For whatever reason there seems to have been a lot of negativity focused on the latest Indiana Jones film in advance of its release. In part that probably stems a bit from the mixed results of the Star Wars prequel films, another beloved trilogy that was revived in the early part of the decade. Perhaps fans thought they were in for another dose of disappointment. Yet another possibility is that the film went through many script drafts which have been circulated online . . . some of which were considered better than the final version by the fan community. No matter the reason, good will toward Kingdom of the Crystal Skull did not seem to be in abundance. As for me, I didn’t buy into that and was really looking forward to seeing the latest installment. I confess that I was hoping that Spielberg/Lucas didn’t produce a disastrous entry, as I thought Last Crusade was a terrific cap to the series. And I was a little hesitant about Shia Labeouf. Wasn’t crazy about Indy having a teen sidekick . . . and I’m not really a fan. So I finally got a chance to see this over the weekend, and my reaction is . . . complicated (spoilers ahead).
First off, is it any good? Short answer is yes. The film is well put together and is certainly entertaining. Harrison Ford does a great job as an older Indy. It’s clearly a role he has a lot invested in, and he steps back into it without missing a beat. If for no other reason than this the film is worth seeing, because at the end of the day seeing the character back in action is a blast. Better still, the film actually feels like it’s cut mostly from the same cloth. It literally could have come out in the 80’s (save for some of the more obvious CGI). It even starts with the old Paramount logo! That’s an automatic two stars and bravo to Spielberg/Lucas. I think that was part of what was so problematic with the Star Wars prequels – they just didn’t seem to flow with the previous films due to how they looked (and arguably perhaps they needed to be that way). Not so here. Crystal Skull perfectly fits into the series.
As for the rest of the cast, mostly high marks across the board. My reservations about Shia disappeared pretty quickly, and his interactions with Ford became some of my favorite moments. Even more so than the reunion with Karen Allen, which I never would have thought. Don’t get me wrong, it was great to see Marion Ravenwood again, but I felt Allen’s role was mostly reduced to goofy reactions and campy comedy. To be sure there was some of that in Raiders, but her performance felt more natural in that one (which was also likely due to better writing for the character). That being said there are some nice moments between her and Ford, and it absolutely makes her return worthwhile. Ray Winstone and John Hurt do fine with their characters also, but I must confess Denholm Elliot and John Rhys-Davies are sorely missed. These two do what they need to as supporting characters, but they just aren’t as dynamic as Indy’s previous circle. Not a deal breaker by any means, but noticeable.
And here comes the one moment where I’ll indulge in irrational criticism (please forgive me). I’m not a fan of Cate Blanchett. She has just never registered with me. The character she plays here is basically a one-note villain, and not particularly interesting. Sometimes a performance can overcome such a drawback, but that isn’t the case here. Granted no Indy villain has ever lived up to Belloq, but at least the others were a little more exciting in the way the actors carried them off. Amrish Puri was great as the menacing Mola Ram in Temple of Doom, and Julian Glover was also fun to watch as the slimy Donovan in Last Crusade. Maybe it’s just me, but I find Blanchett’s performance a little on the boring side. But what really sticks in the back of my mind is something that falls into the domain of those who saw early drafts of the script. While I never had an inkling about that, I did read early on that they were considering Mark Hamill for the villain in this entry! And I’m sorry, but that’s a hard piece of information to ignore. How cool would it have been to have Han Solo battling Luke Skywalker?!? Talk about your 80’s reunions! And if you ever saw Mark Hamill’s performance as the villain in Slipstream, you’ll know he could have pulled this off with flying colors. Major missed opportunity.
But as others have pointed out, you can’t really criticize a movie that never was. You have to judge it for what it is. Blanchett is bland, but she doesn’t destroy the film by any means. She turns in a serviceable performance that communicates she is playing a diabolical villain, even if that villain isn’t particularly interesting . . . or threatening for that matter. Yeah, she gets the drop on Indy and company a few times, but there’s never anything on the order of a) locking Indy in a temple filled with snakes, b) putting Indy into a trance and making him turn on his companions, or b) shooting his dad. Really she just kind of inconveniences him, and is ultimately responsible for bringing him back together with his long, lost love and newly discovered son. In retrospect she sort of did him a favor, so I’m not even sure at this point if she qualifies as a villain . . . but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.
