Fedora? Check. Bull whip? Check. Five o’clock shadow? Check. Trumpet fanfare? Check. Gratuitous fist fights and chase scenes? Check. Crazy Rube Goldberg traps? Check. Preposterous pseudo-mythological plot line, characters with assorted accents, angry natives, and at least one scene involving a snake and/or snakes? Check, check, check, and check! Nazis with guns? Well … no. But there are plenty of Commies with guns to take their place, so the formula remains intact.
I’m talking, of course, about the long-awaited Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull …
(The following review is all qualitative, and does NOT contain any spoilers.)
When we last left Indiana Jones, the year was 1938, Hitler was collecting supernatural objects of power in his bid to conquer Europe, and Indy had just saved his father’s life by using the Holy Grail. Fast forward to 1957. Indy is still teaching archeology, still hunting for and digging up artifacts, and still staring down the barrel of a machine gun on a regular basis. During the Cold War years, he’s supplemented his adrenaline quota by taking on part-time work as an American spy, but for the most part, not much has changed.
As well all know by now, part of the formula that Lucas and Spielberg have used with these movies is to establish early in the film what they call a “MacGuffin” — a plot device that motivates the characters and advances the story. In the first movie, it was the Ark of the Covenant, in the second it was the Sankara Stones, and in the third it was the Holy Grail. This time around, it’s something called “The Crystal Skull,” and while I won’t spoil exactly what that is for those who haven’t seen the film yet, suffice it to say that it’s an object of (alleged) power, and the search for it begins in Nevada and ends in the jungles of South America.
Indy’s posse for this adventure includes Mac (one of his spy buddies), Mutt Williams (the “greaser” sidekick played by Shia LeBeouf), and Indy’s ex-flame from the first movie, Marion Ravenwood (played by none other than Karen Allen). On the other side of the table, his nemesis is Soviet agent Irina Spalko, played with a suitable amount of over-the-top-ness by actress Cate Blanchett. As an older sidekick, Mutt comes off far less annoying and more self-sufficient than Short Round from the second movie, while at the same time serving as a good exposition device for the audience. Meanwhile, as a strong female character who has great chemistry with Indy (and isn’t married to the director), Marion is a godsend as the romantic interest.
Overall, I was quite pleased with this installment. It kept me hooked throughout, and Spielberg did a great — and very deliberate — job of making this film “feel” like the first three in the series. He and Lucas apparently went out of their way to NOT have this look like a 21st century movie, shooting on film instead of digitally, keeping the CGI to a bare minimum, and relying on old school stunt sequences wherever possible. Their goal was to create the sense that this was shot just a few years after The Last Crusade. I think they succeeded at this, and for me, it’s a definite strength. But I’ll be curious to see if other audiences — especially younger ones — will consider this a weakness.
Another intriguing aspect of this fourth installment for me was the introduction of various science fiction elements to the Indiana Jones mythology. I can’t really go into this much without revealing important plot points, but the distinction I’m making here involves the use of certain sci-fi elements in place of or in addition to the spiritual and supernatural elements we’ve all grown used to with this franchise. For me, it added an extra layer of interest, and seemed perfectly in keeping with the time frame in which the film was set — during the early years of the Atomic Age.
Also, I have to give a BIG thumbs up to the marketing team for this movie. As much as I’ve complained about the prevalence of the theme song lately, I was pleasantly surprised to find that 90% of the footage and trailers I’ve seen for this were burned off in the first 20 minutes of the story. Which left a ton of major action sequences and plot reveals that were completely fresh and new to me. So kudos for that. (Meanwhile, the trailer I saw for Hancock — which I’m kind of interested in — seemed to give away the entire movie.)
Is Kingdom of the Crystal Skull far-fetched in spots? Definitely. Will you roll your eyes at some point? Probably. Is it as good as the first movie? How could it possibly be? But pound for pound, I felt it was a solid action flick, made all the more satisfying for me by my own nostalgia for the character, for the basic premise of the series, and for this old-school style of movie making. Like an old friend I haven’t seen in two decades, it was great to spend some time visiting this universe again, and even better to walk away from the visit not feeling hugely disappointed.
WARNING: While I avoided spoilers in the review itself, there are definitely some in the comments. So if you haven’t seen the movie yet, read beyond this point at your own peril …