By Jonathan Decker (Family therapist, film critic)
Rent Kingdom of the Crystal Skull here or buy the series on Bluray and DVD here.
Jonathan’s note: this film has not aged well for me. This review, written in the fervor of having a new Indy movie, is more favorable than what I would write today. I think Harrison Ford is great in this, but almost everything else in the movie doesn’t work for me now.
Where do I start? For nearly twenty years,the original trilogyhas stood alone, nearly perfect, and repeat viewings have cemented its virtues in the minds of nerds everywhere. For at least a decade, rumors of a fourth film have had fans salivating, anticipating, and hoping. This film had an uphill battle from the start: how do you measure up to ten years of rabid anticipation?
You can’t. So here it is. The Bad News- this is the weakest film of the series.The Good News: it’s still more fun than most movies you’ll see this year.The Great News: Ladies and gentlemen, Harrison Ford has got his groove back!
That’s right, having not had a hit since 2000’s What Lies Beneath, the a**-kicking, wisecracking, scoundrel with a heart of gold that you grew up with is back in fine form. Gone is the grumpy old coot who has phoned in performances in roles not worthy of him. Back is the iconic actor who thrilled you as Han Solo, Indy, Jack Ryan, and Dr. Richard Kimble. Harrison Ford actually gives a hoot! Not only that, but dude has been working out! He’s in better shape in his 60’s than most of us are in our 20’s and 30’s, and his action work in this movie will make you a believer. In spite of whatever flaws the film may have, the triumphant return of the Harrison Ford you know and love is reason enough to see the movie.
I’ll address right now the primary concern: lower your expectations. Deflate the hype and just enjoy the ride. See, the problem with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not that it’s bad. In fact, it’s quite good. But the series had (theoretically) ended on such a high note with Last Crusade, it’s a bit disheartening to see the series finish with a very good movie instead of a great one. Unlike the excellent Rocky Balboa, which redeemed that franchise by rescuing it from the awful Rocky V, Indiana Jones was not a franchise in need of redemption. However, if you’re Jonesin’ for a good new Indy adventure, this’ll meet your needs.
Some things that might be perceived as flaws in the film may actually just be departures from formula that I might appreciate more with repeat viewings. Specifically, the artifact in question is not a religious one, as in the previous films, and the narrative and tonal direction might be jarring to fans. In fact, the entire main plot is only so-so, and the climax, while visually stunning, seems out of place in an Indy film. It would fit just as well in National Treasure, The Mummy, or even The X-Files, and doesn’t carry the emotional or visceral punch of its predecessors. Plus, the film drags in the middle and some of it just doesn’t make sense (though the type of power the Russians are seeking, though seemingly far-fetched, is actually a power they really pursued).
So what does work? A lot, actually! First of all, the action is up to par, no small feat given Ford’s age and the fact that he did much of his own stunt-work. There is a fistfight with a big Russian that hearkened back to the old days and made me very happy. And, as each Indy film reveals something new about the character, the portrayal of an older, wiser, and more kindly Indiana Jones (who still kicks butt) is fascinating. As is the removal of the character from the 1930’s and relocating him to the 1950’s. He emerges here as a truly American hero, and the provided backstory of his life in the years since we last saw him (after all, WWII happened in that time) is wonderful.
I enjoyed the Russian villains. Shia Labeuf does just fine, and his chemistry with Ford is amusing. One returning character is most welcome, giving the film the emotional boost it needs. The post-climatic finale is sweet and crowd-pleasing, and while a few jokes fall flat, a lot of them stick, and I found myself chuckling often and enjoying a sprinkling of belly laughs throughout.
The use of CGI is not distracting, as it is primarily limited to shots where miniatures, stop-motion animation, and matte paintings would have been used in the original trilogy. We still get great, real-life stunts and giant, constructed sets. The creepy-crawlers are up to par with the previous films (spiders, snakes, bugs, rats, bats…now what? You’ll see!) Cate Blanchett is chewing scenery and fun as heck as a Russian villain.
Heads up: you do have to get into the mindset of enjoying over-the-top action for this. Like in Temple of Doom, where they jump out of a plane using a self-inflating river-raft as a parachute? Or Last Crusade, when the plane follows the car into a tunnel? Yeah, be prepared for some cheesy scenes that’ll make you roll your eyes unless you’ve got a fun, go with the flow attitude.
But when all is said and done…it comes back to Ford. The man is Indiana Jones, and it’s good to see him in the fedora and jacket, bullwhip in hand. The script may stumble a bit, the story-line may be a departure from formula, but with Spielberg and Ford at the helm (and clearly, for the first time in a long time, having fun!), the movie works. It has enough of the classic elements in place to qualify as an Indiana Jones film and earn its rightful place in the canon. *** (out of five).
For a better Indy movie than Crystal Skull, revisit Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There’s even some cool teaching moments for your kids in there. Rent it here.