I guess if you’re going to make a fourth installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, nearly 20 years after the third one, then Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is probably the best you can do. It’s a good film, entertaining and well-executed. It’s not a great film, and the team has done an admirable job downplaying its “second coming” abilities, because that’s never what it could have been. George Lucas learned that the hard way with Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Plus, much of the film’s strength plays on the unexpected. The story, it turns out, focuses on elements that have only been hinted about in past reports.
I’m gonna say what I can without revealing too much, but it’s rather interesting that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is as much about the Cold War and extraterrestrials as it is about archaeology and exotic adventures. It’s also by far the most sentimental of the four installments, a film about generations of family. Likewise, it ends up being the lightest in tone, not as sarcastic as Last Crusade and much easier to swallow than the dark flourishes in Temple of Doom. It seems unfair and uninspired to try and compare all four films and rank them in order of quality. Raiders of the Lost Ark still holds up, and is excellent filmmaking (some may have forgotten it was actually nominated for Best Picture back in the day). But to throw stones on what different installments may lack when compared to each other, is a waste of time. The first three were good films, delicious movie entertainment, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull joins them in that regard.
The film takes place in 1957, in the early days of the Cold War, and we learn quickly what Indiana Jones has been up to since we left him: he served in the OSS during World War II, he was involved in the Roswell UFO cover-up of 1947, faithful colleague Marcus Brody has passed away (actor Denholm Elliott is really dead), and so has his father (Sean Connery, on the other hand, is not). Also, we/he learn that Indiana Jones fathered a child with Raiders love interest Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). I’m just gonna come out with that plot point because, while it’s technically a surprise, it’s telegraphed from a mile away and it’s discovered in the middle of Act Two. That son is Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) who comes to seek Indy’s help to locate his mother and his adopted father, a former colleague played well by John Hurt. Indiana Jones and Mutt set off to Peru, in search of their loved ones, who have been kidnapped by Russian soldiers (led by Cate Blanchett). It seems that everyone is after an elusive Crystal Skull, an item with centuries of mythology.
Where did the Crystal Skull come from, and what power does it hold? This is the adventure, and for a great deal of the film, it’s an adventure you will be happy to take. Steven Spielberg puts the likes of Michael Bay, Bryan Singer, and Brett Ratner to shame. He reminds audiences why he’s “Steven Fucking Spielberg,” and few filmmakers have ever mastered an action sequence like him. Of course, like some of Spielberg’s recent work, there’s a problem with getting the whole damn thing to end. The last 30 minutes verge on overkill with so much noise and visual effects that you kind of lose sense of what’s going on. This is something that happens in many of the film’s otherwise enthralling chase/fight/action scenes. For example, the film’s first 20 minutes are unbeatable. It’s a smart, well-orchestrated overture to the story unfolding. As this terrific sequence comes to its conclusion, the suspense could not be more tangible. Then, using a nuclear bomb no less, this introduction wraps up in a spectacle of fantastic implausibility. You can’t go into this movie expecting anything but. This is the ride you paid for, and by god, I’m happy this ride exists.
So, you go with it, and you aren’t disappointed most of the time. Will Crystal Skull lead to another installment, perhaps with LaBeouf taking the lead? It does end with that implication, though the ending is saved from an overly sappy resolution, almost yelling at the audience: “No one can replace Indiana Jones!” And, that’s true. After so many Mummy and National Treasure movies, there is no substitution for Indiana Jones. In moments, not even Indiana Jones itself.