by TOM NIXON
There’s something kind of redundant about an Indiana Jones comeback. Raiders of the Lost Ark itself had the feel of a comeback, a revival of just about every old adventure trope injected with a tongue-in-cheek exuberance they didn’t have previously. Indy was supposedly past his peak even back then (“You’re not the man I knew 10 years ago.” “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.”), older and wiser yet sympathetically limited by age, and this leaves little breathing space for a conventional return focusing on the humorous trials of a veteran hero forced back into action. On top of this, my worry as I sat down in the theater was that the time since Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade has been too long; even a half-cooked Indiana Jones movie is likely to be a resounding success because fans have been starved of Indy goodness for so long.
With no real pressure for innovation or lasting stand-alone quality, that worry has unfortunately been realized to a tee; The Crystal Skull spends most of its time playing spot the reference across a story absurd, overblown and haphazard (a superficial extremity which didn’t make it any more memorable) even by Indy standards. Just about everything we’ve come to expect from Indiana Jones has been revived, but it feels as old and tired as a 64 year old Harrison Ford (and a diabolical 56 year old Karen Allen for that matter); the joy just isn’t there. Watching Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Last Crusade directly afterward, they’re so much more self-aware and tastefully referential – it’s supposed to be the other way around.
The plot is absolute nonsense, but complaints about this are nonsense in themselves; forging a cohesive, realistic Indiana Jones movie would be like setting Star Wars: Episode 4 entirely underwater. This time it’s not the Nazis who’re the problem but the Commies, led by a Russian psychic femme fatale (Cate Blanchett) in a quest for the lost city of El Dorado, which incidentally is inhabited by hive-minded aliens. Occasionally the story is given too much emphasis, with a strange and seemingly unresolved framing sequence about the feds being on Indy’s back, a painful wedding scene and Oxley’s (John Hurt) deranged riddles and portentous exclamations often lacking the humor they require. But even when the story falls into the background it’s inconsistent. The viewer is alienated by a repeated CGI-heavy rodent gag (which didn’t glean a single laugh from anyone in the theater, adult or child), some not so clever ‘50s tokens, lots of try-too-hard humor and a general sense that Spielberg, Lucas and co. are churning it out without an ounce of passion. When Jones says it’s “not as easy as it used to be“ he may as well be a mouthpiece for the makers, who struggled so much forcing the movie into fruition that the glee looks to have seeped out of the process.
[minor spoiler alert]
The contrast between the latest entry and the previous three is best exemplified by a father-son relationship paralleling the Ford-Connery duo of The Last Crusade. Where one was vibrant, chock full of chemistry and vibrant banter, the other is sterile, contrived. Sean Connery’s gloriously eccentric performance provided perfect counterpoint to Jones’ dry, fallible heroism, but an older more grumpy Jones is this time awkwardly accompanied by a Brandoesque biker (Shia LaBeouf) who turns out to be his son. Although it has its moments, there’s more humor in the line “I should’ve mailed it to the Marx brothers!” than in the entirety of their interaction, and the fact that we don’t discover the familial relation until deep into the film means that for a while the son feels like an unnecessary, poorly-judged sidekick. He’s not the only one either; Ray Winstone’s Mac is seemingly only there to repeatedly cry “JONESY!”, with increasingly obnoxious Cockney bluster as he crosses, double crosses, triple crosses then eventually dies much to the audience’s bemused apathy.
[end spoiler alert]
Thankfully it’s not all disappointing, and as is appropriate for Indy’s swansong the film is saved by a few outstanding set pieces, with classic expressions in spades from Ford. An extended chase scene contains a brilliant moment where Indy climbs off a motorbike into the Russians’ car through a side window, only to emerge through the opposite window and ineptly flounder back onto the bike. One insanely epic chase absolutely lights up the film, flying through the Amazon at breakneck speed complete with waterfalls, monkeys, massive ants, fencing, rope-swinging and just about everything else in Spielberg’s arsenal. At this point everything falls into place, with the cheesy little quips, slapstick violence, impossible stunts, grandiose score, kinetic visuals – hell, it almost feels like an Indiana Jones movie. Even the obligatory climactic crumbling of a mythical landscape, which includes among other things the emergence of a flying saucer, is sort of enjoyable despite containing some awful dialogue and generally being absolutely ridiculous. Like any Indy film, it’s at its best when it’s left to its action sequences.
The real shame is that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade provided such a perfect ending to the franchise, with the lovely shot of Jones riding off into the desert with his father after the revelation that he named himself after the family dog, and The Crystal Skull provides little justification for rousing that dog from its beauty sleep. Even Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was probably a more worthy enterprise, its darkness so theatrical as to be genuinely amusing, and some of the franchise’s more recent clones (take The Mummy as a primary example) also capture the Indy spirit with more accuracy. With a couple of exceptions Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a rather hollow echo of past glories, acceptable and watchable decades on, but no substitute for the real thing.