I’m writing about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull after it has been out for a couple weeks and has probably already been seen by a pretty large percentage of those that were particularly enthusiastic about seeing it. Because of that, this is going to be a commentary rather than a "should you go see it" type of review and I’m not going to worry about avoiding spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film and still plan to, consider yourself warned.
I honestly can’t remember being this conflicted about a movie recently. I can definitely say that I enjoyed the movie and that I even am interested in seeing it again. At the same time, I’m initially did not feel inclined to say it really was a good movie. That is part of the reason why I didn’t get around to writing this until about 2 weeks after seeing the film. In fact, I’ve even gone back and revised this opening paragraph to be a bit more upbeat after realizing that the rest of my review is a lot more positive than I really expected it to be.
Right after seeing the movie, my first instinct was to tell various family and friends that this was the best movie I had ever seen that was made from a really bad script. As I’ve thought about it more, I even think the script was generally pretty good as I recall a lot of snappy and amusing dialog, some good character moments, and well-chosen action sequences. I think the real problem with the film is that the underlying story is very poorly conceived. I really do think that this may be the best example I’ve ever seen of a very talented group of filmmakers and actors making the very best of some pretty bad underlying material.
I’ve seen a lot of comments about how much mileage this movie was able to get out of nostalgia for the character and the earlier films, but I think that wouldn’t really go very far if there weren’t an awful lot that is right with the movie. First and foremost, it still looks and feels like an Indiana Jones movie. Although he played the character as noticeably older, and perhaps a tad wiser, Harrison Ford seemed to pretty effortlessly slip back into the role. I actually hope that other filmmakers will note his performance here and recognize that he is clearly still very capable of playing action heroes. I think he is an actor that has mostly been misused for the past few years.
It was great seeing Karen Allen’s return as Marion Ravenwood, even if she really didn’t have all that much to do in the film. The interplay between her and Indy was pretty much on the mark, really. It was very reminiscent of their relationship in the original film, but with some additional history. While it has been somewhat controversial, I was really happy with the decision to end the film with Indy and Marion’s wedding. I felt it was a good reflection of the maturity that both characters have achieved with age. I also thought it provided some appropriate closure to a series that I suspect probably really is finished, in spite of the various rumors to the contrary.
I do think that Shia LaBeouf was appealing and well cast as Indy and Marion’s son, Mutt, but I can’t really say that I thought the character came close to being distinctive enough to carry a film on his own as has been rumored. With that in mind, and considering how long it took to get Spielberg and Ford’s schedules to coincide (along with that of George Lucas) and all of them to agree on a script, I just don’t see too much of a chance of another film. I could be wrong about this (and almost hope that I am), but this really does seem like one final nostalgic return rather than the re-start of the series.
For the nostalgia factor, I was really happy to see the brief tributes to Marcus Brody (and, consequently, the late Denholm Elliot) as well as to Indy’s father. It was disappointing that they weren’t able to coax Sean Connery out of retirement for at least a brief cameo, but I was glad that they still found a couple very effective ways of acknowledging the character, particularly in the context of the new father/son relationship between Indy and Mutt. As for Marcus, I greatly enjoyed his sort of bumbling comic relief in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and, thus, thought it was absolutely perfect to end a chase sequence by having the bad guys run into his statue, causing the head to go through their windshield. That felt to me like a very sharp, highly in-character tribute.
The overall look, pacing, and rhythm of the film also seem right. While Steven Spielberg has really matured a lot as a filmmaker over the last 20 years, I think it is great that he still likes to periodically go back to the type of popcorn-movie that generally launched his career. If he had been making nothing but films like Schindler’s List and Munich in the years since the last Indiana Jones film, I’m not sure if he could have slipped back into this series effectively. I’m glad he still does occasional projects like the Jurassic Park films, War of the Worlds, and this one.
Some have complained that the now-standard use of CGI animation does give some of the special effects work in this film a less realistic appearance than in the earlier films, but I honestly didn’t really notice it much. I really wouldn’t say that the special effects work in the series ever really fit the definition of "realistic", regardless of the technique used. The effects may look a bit different this time, but I can honestly say that it wasn’t something that crossed my mind while watching the film.
I thought the action sequences and chases were very well-staged and, just like in the previous films, lots of fun. Yes, several of the sequences were completely absurd, but that is not only what I expect from this series, but a large part of its charm. I’ve been a tad surprised to see other reviews that have criticized sequences like Mutt’s Tarzan swing through the jungle or Indy surviving a nuclear blast in a lead refrigerator. Sure, both sequences were insanely over-the-top and kind of silly, but they also both put a huge grin on my face. I really think this kind of pretty much fearless over-the-top action is a big part of the charm of these films.
