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Recently, I happened to catch Raiders of the Lost Ark on the Sci Fi channel, which, in the weeks leading up to the highly anticipated release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, had been ceaselessly playing the first three films in the Steven Spielberg-George Lucas-Harrison Ford canon. I have to say, it’s been at least two decades since I’d watched Raiders, maybe more, but I was instantly absorbed by the movie, partly out of nostalgia, partly out of admiration for Spielberg’s extraordinary craftsmanship, in his ability to take a complicated, seemingly unwieldy action sequence and cinematically render it with crystal clarity. From the big start with the iconic rolling boulder to the big, big finish in which the heads of the chief Nazis melt into goo like overheated candles, Raiders of the Lost Ark, which pays homage to the movie serials of yore, remains a timeless, joyful experience. It is one of Spielberg’s finest moments, one of producer Lucas’ finest moments, one of Ford’s finest moments. It is a fine, fine moment indeed.
Not so much Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Though this fourth installment — arriving some 20 years after the last outing, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade — is marginally better in spots than the first two sequels to Raiders, it is ultimately a letdown of a homecoming for the archeology professor who, outfitted with an iconic whip and fedora, moonlights as an adventurer.
It’s hard to precisely pinpoint the root of the problem. It’s certainly not star Harrison Ford, who, despite his advanced years — and all the tiresome jokes in the film pointing to said advanced age — slips effortlessly back into the character and gives the best performance he’s delivered in a decade. It’s the kind of performance that reminds us why he’s a movie star.
And it’s certainly not Karen Allen, who reprises her role as Marion Ravenwood from Raiders and brings a much needed snap, crackle and pop to the film at just the moment things seem to have deflated past the point of ennui. She is an enlivening force — and she looks great, to boot (if she’s had ”work” done, it doesn’t show) — and her kinetic chemistry with Ford is perfect. Allen, whose career has gone the way of the tumbleweeds since the early ’80s, looks positively gleeful to be involved with the project, and her glee is infectious. For a time, she alone convinces us that this Indy is a worthwhile endeavor.
The script by David Koepp is cluttered and indecisive. Koepp tries to capture the fear-of-communism paranoia that beset our country in the late ’50s, the period when this Indy is set, but he keeps getting sidetracked by other ideas. The result is an unfocused, bouncy mess. Koepp must adhere to the Indy formula, and by the time the wan climax rolls before us, the movie has dissolved into a froth of uninteresting CGI nonsense, capped by a final, revelatory line uttered by Indy that is laughable and foolish.
Spielberg is also to blame for the film’s shortcomings. His direction feels mechanized; he seems marginally interested in the material, but you can tell he’s outgrown it as a director. He’s still a master at constructing clear, concise action sequences, but where you could sense the director’s zest behind Raiders, here it seems like more of a ”Well, I’ll do one for the fans and then go back to my more serious projects.” Spielberg has spent the latter half of his career trying to escape the blockbusters that made him Hollywood’s heaviest hitter. His recent efforts, like War of the Worlds and Minority Report, have at least had an adult bent to them. He’s no longer a young director, and nowhere is that more apparent than in his approach to this Indy.
The opening sequence alone, set in a government warehouse emblazoned with ”Area 51” on the door, tells you that. It barely makes it out of the starting gate. There’s only one sequence in which Spielberg conjures every single iota of his action mastery — a thrilling, brilliantly executed jungle chase capped by an encounter with voracious killer ants and double capped by an encounter with not one, not two, not three, but four waterfalls. Woo hoo!
Then it’s back to the doldrums as the movie lurches toward its predictable big finish, a finish that suspiciouly feels like it was lifted from Stargate. Oops.
Another disastrous touch is the decision to make Shia LeBeouf, who plays Indy’s young sidekick, Mutt, into a pint-sized homage to Marlon Brando in The Wild One. To be honest, the movie feels like a mash-up of Raiders with Lucas’ American Graffiti and Spielberg’s own E.T.
Cate Blanchett, sporting a severe black bob and toting a rapier and an accent that continuously slipstreams from Russian to British and back again, is a letdown as the evil Russian scientist, Irina Spalko. She’s a less-than-memorable villain. But at least she seems to be having fun.Which, when all is said and done with this Indy, is more than I can say for the rest of us in the audience.