Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

When it comes to “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” it can all be summed up with the thought the film could have been much better, but it could have been much worse.

It may have been wise of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford to temper fan expectations for this fourth and possibly final franchise installment to its title character as the main focus. When you set a gold standard for a certain type of film, you have to at least match in terms of quality that standard you set. And while there will be some who will be so overjoyed with the prospect of the first new Indy adventure in nineteen years they’ll be able to totally suspend their disbelief and go along with anything for two hours, I suspect there will be a number of fans who will be annoyed and upset at how much the Holy Trinity of the Jones legend take them and their love of the series for granted. “Raiders” was lightning in a bottle, a once in a lifetime event. A lesson many thought they learned when “Temple of Doom” tried to out-do “Raiders,” by allowing “Last Crusade” a different tone and speed of its own. With “Skull,” they try again not only to out-do “Raiders” but attempt to shoehorn modern special effects and a 1950s science fiction sensibility into the 1930s serial action genre. It all makes for a far too schizophrenic mix.

Now, I know I seem to have contradicted myself up there. I seem to want it both ways, and in fact I do. I wanted “Skull” to be equal to “Raiders” as an enjoyable popcorn movie and I wanted “Skull” to be its own movie in the process. In both cases, “Skull” fails. Many of the better set-pieces in “Skull” are dependent on incongruous set-ups. Early in the film, Russian agents, whom have kidnapped Indy, take our hero to a military base outside Roswell, New Mexico, in search of a carton within a warehouse that contains something they want. That sequence, filled with some of the best action sequences in the series, gets our hopes up for the film that this is the Indy movie we have been waiting for. The Roswell section ends with Indy and a Russian getting blown out of the warehouse on a rocket propelled escape vehicle during their fight, which seemingly only shoots them a few miles away (considering the remaining Russian agents are on the scene only a moment later to pick up their comrade). Yet, a few scenes later, after Indy has wandered into a nearby housing tract in the middle of the desert, our hero discovers he has actually strayed on to a nuclear testing site. Sure, it’s funny to watch Indy scramble as he tries to figure out how he’s going to get himself out of this situation, yet I was pulled out of the movie by the common knowledge all nuclear testing of the time was happening 875 miles and two states away from Roswell, in an area an hour north of Las Vegas. Nitpicking, perhaps. If this were the only discordant moment in the film, it might be forgivable. However, this is just one of many moments which are as groan-inducing as the emergency raft free-fall in “Temple of Doom.”

Nineteen years after we last saw Dr. Jones saving his father with the Holy Grail, the man has been through a lot. He joined the armed forces during World War II, won a number of commendations for his espionage work and developed a friendship with Mac (Ray Winstone), a British agent the good doctor has worked a number of missions with. By the time we catch up with Indy and Mac, they have been captured by the aforementioned Russians, led by secret agent Irina Spalko (a strangely coiffed Cate Blanchett, borrowing Natasha Fatale’s accent). Spalko is big into mental telepathy, and believes whatever the item they are looking for is, it will help their side win the Cold War by being able to tap into the minds of innocent Americans from anywhere in the world and have them start to see all things Red. Like the previous Indy films, the opening section of the film is a maguffin, that infamous Hitchcockian plot device which gets us into the action quickly but has little to (as in this case) nothing to do with the main thrust of the story. The Hovito golden idol. The diamond. The Cross of Coronado. Collectively, these objects had nothing to do with the rest of their stories. They introduce us to some of the major characters (Indy and Belloq, Indy and Willie and Short Round, Indy and his father) and give us that quick jolt to get us excited while we sit through the exposition to come. And like in “Raiders” and “Crusade,” our first stop after the first action set-piece is Indy’s classroom at Marshall college, where the dean of the college (now the great Jim Broadbent, replacing the late great Denholm Elliot) enters the classroom while Dr. Jones is giving a lecture, setting up what will become the drive for the rest of the film. The US Government is putting pressure on the school, due to Indy’s capture by the Russians, who are still after our good doctor thanks to a visit by Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), the son of one of Indy’s former flames, who along with another of Indy’s former teachers, has been captured by the Russians, as they feel they too can help them find this sacred object they seek.

Unless you’ve been living on Pluto for the past year, you already know who the woman is, and while it is great to see Karen Allen again after all this time, and looking at fabulous as she does, her character is easily the weakest part of the entire film. Her entire direction from Mr. Spielberg seems to be “grin like a schoolgirl with a crush.” The strong, feisty, independent young woman from “Raiders” has been replaced with a giddy fiftysomething tween in heat. Yeah, we always knew Marion and Indy would get back together, as Allen had the best chemistry of Indy’s lady friends. But why bring back the actress if you’re going to bring back her character in name onlyr It’s nonsense. Allen/Marion is back only because of the good will the character established with the audience twenty-seven years ago, good will the filmmakers need to get people re-excited for another Indy adventure.

As Indy’s main rival, Blanchett’s Spalko just does not cut an imposing threat. She is good with a sword, and we know that, in the hands of another screenwriter, Marion could kick Spalko’s butt in a heartbeat. But instead, David Koepp, working off a story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson, never give either major female character room to do much of anything. The mass of forest fire ants are more fearsome, with good reason.

And then there is Mutt. To quote Tom Hanks in “Big,” I don’t get it. Shia LaBeouf is not that engaging an actor, and he does not have anything close to Ford’s presence or charisma. Mutt is Marlon Brando’s “The Wild One” character put into the frame of a “Back to the Future” era Michael J. Fox. Which is not a slight on the talented Mr. Fox. I could never buy him as an action hero (something he himself seemed to know) and right now (and yes, this includes Transformers) I don’t buy from Mr. LaBeouf either. If this is the future of this franchise, let’s hope this franchise ends here, since well wasn’t left alone before.

I have a personal theory that no sequel should be made if you can’t get it off the ground within five years. Of course, there are always exceptions that prove the rule. For every Rocky Balboa, which is the best Rocky movie after the original because it dares to allow its hero to be an underdog, there are a dozen Godfather III’s. But after nineteen years, it’s no longer time to make a sequel. If anything, it’s time to reboot the series, or start a new one. Imagine Leonardo DiCaprio as an archeologist and adventurer on the search for some ancient artifact, who during his quest seeks the counsel of his mentor and teacher, Dr. Jones. Not being a major history buff, I’m not sure which real or mythological item I would have this character looking for, or in what era I would have set it in. But I can’t imagine it being any worse than what happens here.

Maybe somewhere down the line, I will revisit “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and find myself more receptive to the film than I did this time around. I know it wasn’t the presentation, which in the cavernous Paramount Theatre on the Paramount Studios lot, was second to none. I know it wasn’t the look and sound of the film, which also was expectational. it all breaks down to what seems to be a rush by three old friends wishing to work together perhaps one last time to get something into production while the iron was hot once again.

The only other saving grace I can think of is that, like with the other Indy pictures, we can now expect some of the best work of Harrison Ford’s career. “Raiders” was followed by “Blade Runner,” “Temple” with “Witness” (still Ford’s only Oscar nomination) and “The Mosquito Coast” (still my personal favorite performance of the actor’s), and “Crusade” with “Regarding Henry.” As his role in Wayne Kramer’s “Crossing Over” was shot before this new Indy film, we can only hope whatever he does next (still undecided as of this writing) will be the pinnacle of his career. As for Mr. Lucas and Mr. Spielberg, they each have only so many films left in them, and I pray those films are either more socially responsible or more entertaining than “Crystal Skull.”

A true disappointment indeed.

Rating: C-