun ride and provides a lot of enjoyment. But because this is a sequel to one of the best films ever made, expectations were high. Too high. No one, not even the combined talents of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford could meet these expectations.
It is difficult enough to create a magical film. With all of the people involved in any film production, everyone has to be at the top of their game to create a movie experience to be remembered for the ages. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" did that. Sorry, George, I refuse to call it "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark" as you have relabeled it. Quit screwing with the magical films you have created in the past. Stop renaming things and stop adding digital enhancements to your classic films. Stop. But it is almost impossible to capture magic a second time, let alone a third or fourth (depending on how you view the various sequels.
"Crystal Skull" has some fun chase and action sequences; an interesting villain, a nice new sidekick and it is great to see Harrison Ford play the role again. It feels like putting on a pair of old slippers. Very comfortable.
But those slippers have some holes. That and some technical problems make the experience of watching this film less than stellar.
1957. Jones (Harrison Ford) and his sidekick, Mac (Ray Winstone, "Fool's Gold", "Sexy Beast", "Beowulf") have been kidnapped by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) and her Russian troops. Spalko has been combing the Earth for artifacts rumored to help people control other people's thoughts and minds. That is her goal. Mind control. Spalko is after a crate she knows Dr. Jones saw about 10 years earlier in New Mexico, so she takes him hostage and brings him to a military warehouse at Area 51 in the Nevada desert. He is incredulous, but has no choice but to help her, due to the sheer number of guns pointed at him. Later, the FBI becomes suspicious of his role in this operation and ransacks his college office, causing the University to fire him. As he is about to head to New York, Mutt (Shia LaBeouf in full "The Wild One" regalia) shows up on his Harley and asks Dr. Jones for his help. His mother, Marion, was taken prisoner by some people in South America after their family friend, Professor Oxley (John Hurt) went crazy trying to find the location of the City of Gold and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. A cryptic letter leads Jones to help and he and Mutt are soon off to Peru to help find Marion and Ox. There, they run into Irina again, who has Marion and Ox in her custody. Jones is soon happy to learn that Marion is Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) and Mutt is their son. Will they be able to get past all of these complications to find the fabled City of Gold and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?
The "Indiana Jones" films are Spielberg and Lucas' tribute and homage to the Saturday afternoon serials they used to watch in theaters when they were kids. The same sort of matinees made with zero budgets and zombies, monsters from mars, ghosts, Flash Gordon and other fantastical heroes and villains. When you start applying logic to a film based on such subject matter, you might go as crazy as John Hurt's character in the newest installment. So, when there are definite holes in the script, you have to decide if you want to go along for the ride, or start dissecting the film and pointing out all of the various problems. For the most part, I chose to take the ride and had a lot of fun. There is an event that happens near the beginning of the film, which proves to have no consequence to the rest of the story. This was more problematic for me than anything else, but I'm willing to overlook even that. "Indiana Jones" is all about the thrill ride and "Crystal Skull" provides a number of sequences with this type of endorphin thrill.
Harrison Ford returns as Dr. Jones, the intrepid archaeologist who works part time as a college professor and finds himself embroiled in some outlandish plots. In "Crystal Skull", Lucas, Spielberg and David Koepp (who wrote the screenplay based on Lucas' story) have taken a real thing and formed a story around it. This follows the modus operandi of the other installments. In "Crystal Skull", they use the discovery of such an item as the springboard to create a whole history and mythology for the characters to discover over the course of the film. Some people may find this creation interesting and fun. Others will (and are) discounting it immediately, for face value. But these same critics should remember back to the original material these films are based on in the first place. Flash Gordon. Monsters from Mars. The like.
The key to "Indiana Jones" is the elaborate action, special effects and production values applied to these same fantastical ideas. In "Crystal Skull", there is a lot of effort to make everything seem very normal and real. But in a number of instances, I noticed a stunt double sitting in for Ford and other actors and there seemed to be a couple of instances of noticeable green screen use. These are not acceptable. One of the best things about these films is that "Ford always does most of his own stunts". When they use a stunt double during a relatively tame motorcycle chase, it just spoils the illusion. And you can always tell when they are using a stunt double; the hair is always slightly off and the scene is shot from behind and far away. Or the character has their face turned away from the camera. These moments, and the plot hole I mentioned earlier do a lot of damage, but they don't ruin the film.