I’ve now talked a lot about what was right with the film. As I stated at the top of the review, my overall reaction to the film was pretty mixed mainly due to pretty serious story issues. To put it simply, I think the plot is just plain too complicated. The Indiana Jones films have pretty much provided classic examples of Alfred Hitchcock’s concept of a MacGuffin, the term he used to refer to the object that everyone in the film wants to find, steal, protect, or destroy. What that object is or does really shouldn’t matter at all or occupy much time or attention in the film.
In the previous films, the MacGuffin could be explained in just a few words, thus requiring very little of the running time for exposition and allowing the films to maintain a previously almost unprecedented pacing. In both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy was seeking Biblical objects that were already well-known to most people in the audience. Even those that didn’t already know about the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail could pretty quickly get the point when told that the ark was the box that held the tablets containing the 10 commandments and that the grail was the cup used by Christ at the last supper. The ark’s "power to level mountains" and the grail’s ability to grant endless life could also be explained quickly and easily. While the Sankara Stones that were sought in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were not a well-known artifact, the film pretty much skipped any serious explanation other than that one of the stones brought good luck to a village and that all of them would bring great power when brought together.
In the new film, the crystal skull of the title is essentially a MacGuffin once again, but this time they have given it a much too complicated back-story. To be honest, I’m not even sure I even entirely understood it by the time the film was over. As best as I can tell, the skulls belonged to alien visitors (I think inter-dimensional instead of from outer space) who were, apparently, the gods that were worshiped by the ancient Aztecs, who built their lost city of gold as a tribute. When brought together at the temple in the lost city, they apparently opened some sort of a doorway while also imparting psychic abilities or some sort of eternal knowledge to anyone who was looking into their eyes. It also, for some reason, triggered a launch of a flying saucer that either was traveling to space or to another dimension or something. Anyway, I think that not entirely-successful attempt at a description kind of illustrates the problem here.
The major impact of the over-complicated plot is that this film pretty much slows to a halt multiple times as it makes not-entirely successful attempts at explaining what was going on. Prior to this film, slow spots in an Indiana Jones movie almost seemed unthinkable. A big part of the problem is that even Indy’s motivations and role in the whole adventure become somewhat murky by the end of the movie, particularly after a scene where Indy briefly is forced to stare at the skull and then starts claiming that some of his activities are what it told him to do. In the past films, the characterization was really a pretty simple mix of a desire for "fortune and glory" and a somewhat overdeveloped sense of altruism, again providing an easy framework for action sequences fueled by dogged determination.
The problem with the story also impacted the effectiveness of some of the supporting characters. Cate Blanchett’s villain was particularly hurt by confusing characterization and motivations. I didn’t mind so much that her desire to find the skull was more based on personal ambition than loyalty to her Soviet leaders as that was a tradition that was pretty much established in the first film with Belloq, who remains the best of the series’ villains. The bigger problem is that it really was hard to figure out what those motivations actually were. We were given some indications that she had psychic abilities (or at least thought she did), but that didn’t really amount to much until the confusing climax. I guess she was ultimately seeking knowledge, but that aspect of her personality almost seemed to come out of nowhere at the end of the film. It certainly didn’t help much that Blanchett’s performance was a bit too cartoonish, with a pretty uncomfortable resemblance to Natasha from the old Bullwinkle cartoons…
Another weak link was John Hurt’s role as one of Indy’s old colleagues who had initially discovered the skull. By the time the film catches up with the character, he had apparently gone mad as a result of staring too long at the skull, but it is never entirely clear why that is or why he suddenly returns to normal at the film’s climax. The character is generally inscrutable to the point of being fairly irritating. I think the film would have been better off either eliminating the character entirely or having him remain missing (leaving clues) until the finale.
I will say that my initial reaction to hearing that the film involved aliens was generally not very positive, but I now don’t really think that was a bad idea. Necessarily, the film shifted the setting from the 1930s to the 1950s and a storyline involving aliens fits in pretty well with the types of serial adventure films from that time period. I think the big mistake was that they way overdeveloped the idea. Had the story involved a very straightforward and simple artifact that just happened to be alien in origin (instead of religious like in the other films), I think it would have worked just fine. The error was in seriously trying to over-explain the whole thing. We have long heard that Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford wanted to do another film, but it was long delayed by trying to get the right story and script. In a lot of ways, the end result really seems like the work of too many screenwriters severely over-thinking what needed to be nothing more than a lightweight framework for lots of action and adventure.
Despite these huge misgivings about the story, the good really does outweigh the bad here. As I said at the beginning, I have felt very conflicted about the movie and I think this review probably reflects that. Looking back at what I wrote, the first half reads a lot like a rave review and the second half reads like a pan. I think that does basically reflect the two sides to the movie itself, but what is good is so good that I would have hated to miss it. For me, I think it boils down to being glad that we got one more Indiana Jones film after all these years while also feeling like it was something of a missed opportunity.