All the Indiana Jones movies open with the famous Paramount Pictures logo dissolving into some mountainous form, be it a South American peak in Raiders of the Lost Ark, an embossed emblem on a Chinese gong in Temple of Doom, or a dry boulder in Utah at the start of The Last Crusade. In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the long-awaited fourth installment in what may be one of the best franchises in movie history, the logo dissolves into a tiny prairie dog hill in Nevada located on the outskirts of Area 51. Perhaps director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas are reminding us at the start of the movie to keep our expectations low despite the arduous wait and growing anticipation we lovers of the series have endured. Still, the first frame of Crystal Skull is reassuring. To our benefit, those involved in resurrecting Indy after a 19-year hiatus have their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks.
Indiana Jones is back and he still kicks ass.
Crystal Skull delivers enough fun proving the naysayers wrong. It doesn’t match the unfairly high expectations Raiders of the Lost Ark
sets forth, which we all know is ultimately impossible. After all, we
are experiencing a movie that Spielberg and Lucas know how to do best. Crystal Skull makes all the imitators pale in comparison. Okay, so there are a few flaws but to complain about Indiana Jones is like complaining that your visit with an old friend went terribly awry because he or she wore the wrong shoes. Indiana Jones and the franchise itself is a throwback to those old-fashioned, B-movie matinee serials. (Buck Rogers, anyone?) The goal is simply to entertain and be swept away to another world. That doesn’t necessarily mean that filmmakers sacrifice quality storytelling. (Raiders, anyone?) Movies of this sort should be fantastical and off-the-wall—relentless in its adventurous spirit and bold in its often-implausible moments. We’ll go for the ride if the ride’s well worth it. These movies demand our imagination. Sadly, that’s the biggest obstacle Indy’s going to have to endure this summer. How can an old-fashioned adventure hero be relevant to the iPod generation, who’s perpetually plugged-in, apathetic and incredulous?
Ironically it’s technology that makes this movie less than stellar. For all it’s old-fashioned sensibilities, the use of CGI in Crystal Skull feel
painfully out of place, taking away the pure, visceral joy of what
makes an Indiana Jones movie—there’s no real, tangible sense of danger here, and the film suffers for it. Also, the dialogue could use a
little polishing. Perhaps screenwriters David Koepp and Jeff Nathanson try too hard to emulate the spirit of the earlier entries.
Crystal Skull is one gorgeous set piece after another, with purposefully garish lighting (very reminiscent of Last Crusade)
and out-of-this-world (literally) plot points. It’s now 1957, and the
bad guys are no longer the Nazi’s but the Commies. Dr. Jones is a
tenured professor who partners up with a young student named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) because their good friend Oxley, played by John Hurt, disappears while tracing the origins of this crystal skull—a quartz relic that evil Soviet agent Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) believes came from an earlier civilization, possibly form another world. On their quest, Indy and Mutt cross paths with one-time flame, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) who also happens to be (spoiler alert!) Mutt’s mother. There’s some healing to be had between Marion and Indy, and perhaps some secrets that need revealing. Throughout the film, we’re jampacked into loads of action, thrilling set pieces and lots of trap doors and hidden clues. The action is relentless. For example, when Spalko and Mutt cross swords above moving vehicles and other obstacles, it brings me back to the glorious action of pre-CGI movies—and I’m not just saying this as a fencer myself. It’s nice to see movies do good old-fashioned stunts again.
Thankfully, there are way too many strong points to overlook the weak ones. The best is Harrison Ford. Even if he’s older and wiser, his whip (and wit) still cracks and finally, Ford shines again in a role he was born to play. Composer John Williams and editor Michael Kahn give reliable work, be as they are Indy veterans having worked on all four films now. The supporting cast is great as well, with Cate Blanchett as the evil Ruskie dominatrix Irina Spalko complete with an over-the-top babushka accent. It’s also nice to see Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood. Shia LaBeouf tries to keep up with his older counterparts and succeeds most of the time, even if his sensibilities seem a bit too 21st century. His strength has always been playing the young sarcastic, uber-cool know-it-all which LeBeouf doesn’t really get to display here since he’s suppose to be a cool kid in the 1950’s. Speilberg tries to immerse him in the era, even giving him a grand entrance a la Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones, complete with the hog, jacket and tilted cap.
Indy IV could also be considered a coming-of-middle-age story. There are plenty of over-the-hill jokes about Indy’s age. Besides, Spielberg, Lucas and Ford made the first three well into their thirties. Now they’re in their sixties and still going strong. Perhaps, that’s the coolest thing about this whole Indiana Jones resurrection. Underneath the excitement and brought out by Indy’s constant fatigue and “I’m-getting-too-old-for-this” comments is a celebration of journeys traveled. Those of us old enough to remember experiencing any one of the first Indy movies on the big screen are probably too old to be going around celebrating an iconic character of our youth by gorging on the merchandise and wearing fedora hats at the mall. (Raiders is the movie that made me want to become a filmmaker.) But having Indiana Jones back now that we’re older reminds us that life is full of adventures, no matter how old or young. It’s one thing to be old and another thing to do it the old-fashioned way.
And sometimes the old-fashioned way is the best way.