In the earlier films, Spielberg and his cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe worked very hard to give the films the look of an old film from the 30s or 40s, to match the era in which they were set. This gives the films a rich, lush look. In "Crystal Skull", Spielberg works with Janusz Kaminski and the look is very different. Everything seems to be infused with light, bright white light seeping from the edges. I think this was done for a couple of reasons. The film is set in 1957, and the beginning of the story takes place in the Nevada desert. But it also seems like this might have been done to help disguise the true age of some of the characters. It almost seemed like gauze or Vaseline had been used on the lens a few times. This infusion of light might be designed to help cover this up and make everything seem a little washed out, a little blurry. What better way to hide the signs of aging?
Harrison Ford is back in a role so tailor made for him, so comfortable, you can't do anything but welcome him back. He is clearly having a lot of fun, even if the role seems to be a bit of a strain for him at this age, that he becomes instantly watch able again. Watching him portray Jones again almost helps to erase some of the abysmal performances he has done in the years since his last outing as Dr. Jones. Almost. I'm afraid "Hollywood Homicide" is just too bad to forget. That and "Random Hearts". But for the few truly terrible performances he has done in the last 19 years, he has also created a number of memorable roles, like Dr. Richard Kimball in "The Fugitive", like Jack Ryan in "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger", like President James Marshall in "Air Force One". When Ford is on his game, there is no one better. Ford's return as Indiana Jones is welcome, but a bit of a strain to watch. He is clearly 19 years older to match the 19 years since "Last Crusade", and isn't as nimble as he once was, but the fedora and leather jacket still fit like a glove.
Cate Blanchett is memorable as Irina Spalko, "Stalin's fair haired girl". She takes people prisoner left and right and seems to have no problem taking over a military base on U.S. soil. Nothing will stand in her way because she is so intent on her goal. She is a brazen woman, perhaps more so because she seems to have the unconditional support of her boss, Stalin, the leader of her country and a very powerful figure in the Cold War. She is a cultured woman and addresses Dr. Jones in a cultured voice, like most movie villains of yesteryear. She can also wield a mean sword and uses this weapon to fight off an attack by Mutt.
Speaking of Mutt, Shia LaBeouf is very good as Mutt. For a while, I have heard reports about rumors swirling on the Internet, about two aspects of this film. Unfortunately, these seem to be the worst kept secrets in movie history because both are essentially true. Mutt is Marion's son, but when he initially shows up to meet Dr. Jones, he doesn't know they are related any more than Dr. Jones does. Mutt is all sneer and attitude and LaBeouf seems to be channeling the spirit of James Dean or Marlon Brando. Mutt rides a motorcycle, wears a leather jacket and slicks back his hair with a comb dipped in soda pop. When Indiana says something Mutt mistakes as an insult, he grabs his switchblade in a threatening manner, threatening no one but himself. As the story progresses, they each eventually learn the truth. When it doesn't immediately register with Indiana, Marion tells him "It's not that hard, Indy."
And Spielberg clearly enjoys the work of the new, younger sidekick, so much so, he lets his inner child get the better of him a few times. Initially, there are a couple of ideas used in the story that seem fun, at first, but they are so overused they quickly become tedious. There are three or four such instances.
Karen Allen returns to play Marion Ravenwood, Indy's true love and it is nice to see her participating in the adventure. Ray Winstone plays Mac, Indy's partner in adventure and his role is meant to provide some complications, but it isn't deep enough to make a lasting impression. John Hurt plays Professor Oxley and he spends most of the film in a delusional state, spouting crazy information only Indiana seems to understand. Jim Broadbent has a small role as the Dean of the College where Indiana works.
When we finally get a clue as to the meaning behind the Crystal Skull (and as soon as you see it, you'll know what it is supposed to be), the rest of the story falls into place and the big finale makes sense. As much sense as anything in this type of story could. This involves the second Internet theory leaked a while ago. Again, one of the worst kept secrets in movie history. When we first see the Crystal Skull, which is quite early in the film, you have to be prepared to go along for the ride. If you aren't, nothing they do will make the film work for you. If you can suspend belief and take the ride along with the characters, you'll have fun.
Where will "Indiana Jones 4" fall in film history? That is up to you… and you… and you to determine. For me, it is all but impossible to make a film to rival the original "Raider of the Lost Ark". The third installment "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade", featuring Sean Connery as Indiana's dad and River Phoenix in a prologue as a young Indiana Jones, came close. Very close. The second installment, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" is widely acknowledged as the low point of the series. So, I would rank this fourth installment better than "Temple of Doom", but not as good as "Last Crusade".