The Plot: After a debacle involving some Russians, a crate stolen from Area 51, and a nuclear explosion, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is fingered by the FBI as a possible communist spy. In an attempt to get out of harm's way, Jones meets up with a young greaser who goes by the name Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), insisting that Indy help him to locate his mentor and his mother, who have both been kidnapped as part of a scheme to uncover the mystery behind a legendary set of ancient crystal skull artifacts.
The Review: While I've never claimed to be the world's biggest fan of the original Indiana Jones trilogy, they are as much a cherished part of my childhood as Back to the Future, Star Wars, or any of the other major action/fantasy franchises of the eighties. I never necessarily wanted to see a fourth Indiana Jones film made, but when word of one finally began to come down the grapevine as more than mere rumors, I took notice and, like all other fans of the original trilogy, began eagerly counting down the days until it's release. Let's start with the good, shall we?
When he was in his prime, Harrison Ford was just about the coolest guy around. While not exactly in his prime anymore, he's still pretty badass. Very early on in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull I had a hard time accepting such an old, weathered face as Indiana Jones, but those feelings of hesitance quickly faded as Ford fell right back into the role he made famous back in the earl eighties. By the time Miriam Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Jones' old flame, made her first appearance in this film, Harrison had completely reassured my confidence in his ability to pull off the role of a wisecracking archaeologist adventurer despite his age and appearance. Speaking of Karen Allen, it took much less time for me to accept her once again as her character from Raiders of the Lost Ark. In fact, it took no time at all. She was great from the moment she stepped onscreen to the last scene before the credits rolled.
Notable new additions to the Indiana Jones mythos this time around were the evil Irina Spalko as played by Cate Blanchett and the previously mentioned Shia LaBeouf in the role of Mutt Williams. Blanchett, who has proven herself (in my book anyway) as one of the best actresses working today (in such films as The Life Aquatic, The Gift, Babel, and The Aviator), didn't disappoint. Her Russian accent was spot on for the passionate and evil character she was portraying, and her presence alone created a very memorably despicable villain. As for LaBeouf, he once again impressed the hell out of me in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Out of the eight performances I'd seen from him prior to this film, I hadn't disliked a single one, even in cases such as Constantine or Transformers when I either disliked the character he was playing or flat-out didn't like the movie. Despite his age, Shia is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors, and his performance in Indiana Jones is a perfect example of why that is. He can seemingly handle an entire range of emotions with believability and ease, his comedic timing is always spot on, and he's just a generally likable guy.
The actors aside, there are several other things that I greatly enjoyed about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Namely the action. Most notable is the truck chase sequence through the jungle leading up to the film's climax. The non-stop action and excitement of this scene along with the incredible ingenuity involved with it's set-up and execution fell right in line with the action scenes from all three of the previous Indiana Jones films. While watching it, it's hard not to recall the truck chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the mine cart chase from Temple of Doom, and the tank chase sequence in The Last Crusade. If there was a single moment during Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when my mind reverted back to the way it was in my childhood when I first absorbed those scenes in my youth, it was during the (majority of the) jungle chase scene. Another action sequence that sticks out in my mind as evoking the true tone and sensibilities of the Indiana Jones franchise is the motorcycle chase toward the beginning of the film involving Mutt and Indy attempting to evade capture by the KGB. Outside of the action, however, there are plenty of other nods to the original trilogy including the music and the use of montage scenes involving that little red line on a map showing the viewer where Indy and co. are headed next. Before your eyes glaze over in nostalgic delight though, it's time to switch gears from the good to the bad.
I'll start off light. The cartoony gophers or groundhogs or whatever during the desert scenes at the beginning of Crystal Skull? What the hell was the deal there? Those gophers did nothing but take me out of the moment and evoke bad memories of the silly crap that George Lucas felt the need to infuse into his re-releases of the original Star Wars trilogy. They were unnecessary and just plain dumb. Also along those lines were the giant ants in the scene directly following the truck chase through the jungle. I liked the ants and enjoyed watching them attack the Russian villains, but when they began building a little ant-ladder out of one another to reach Cate Blanchett's character as she hung from a vine out of their reach? Stupid. At that moment it felt like I was watching a Mickey Mouse cartoon. Also, let us not forget the Tarzan/Spiderman scene with Shia and the monkeys (and really, how could you?). It's moments like this one that are not only unlikely, but downright dumb, which totally ruin the tone of the movie. Yes, we're dealing with a light-hearted action/adventure tale, but Shia LaBeouf swinging through the jungle on vines with monkeys? Indiana Jones surviving a nuclear explosion by hiding inside of a refrigerator and being launched hundreds of yards through the desert? Bullshit.
Now that I've covered the good and the bad, it's time for the downright ugly. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had all of the cards stacked against it from the beginning. It's always a daring move to attempt to revive a series long after it seemed to have ended. It can be done as the most recent Rocky and Rambo films have shown us, but seems more likely to fail as proven by Superman Returns, The Godfather Part III, and Terminator III, among others. Seemingly, however, the people in charge of all the major decisions behind The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull just didn't want their film to be any good, and there's one very clear piece of evidence for this claim: the ending. Despite it's flaws, I was with Crystal Skull through the majority of the running time. I was willing to accept some hiccups in the plot and flow of the film here and there and actually (as evidenced above) ended up liking a lot of what the movie had to offer, but any respectability that Spielberg and Lucas put into their film was completely shattered by it's climax. I normally don't venture too far into spoiler territory in my reviews, but I feel compelled to delve into the specifics of what made this movie so bad.
Aliens. Okay, why not? I can deal with an alien skeleton here and there in an Indiana Jones movie. Thirteen alien skeletons morphing into one real live alien which triggers a giant inter-dimensional flying saucer to rise out of the Earth and warp into another reality? Fuck no. I'm sorry, but that's just not Indiana Jones. Indiana Jones is Nazis, ancient tribes, and ancient religious artifacts with mystical powers. Not aliens from another dimension which come alive and scowl at Cate Blanchett for no reason, causing her to disintegrate. At this point in the film the plot lost all validity for me, and before the credits began to roll I was already attempting to block this bastard of a sequel from my memory. In another movie, sure, this ending could have worked, but not in Indiana Jones. Harrison Ford stood atop an ancient temple wearing his fedora while a giant spinning spacecraft rose from the jungle floor and blasted out of our dimension and into the unknown. That's really all I can say to describe my dislike for the ending of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I realize that George Lucas has tried to validate this aspect of the film by stating that, just as the first three Jones films were throwbacks to the pulp adventure stories of the 1930's, Crystal Skull was an homage to the monster tales of the cold war era, but Indiana Jones is just not the correct outlet for that type of story. In my opinion, if they were going to change their genre so drastically, they needed to change their main character and the title of the movie as well.
The Verdict: Though there are redeeming factors about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, they don't come anywhere close to being able to out-shadow the embarrassingly bad ending of the film. There are little things here and there throughout the movie that I didn't like, but had the last ten minutes been drastically altered, I think I would have come away with a generally positive opinion of this film. As it stands however, I cannot bring myself to do anything but wonder who the hell okayed this script. Despite the best efforts of Spielberg, Ford, LaBeouf, Blanchett, and Allen, Indiana Jones was no match for aliens from another dimension.