Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
By Les Winan
May 19, 2008
Watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a difficult experience. Make the mistake of watching the first three installments in the series and you risk getting your expectations too high. Make the mistake of not watching the first three installments in the series and you risk having your expectations set artificially high based on faulty memories.
Expectations for sequels and beloved franchises are obviously a mixed bag. Two relatively new franchises with good or great films already behind them, Spider-Man and X-Men, suffered horrible third films that seriously dampened my enthusiasm for the future of the series. The Batman franchise is being successfully rebooted after going horribly awry the first time around and my expectations could not be higher for the next film. Unfortunately, the Star Wars franchise might be the best comparison for Indiana Jones. Both franchises had long layoffs between the "final" movie in the series and the long-awaited sequel. Both have preposterously high expectations laid on them by millions of fans who have literally grown up with the movies. And both involve George Lucas.
I managed to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade over a 36-hour stretch before seeing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Ultimately, I'm glad I made that choice. My expectations - already high - would have been astronomical had I not gained a little perspective on the series. As it was, my expectations were still high. How can they not be? Even Temple of Doom, the film with the least consensus among fans about quality, is a remarkable blend of adventure, action and humor.
So how is Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? It's a good action film, with an intriguing and impressive cast. It looks great and with a two hour running time, moves along at a decent pace. However, it's missing a bit of the wit, charm, energy and fun of the first three films. Given the fact that we've been digesting, discussing and loving the first three films for more than 20 years, the fact that this film is not a colossal disappointment speaks volumes about how capable it is. But that it doesn't quite live up to what came before shows just how high the measuring stick is.
Let's be clear, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is by no means a disaster. It's not an abomination that desecrates the history of the franchise (Spider-Man 3, X-Men 3, Attack of the Clones). But watching it, you feel a little bit like Lucas, Steven Spielberg and even Harrison Ford, after years of watching their imitators, lost a little of what made the original movies great. Shades of Sahara, The Mummy and National Treasure creep in as they steal back what other films and franchises stole from them.
All of the actors involved do capable work. Cate Blanchett, in total scenery-chewing mode, is pretty captivating. As prepared as I was to hate Shia LaBeouf and his every breathing minute on film, both he and his storyline for the most part meld reasonably. Other than Blanchett, the actor who most seems in tone with the films that came before Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is Ray Winstone.
Oddly enough, Karen Allen and Harrison Ford seemed most out of character at times. Spielberg and Ford make an obvious choice to have Indiana Jones feel sentimental and react to events with that in mind. But somehow that doesn't seem to fit with the history of the films. Indiana Jones is sentimental about history, archaeology and culture. Indiana Jones has never been shown to be particularly sentimental about people in his life. Until now.
Making that choice is understandable given the nearly 20 year gap between the events of Last Crusade and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But it also saps some of the loveable rogue from the character. Harrison Ford, in his "biggest star on the planet" days as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, was able to pull off the charming, winking, smirking goofball roles better than anyone, and that spirit seems to no longer be with him. Indiana Jones always seemed incredibly capable under pressure, but also somewhat hapless. Oh, he might save civilization from the Nazis, but he'd take a heck of a beating in the process.
In Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, some of that is missing. The film generally is patterned like this: exposition, events, more exposition and more events, repeat. It works fairly well, paced without giving you time to notice the exposition...until you realize that the exposition tells you exactly what will happen next. And then it does. While Spielberg avoided a number of huge missteps (including one at the very end of the film involving LaBeouf), it's never good when you have the nagging suspicion that you were just a little bored with an Indiana Jones movie.
Ultimately, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull might be a movie that gets better on second viewing, after the expectations have subsided and even more perspective can be had. But hey, at least it's not terrible.