“I’ve got a bad feeling about this…”. That phrase, so oft repeated in the original Star Wars trilogy by Han Solo (played by Harrison Ford) re-appears – uttered by Ford as the swashbuckling archaeologist/adventurer Indiana Jones – in the fourth installment in the Indiana Jones saga: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And unfortunately for us, the bad feeling is quite deserved. Hollywood as of late has had a rather odd penchant for taking childhood memories and crushing them. Actually, that’s not completely fair. Let me be blunt: George Lucas has not had the best track record since the 1990s. After decimating the Star Wars saga by giving us three prequels that not only didn’t deliver what could have been an awesome epic trilogy but also made us look at the original trilogy in a new (and not so positive) light, he decided to stick his fingers into Indiana Jones. Multiple scripts had been written over the past 18 years since the last outing in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and the biggest problem with the new film is that – given that we’ve waited this long – it’s not at all what it should have been.
Written by David Koepp, working off a story by Lucas and Jeff Nathanson, the final script not only has a rather lackluster storyline, but includes a few sequences from Jeb Stuart’s 1995 screenplay Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars. It’s not unreasonable to guess that many other sequences were from the other scripts; like they took all the previous scripts, found a writer who would take a paycheck to stitch them together, and then spit it out and film it. The basic story is thus (and note, this is not a spoiler-free review): After being betrayed by his former war buddy Mac McHale (Ray Winstone), Indiana Jones fights the Soviets led by the sultry psychic Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) in a race to find a mysterious crystal skull at the behest of “Mutt” Williams (Shia LaBeouf). It seems that the Soviets have captured Indy’s old colleague Harold Oxley (John Hurt) and Mutt’s mom, and are holding them captive until Indy can find the skull and therefore Akator, the lost city of gold. Turns out (big surprise) that Mutt’s mom is actually Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) who was Indy’s love interest back in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now they all have to go to Akator, return the skull and unleash some kind of ultimate psychic power that the Soviets want to harness.
Okay, sure. Even if you get beyond the absurdity of the storyline (hey, the Indiana Jones films were never about realistic plots – but they at least had some kind of emotional arcs), the film suffers from an overabundance of camp and “hey look at this clever wink-and-nod to the previous films”, and very little in the way of character depth and growth. Ford delivers his lines with a wry smile, and never did I feel that he was truly in danger. Even in the climax of the film, when the entire set is being destroyed around them, it felt like he was just moseying towards the exit. He never fires a gun in the whole film, and only really uses his whip in the opening sequence when he’s doing all sorts of stunts and maneuvers that were never depicted in the previous films. (It’s like R2-D2 suddenly having jet-boosters and being able to fly. What the hell?) Shia LeBeouf does a decent job playing a greaser teen, and even beefed up for the role. But there are so many questions about his character that it hurts to think about it. So he was raised in South America? How did he get up to the USA to find Indy? They blatantly hint that “Mutt” might take over the mantle and give us new adventures. I hope not; the character is uninteresting and a high-school dropout. John Hurt is completely wasted in this film, spending almost all of his scenes muttering and acting (as per the role) crazy. But then why hire him? Just hire some unknown actor, since it’s a waste of Hurt’s talents.
Then there’s Cate Blanchett, who sports an absurd and slightly inconsistent Russian accent (her pronunciation of “Doctor Jones” sounds full-on British) and while there is an indication of a more interesting back-story to her character, we never get a sense of it. There isn’t even a bit of romantic tension between her and Indy – and that’s another thing that’s lacking in this film. Romance! If you’re throwing Indy together with Marion again, why not make it more interesting? Instead, nearly every scene involving Karen Allen seemed to consist of her with her hands on her hips, and a dopey grin – as though she was just happy to be there, and acting again. There was no chemistry between her and Ford, and I wanted the feisty tough woman who punched Indy when first seeing him after he left her for 10 years. Now he left her for 20 years (apparently pregnant, no less!) and the most she can do is sit there and smile? Please.
Some of the action set-pieces are well done and certainly make for exciting cinema. The highlights include the warehouse chase, the college chase and the jungle chase. Stunt work seems to be pretty good, although with visual effects these days, it’s harder to tell what was done in-camera and what was tweaked in post production. Some of the effects seem a bit too CGI, and others seem very well done. There’s a bit involving a nuclear test that is right out of the Saucer Men from Mars script (as was the rocket sled and army ants sequences), and while the visual effects in the nuclear sequence are spectacular and excellent, they feel too good for this kind of film – and the absurdity of the situation is a true head shaker (as it was in the script 13 years ago). Even the climax of the film felt too slick for the film, not that I wanted it to look bad, but I wanted it to be better than it was. Inter-dimensional travelers? Oh boy. Don’t even get me started on the Caddyshack-inspired gophers, or the laughable vine-swinging scene with the monkeys. Yikes. And unlike the three previous films, Indy doesn’t get anything out of it (except a wife and kid, I suppose). In the first film, he got his gal and the Army got the Ark. In the second film, there was more of a moral gain when he freed hundreds of slave children. And in the third film, he reconciled his relationship with his father and gained “illumination”. Nothing truly gained here, except an excuse to make a spin-off series with LeBeouf.
The music, composed by series veteran John Williams, contains some new themes which are very good, and the score is solid. It doesn’t, however, have any major sequences that scream out “buy this soundtrack!” whereas the three other films had at least one (or even more) score bits that were so absolutely brilliant that you had to own them as soon as you left the theater. There is nothing on the level of “The Desert Chase” from Raiders, “March of the Slave Children” from Temple of Doom or even “Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra from The Last Crusade Instead, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has nice themes, plenty of underscore that suits the film, and even a few winks-and-nods to previous melodies. The Ark Theme is heard in the warehouse scene, though the first introduction of it seems a bit too foreshadowing since we haven’t exactly seen the warehouse at that point. The “Illumination” theme from The Last Crusade makes welcome appearances when we see photos of Indy’s father, and of course Marion’s theme shows up appropriately. It’s all well and good, but not something you gotta rush out and get.
And that’s the gist of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It’s competently crafted, but not anything you need to rush out and see. If you want nostalgia, watch the original trilogy. If you want a different Indy adventures, watch the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. If you want a hunt for the city of gold, watch National Treasure: Book of Secrets. Whoops, that didn’t come out right. But then again, neither did this new Indiana Jones film, and that – as Harrison Ford puts it – gives me a bad feeling.