Theatrical review: Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

Writers have come and gone and there have been script tinkerings aplenty before Lucas, Spielberg and Ford could all agree. But now, with Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, everyone’s favourite archaeologist is back. Only he isn’t really…

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

2

Released: 22 May 2008
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: David Koepp
Cast: Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchettt, Ray Winstone
Distributor: Paramount
Running Time: 122 mins

It’s been 19 years since Henry Jones Jr last cracked the bullwhip in the misleadingly titled Last Crusade, and his return to he big screen has been fraught with setbacks. Writers have come and gone and there have been script tinkerings aplenty before Lucas, Spielberg and Ford could all agree. But now, with Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, everyone’s favourite archaeologist is back. Only he isn’t really.

Harrison Ford is back as Indy, but Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is no Indiana Jones movie, or rather, it’s not a Spielberg Indiana Jones movie. He may be the credited director but Kingdom has Lucas’s grubby mits all over it, the man responsible for the Star Wars prequels taking the reins to yet another of his other beloved creations to deliver the family-friendly over-the-top romp he’s so intent on peddling these days. And how over-the-top it is…

From the opening salvo where we’re introduced to the now pensionable Dr Jones, the stage is set. Outside a warehouse at an American military base in Nevada, Indy and best bud Mac (Ray Winstone) are hauled from the boot of a car by a bunch of Commies, (it’s the Fifties now and the US Cold War enemies replace the Nazis as the evildoers of the piece). He picks up his fedora, dusts himself off, and, under duress, complies with the Ruskies who want him to point the way to a rather important item in the warehouse they’re after. One haphazardly orchestrated set piece later, and he’s escaped their clutches, only for him to wander into a nuclear testing site, the detonation of a rather large nuclear bomb decidedly imminent. With the countdown nearing zero what does our hero do? He jumps into a lead-lined fridge in one of the empty dummy-populated houses. The bomb drops, everything’s incinerated, and Indy plus fridge are rocketed off across the sky like a shooting star, crash landing moments – and miles away – later uninjured save for a couple of bumps and bruises.

As the story kicks in, the levels of credibility are stretched to breaking point. New sidekick, Shia LaBeouf’s be-quiffed Mutt, rocks up to deliver a letter to Indy from an old archaeologist pal, kicking into motion this instalment’s escapades: racing the red menace to return an ancient crystal skull to its Peruvian jungle home, whereupon the Mayan relic will impart some form of divine knowledge or another (if the commies get it, their ‘armies of darkness’ will march all over the world, you see?). Tombs get raided, with Indy and Mutt encountering all manner of cobweb-drenched caves and passages and obligatory boobytraps, but with Lucas and Spielberg aiming to trump what’s gone before, both in the series and in the earlier scenes of the movie, the stunts and action Indy is known and loved for is ditched in favour of an escalating succession of ‘jumping the shark’ moments. Spielberg’s proclamations, too, that he would be keeping things old school – CGI free and stunt heavy – prove somewhat misleading, as Lucas’s ILM infiltrates every pore of the film, right from the opening shot’s bemused little desert ferret to Mutt’s swinging through the Peruvian jungle Tarzan-like with a group of screeching monkeys.

Previously, Indiana Jones movies were action adventure fare, driven towards a supernatural McGuffin. This time round, though, the emphasis has shifted with the sci-fi nature of the eponymous crystal skull tipping the balance in its favour. The shift in tone for the dusty archaeologist is in itself no bad thing, but it is the lack of flair with which it is carried off that breaks our hearts. The recreation of the Fifties is nicely handled, but the characters that populate the movie are one-dimensional pastiches masquerading as real people and this goes some way to explaining the toothless performances on show by the usually reliable thesps who turn out here. Cate Blanchett as psychic soldier Irina Spalko, John Hurt as the crystal skull-crazed Professor Oxley and Jim Broadbent as Indy’s dean at Harvard are all underused, Spielberg missing opportunities left, right and centre with the talent at his disposal. David Koepp’s screenplay (from a story by Lucas, of course, and Jeff Nathanson) misfires too, with too many jokes falling flat, and it lacks focus and direction; it charges out the blocks but loses momentum quickly, ambling when it should sprint, and the McGuffin-encounter finale is an anticlimax for Indy and his slapstick band of cohorts who’re along for the ride this time, which is an achievement in itself given the star-struck nature of its unveiling.

When the focus is back with the film’s two stars though, Ford and LaBeouf, there are shades of former glories with the interplay between the two recalling the best buddy-pairings of the previous films. Shia too holds his own, despite his Harley Davidson-riding greaser’s identity being one of the worst kept secrets in recent memory and the rather heavy-handed suggestion to Mutt-shaped adventures to come. Ford, though, about whom there have been grumblings aplenty regarding his ability to pull off the action hero role in his Sixties, settles the debate once and for all. Trim and in shape, he looks the part but, more importantly, he delivers the Indy we know and love; his hair may have greyed, but he’s still the rugged hero we remember and really he’s the film’s raison d’etre. The tone may be off, but when Indy plonks the fedora on his head and dons that leather jacket, it’s as if he’d never been away.

Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford had pronounced long before the film’s Cannes debut that Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull was a movie for the fans, and not for the critics. If truth be told, though, it is anything but; rather this latest Indy outing is a film for Mssrs Lucas, Spielberg and Ford. If only they had refrained from indulging themselves quite so much, perhaps they could have delivered a film that was more in keeping with the standards that previous Indy outings had set.