Staring: Harrison Ford, Ray Winstone, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, and Karen Allen
Written by: David Koepp (screenplay)
George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson (story)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
I remember the summer of 1989 very well. A lot of good movies that year: Tim Burton’s first Batman, James Cameron’s The Abyss, Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon 2, and of course, Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That’s right my friends, hard as it is to believe, it has been nineteen years since Harrison Ford’s whip-cracking adventurer literally rode off into the sunset. At the time, I was a teen-aged college student. Now I have a teenager of my own.
Indy and his creators (Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas) are all in the same boat. Nineteen years older, and with children who were not even born when that bullwhip last snapped across the movie screen. Together, they have dusted off the fedora and created a new chapter in the saga, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, ready to spark the imaginations of a whole new generation, and at the same time, rekindle those joyous memories of summers past in their parents and grandparents.
In the 1981 original, Raiders of the Lost, archeologist adventurer Henry “Indiana” Jones (Ford) said to his true love, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), “It’s not the years, honey…it’s the mileage.” Now 65, the years appear to have caught up with poor Indy, and the mileage is plainly visible on his face. His hair and trademark beard stubble have grayed; the desert sun has turned his skin to leather. But becoming a senior citizen hasn’t stopped him from getting into trouble.
Kidnapped by Russian baddie Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), our old friend Indy must help recover a fabled crystal skull and return it to a hidden temple in the Amazon, for the person who returns the skull will be given unspeakable power…or so legend has it. Along the way, Jones must once again rescue his maid Marion—this time, with the help of her teenaged son, Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf); battle giant ants and ancient traps, and prove that after all these years he can still pack a mean punch.
Seeing Ford and Allen together again is a real treat, and even after 27 years apart, the chemistry is still there. The script by David Koepp, however, gives their characters little to do but bicker back and forth. “But Mike,” you say, “they always bickered like that.” True, however, Raiders managed to allow them a few quiet scenes where they could explore their relationship rather than some musty old tomb. Here, Allen joins the action very late in the game, and the lack of a romantic moment makes the idea that these two could ever reconcile seem like a screenwriter’s contrivance more than fate.
Having the Soviets and KGB as villains is another great nostalgic touch, and Blanchett is clearly having a blast as the film’s #1 heavy. She is sensual, ruthless, as skilled with a sword as she is with a machine gun, and her plan for converting the free world to the ways of communism is truly insidious. Koepp’s script even suggests that she might have psychic abilities, but the film never bothers to explore them or put them to any real use.
And then there’s “Mutt,” a motorcycle rebel without a cause. Spielberg gave LaBeouf a copy of Marlon Brando’s The Wild One to study before filming began, and the young man appears to have done his homework well. The writing is never better in this film than it is when Ford and LaBeouf share the screen. Indiana Jones has always been a professor, but he has never acted like one before Crystal Skull. Hearing Indy calmly describe to Mutt the difference between dry sand pits and quicksand, as he and Marion slowly sink deeper and deeper, is truly priceless.
Steven Spielberg’s direction shows flashes of his brilliance. In the opening of the film, Indy is revealed in silhouette as he puts on his fedora. Later, a magnetic box is uncovered, and we suddenly see all the overhead lights pulled toward it. And during a campus chase scene, Indy is yanked into a speeding car by KGB agents, gets into a fistfight, then climbs out the opposite window onto the back of Mutt’s bike. But even a master like Spielberg needs a good story; otherwise a film becomes a bunch of loosely connected images with no substance.
As I watched the end credits, John Williams’ music slowly built toward the crescendo of the now famous Raiders march, and then…it just changed into something else altogether.
This is the problem with the entire film.
Koepp may have been credited with the final screenplay, but everyone from Frank Darabont (The Mist) to M. Night Shyamalan (Signs) has had a crack at the story over the years, and at times it feels as if George Lucas took the best parts of each draft, wrote them on index cards, and then threw them up in the air. Whatever order they landed in became their shooting script. FBI agents are brought in to investigate Indy as a communist, driving him from the university. One could say this was Spielberg’s allegory for abuses of power under the Patriot Act, but it is never explored. Then Mutt shows up to get Indy to leave the country, which he was going to do anyway. And still other characters seem to change motivation from one scene to the next, simply to push the plot along. It all leads to a climax that is not only anti-climactic, it feels as if it comes from a completely different movie—more X-Files than Indiana Jones.
Despite its many, many flaws, I found that I really and truly enjoyed myself while watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford may not have been able to resurrect everything that made the original Raiders of the Lost Ark such a classic, but they have somehow managed to channel its spirit—something the middle two entries in the saga sorely lacked.
So don’t look too deep into the Crystal Skull. Just fasten your seatbelts, hold onto your popcorn, and enjoy the ride. If you’re not whistling the Raiders march on the way home, I guarantee you that your children will be.
4 out of 5 stars.