Okay, so the cast is pretty good for the most part, with Ford doing a terrific job as Indy. How about everything else? Well, as far as I’m concerned the story is pretty solid. In fact, it’s really somewhat of a copy of Last Crusade. Indy is grudgingly recruited to help with a search for an artifact in order to rescue friends in distress (Hurt, Allen). A Nazi-like villain and duplicitous friend move him along the path to a mystical final act, where the villain chooses poorly. Indy and friends ruminate on their adventure, and ride off into sunset (in this case get married). End film. So if you like the setup for Last Crusade, you’ll probably like this movie. Truly, if anyone is complaining about the story as being out of line with the rest of the series I would question how long it’s been since they’ve seen the previous installment. However, while I’m fine with the story, I do have a few issues with the execution.
As I said earlier, this is an entertaining movie. Spielberg is an experienced hand when it comes to directing action/adventure films, and this is a competent piece of work. The problem is that nothing really stands out. I do love the beginning with the showdown in the warehouse from Raiders, but there’s nothing overly memorable here otherwise. Let me state upfront, that I recognize it would be difficult to recreate the thrill of Raiders. That is a one of a kind film, filled with wall to wall classic moments. It’s also, for lack of a better word, more “realistic.” That is the action and danger feels very real. For example during the truck chase sequence in Raiders, it really looks like Indy’s taking a beating. He even gets shot! And when he gets angry, you believe he’s angry. He brutally takes out a truckload of Nazis. The big jungle chase in Crystal Skull involves comic Tarzan/Errol Flynn antics that don’t carry the same punch. I’m not saying they’re completely devoid of entertainment value, they simply aren’t close to the same level as what we saw 27 years ago.
There’s just something uncompromising about the first installment that became distilled with each successive chapter. So by the time you reach Last Crusade it’s almost completely about the fun, with much fewer of those breathless moments. But even with Last Crusade, to which Crystal Skull is most similar, the high points stick in one’s memory - most notably with regard to the finale, where there’s real peril. Indy’s dad has been shot, and the challenges he must navigate to heal him are interesting and memorable. Particularly the choice among the grails. In Crystal Skull, the finale with the interdimensional beings feels empty – more an excuse for an effects sequence than anything else. I actually tend to agree with Lucas’s obsession about including UFO’s in the film due to the 50’s setting, but the way they do it is a little on the blah side. It’s not that it’s disastrous by any stretch, but there’s a piece missing that keeps it from being on the same tier as it’s predecessors.
The problem with sequels to “classic” films is that the bar is set incredibly high, and it’s a rare thing for subsequent installments to live up to expectations. In some respects it would be unfair to demand that Crystal Skull live up entirely to Raiders or even its sequel brethren. It adequately fits into the Jones continuum, and that in itself is a pretty fair achievement. I guess if I have any problem in terms of comparisons, it actually comes from a different corner. As my friend Joe Maddrey also talks about in his review of Crystal Skull, I found myself comparing Crystal Skull’s degree of success with the recent returns of other 80’s icons John McClane, Rocky Balboa, and John Rambo. In the case of McClane, the Crystal Skull blows away Live Free or Die Hard. The film had a great title, but it was watered down and turned the character from everyman cop into a superhero able to surf on jet fighters. In so doing, it bore little resemblance to what had come before. On the other hand Stallone scored big with Rocky and Rambo, managing to update those series almost perfectly. Rambo was a downright masterpiece in fact.
So as I’m sitting there watching Indiana Jones in the year 2008, I’m thinking about those films . . . and I’m thinking how much I wish Crystal Skull was the home run that Rambo was. It’s not that it’s bad or unworthy, but it just isn’t quite what it should be. Fun and entertaining? Yes. Great to see the character again? Yes. Respectable entry in the series? Yes. Return to greatness? Not quite. I never would have bet on Stallone over Spielberg and Lucas, but he really pulled it off. If I had to measure the difference in real terms, here’s what it boils down to. I will certainly make a point of watching Rambo again at some future date. With Crystal Skull I wouldn’t turn it off if it was on, but I probably won’t seek it out. Nevertheless, I’m very glad I saw it and have no hesitation in recommending it . . . especially for Indy fans (which includes me)!