Director: Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, Munich)
Story: George Lucas, Jeff Nathanson
Screenplay: David Koepp
Starring: Harrison Ford, Shia Lebeouf, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 124 min
This review contains spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Oh, where do I begin? Where do I begin? Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull is a movie I’ve been waiting for over the course of most of my young life. Throughout the years, I’ve watched the movies literally hundreds of times. Nothing before or since has ever captured my imagination the way these had. During my childhood, I’d go out in the woods and pretend I was Indy, running from imaginary boulders, swinging on the rope tied to a tree branch in my backyard across make-believe snake pits, always saving the damsel in distress. Through my teenage years, I’d dress up as Indy for Halloween and often use his sarcastic one-liners in every day conversation. When it came time to go to college, the movies were much of the inspiration behind my choice to study history. Even as recent as last summer, when I heard there was an extras casting call for the Crystal Skull, I couldn’t resist going, despite the five-hundred mile drive. Needless to say, this must been kept in mind when reading this review. These movies are a huge part of who I am, as weird as that may sound.
So, it’s true that I had some high expectations for this. Maybe blindly high, but I felt I had little reason not to trust Spielberg and Ford. Even in the week before it’s release when my brother – another die-hard Indiana fan – revealed to me that he was a little worried with the latest TV spots, I stood firm, convinced there was no way that I couldn’t love this. Granted, I expected nothing on the level of the other three movies, but I expected something enjoyable and fun to finish off the series with a bang. Yet, once the credits began to roll, “enjoyable” and “fun” weren’t the first words to come to mind – and it kinda hurt. This is probably the most scattered, difficult review I’ve written, but bear with me.
One of the best parts about the Indiana Jones franchises is the interesting supporting characters, whether sidekicks or villains. In Crystal Skull, the supporting characters, besides Shia LaBeouf’s knife-wielding greaser Mutt Williams who I thought was both a good character and sidekick, are all weak. Mac, played by Ray Winstone, is a throwaway, undeveloped, completely forgettable sidekick. We get a few glimpses into he and Indy’s past together, but I just wondered why they didn’t just bring back an already developed, staple character like Sallah (who criminally didn’t even get written an appearance or even a reference in this movie)? John Hurt’s Professor Oxley shows signs of being an interesting character, but they only give brief explanations of his connections, and he and Indy never have that moment or conversation where we see how close they had actually been, like it was hinted at. Cate Blanchett is fantastic with the little she’s given as the Russian soldier Irina Spalko, but overall, she’s probably the least memorable of all of Indy’s main adversaries and her intentions are unclear. Even Marion becomes only a shell of her Raiders self (maybe it was the twenty years of motherhood, who knows). The biggest problem is that with the new characters, they are just there and they chose not to delve too deep into their relations with Indy – there are few scenes of the subtle character-driven, intimate conversations that break up the action in all the other movies – such as Indy’s conversations with Belloq, Marcus Brody, Walter Donovan, or Elsa.
Harrison did fine as an obviously older, more tired, more conservative Indy – a man becoming far more similar to his father than he’d ever want to admit. It felt like a natural progression for his character, especially as he was given the “father” role in this movie. Still, some of the charm that made Indy perhaps the most memorable character in American film history was missing though, but I assume a lot of that was due to the script itself, not Ford. Unsurprisingly, just like with the other movies, he is the best part of the film.
There are so many particular instances in this movie that left me cringing. The one I assume will be the most talked about it Shia LaBeouf swinging effortlessly through jungle vines amongst dozens of CGI monkeys – monkeys that somehow knew to attack only commies and not the good guys. It is a moment that goes beyond silly (a word that can describe much of this movie) to just mind-numbingly painful to watch. Hey, I know – it’s Indiana Jones, so I expect and want unbelievability and some over-the-top action and I’m all for suspension of disbelief, but the movies always had a way of having the fantastical feel grounded in reality. This really threw that right out the window.
