Film: Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Latest Lucas/Spielberg adventure fails to capture the old magic

May 21, 2008 at 2:06 pm
(L-R) Shia LaBeouf, Harrison Ford and Karen Allen in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Maybe some relics shouldn't be dug up. That was certainly the lesson in the earlier movies in the Indiana Jones series. And it's the lesson for the creators of the latest one, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Series co-creators George Lucas and Steven Spielberg re-team for the latest effort to rekindle the magic that launched Indiana Jones way back in 1981. Raiders of the Lost Ark shot onto the movie scene and into the veins of American culture like a Red Bull injection and was single-handedly to blame for suburban kids everywhere awkwardly learning to work a bullwhip.

Is it any wonder that the latest chapter — even one arriving some 27 years after the original — would be greeted with such high expectations and giddy nostalgia? But the sad truth is, with half-hearted storytelling and uneven direction, that this chapter might have best untold. Why damage a priceless artifact like Indiana Jones by moving him into the 21st century? The intentions were surely good, but the result is flat at best.

From the opening sequence (which is a tip of the hat to Lucas' own American Graffiti), it's apparent that Indy (Harrison Ford) has managed to survive into the 1950s.

And a new decade means a new villain for Jones: the Russians. Led by the game Cate Blanchett as Irina Spalko, the Commies want to get their hands on a secret item locked away in a warehouse with which Jones is familiar. He must lead them to it so that Spalko can use it to unlock the powers of telepathy and mind games for Stalin and his comrades.

But the secret item also has links to a legendary city made of gold, whose whereabouts have become a maddening quest for one of Jones' closest colleagues. Only when a motorcycle-cruising greaser named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) shows up to seek Indy's help in finding the old professor does Indy realize the connection.

Sound a tad convoluted? That's because it is. The narrative issues can probably be blamed on Lucas, who you'll recall had a grand time of turning the latest Star Wars trilogy into an intergalactic political scandal with more characters and backstabbing than he could effectively juggle. The same is sadly true here. For instance, Spalko is introduced as the Soviet's best and most deadly mind-reader. But then she never does anything with it.

The script isn't dreadful; there are a handful of tasteful odes to past Indy films, several eliciting a good chuckle. It's nice to see the dry humor carried through the decades.

Ford also manages the transition through the years. His Indy is just as feisty and physical as ever, albeit a hair slower and creakier. Must be that AARP card in his pocket, weighing him down. Still, he makes it work.

LaBeouf was tapped to join the franchise as its fresh blood after solid action work in last summer's Disturbia and Transformers, but he's mostly wasted here, given the "stand by and react" role too much. At this point it isn't spoiling anything to say Karen Allen returns to her role as Marian from Raiders. But even she and her trademark spunk that opened the door for empowered woman action stars is unforgivably wasted in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Spielberg shoulders some of the blame here, which is surprising since his recent films have demonstrated that he can still make a good picture. Sequences in War of the Worlds and Minority Report show that he still knows how to create action and generate pitch-perfect tension. Yet here he barely shows he still has game. Notable exceptions are the opening sequence in a secret warehouse and a motorcycle chase across campus. Otherwise, yawn.

Unlike Raiders, Spielberg relies entirely too much on CGI effects and too little on old-fashioned Saturday matinee stunts. The jungle chase sequence in the third act is ripped from the Lucas playbook, coming off like the Endor forest chase in Return of the Jedi. Ironically, the effect looked better back then. The topper is a flat-out stupid George of the Jungle homage that even LaBeouf can't make cool.

At the end of the day, the expectation and excitement for Indy's return stems from the brilliance of Raiders. Indeed, the Indiana Jones series is elevated and highly regarded entirely because of its original. Raiders is arguably the greatest adventure film of all time with its perfect blend of wit and action and intrigue and romance. Temple of Doom got too cutesy. The Last Crusade wasn't bad, but in truth, if it were the forbearer of the series, there probably wouldn't have been a sequel.

This is to say that anyone who remembers the magical moment they first saw Indiana Jones whip his way onto the screen is dying for a return to that moment and hoping that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull provides it. Unfairly or not, the movie ultimately fails because it can't deliver that return. Grade: C-

Opens May 21. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.