Movie review by Greg Carlson
Considering the monumental success of the trio of movies that preceded it, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” needs little in the way of traditional movie reviewing: isn’t everyone going to see this thing? As one of the enduring adventure heroes of American movie culture, Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones, Jr. can be tough to beat. Perfectly inhabited by Harrison Ford in what is arguably his signature role, Jones is the Yankee antidote to the eternally smooth and competent James Bond. As constructed by Ford, director Steven Spielberg and creator George Lucas, Jones makes plenty of mistakes, takes a slapstick pratfall like Buster Keaton, and rarely knows what to say to an attractive woman. Luckily, he’s terrific with a bullwhip.
Just shy of two decades since the last appearance of the superhero archeologist, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” ages the story to 1957, throwing over Nazis for Cold War Soviet Reds. The movie jump-starts with a gleeful, high-speed, Rock and Roll drag race, the first of many signifiers of Lucas’ affinity for 50s pop culture. A squad of commies led by the striking Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) infiltrates Nevada’s ultra-secret Area 51 (identified onscreen as Hangar 51) to locate a crated extra-terrestrial that might hold the key to world domination. Can Indiana Jones put a stop to them?
“Crystal Skull” crams in near non-stop action to the detriment of detailed character, and everyone outside of Indy remains largely two-dimensional. Despite her memorable hairstyle and skill with a blade, Blanchett’s Spalko pales in comparison to Rene Belloq, even though both are adept at taking objects away from Jones. John Hurt’s loony, expendable Professor Oxley adds little, and Ray Winstone’s George “Mac” McHale switches allegiances so many times the audience loses track. Whippersnapper Shia LeBeouf, who first appears astride a motorcycle channeling Marlon Brando in “The Wild One,” makes a few too many age jokes at Ford’s expense. LeBeouf’s Mutt Williams certainly would have been a more interesting character had the script arranged for him to experience some sensual tension with KGB goddess Spalko.
The little romance that does creep in sees Indy reunite with “Raiders of the Lost Ark” love interest Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). Both Ford and Allen look terrific more than a quarter of a century later, but the script insists they start bickering immediately. This all feels a little forced, and a silly scene in which they nearly submerge into a murky, quicksand-like pit should have been trimmed entirely.
While “Crystal Skull” was winding through years of script revisions under a revolving army of writers, hopes were high that if it did get made, Spielberg and Lucas would – presumably for the sake of nostalgia – keep the CG to a minimum. No such luck. From the early appearance of a digital prairie dog to a climactic set piece that will delight some fans as surely as it will rile others, computerized fingerprints stain the movie to the point of overwhelming it. It is hard enough for some of us to accept Indiana Jones in the Atomic Age without the added distraction of busy special effects that cannot match the elegant, gravity-bound thrills that dominate the first, and best, movie in the series.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/26/08.