The prior movies had situations that felt like a guy such as Indy could really get himself into and out of and there was always so much tension – something that the entirety of this movie lacks. But here, giant carnivorous fire ants began to devour and drag commies into their underground lairs. It’s not that it’s unbelievable, it’s just that it was plain stupid and relied 100% on CGI. Then Marion drove the car, with everyone in it mind you, over a large cliff, landing it on a CGI tree that bent to let them land safely in the river only to have it snap back to take out some commies. Besides the ridiculousness and pure cartoony feel of it, I can think of absolutely no reason why Marion was motivated to make that decision and risk all of their lives like that. It didn’t make sense and I questioned why it was in the movie at all. At times during these action scenes, I wasn’t reminded of the past Indy movies, but the last two movies in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy or another installment of The Mummy where the action gets a little too over the top and there never seems to be much at stake during the scenes, thus reducing any sort of tension that might be felt otherwise.
On reflection, I guess it’s safe to say that my biggest problem is where they decided to take this story, a personal preference by all means, as they seemed to take it to the places that I had verbally in the past hoped they would stay away from. In fact, I hated where they took the story, at least during the second act. I understand that Lucas was trying to transition from 30s action-adventure serial to 50s b-movie sci-fi… but I don’t understand why he chose to do so. The first three movies are the former, so why throw in such a loopy b-movie Sci-Fi channel worthy story here? Indy dealt with supernatural before so it’s not that I think it falls in the realm of unbelievability because that’s what Indy is all about, but interdimensional aliens? I mean… really? I couldn’t even crack a smile during the last act of the movie that was so unsatisfying while there was in internal struggle within me as I was trying my damnedest to like what I saw, but I didn’t. I just plain didn’t.
There are parts I thought worked well, of course. The Russian villains were a natural transition, fitting both the time period and making an appropriate replacement of the Nazis. The whole McCarthyism aspect was cool and relevant. I enjoyed the allusions to what happened between Marion and Indy, something that every Indy fan has wondered. In fact, I didn’t even have a problem with Mutt being Indy and Marion’s son like I thought I would – and the Marshall College motorcycle chase was a classic action scene that I really found myself enjoying. The opening action sequence was pretty cool too with some pretty solid one-liners from Indy (“Put your hands down will you? You’re embarrassing us.”)
I try to keep an open mind, but the amount of CGI was to the point of infuriating. This may bug me so much because of Spielberg’s constant insistence that it would be kept to a bare minimum. I had very little problem with the CGI backgrounds and there was a place for other uses, but the moment during the opening scene that I saw the CG gophers (honestly, what was the point of this?), I knew we were in trouble. There was just so much pointless CGI that seemed to have no purpose other than to distract me.
Which leads into other problems with the visuals. With cinematographer Douglas Slocombe – who did the first three movies – no longer working (and pushing 100 years old), Spielberg stuck with his now regular DP Janusz Kaminski – a brilliant man in his own right- but it just feels all off. I’m not an expert in the technicalities of the craft, but I have a general sense when something feels wrong – the cinematography, the lighting, all of it. It certainly didn’t look bad or amateurish by any means, but it certainly didn’t feel like Indiana Jones and it assisted in giving the movie an unreal, completely different feel from the other movies.
To sum it up and reading over what I just wrote (which really is more of a scattered fanboy rant than a review), this just didn’t feel like an Indiana Jones movie to me. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, they just don’t make movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark anymore. I really didn’t hate the movie, but the word that sums it all up is disappointment. Maybe as I watch it more and more and with a more open mind, I’ll soften up on it and leave many of my criticisms behind, but as it stands, all I can feel is a deep, heavy feeling in my chest that this was a sloppy mess of a sequel, something that shouldn’t happen after nineteen years in the making. I will undoubtedly have to catch this two or three more times in the theatre to see if I will warm up to it (and I hope I do) and see where this will ultimately stand alongside the other films – or whether I’ll just try and forget it altogether.
Until then, I cannot possibly give this score an accurate star rating.