Is this the proof that even-numbered Indy films suck?
Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is kidnapped by a militant Russian scientist named Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) to steal a classified artifact from (where else?) a secret government warehouse filled with such things. After a typically daring escape, Indy’s world is turned upside down by his accidental “red scare” association with the Soviets, but a greaser named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) puts him back on track with tales of a kidnapped colleague, a crystal skull, and an old acquaintance named “Marion” (Karen Allen, no secret there). Shortly thereafter, the heroes all realize that they are fictional characters, can pretty much do whatever they want, and watch the rest of the effects-heavy ending along with the audience before living happily ever after.
The legacy of Indiana Jones isn’t difficult to explain. It’s the story of a manly man who never changes, never loses, and never loses his hat. The secret the audience holds is that Indy is never really in danger because he’s a hero, but Indy doesn’t know that, so we suffer along with his every near miss wince, daring escape gasp, and sudden renewed hope for life. The problem with The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is that the author (yes, I’m talking to you, Mr. Lucas) not only inexplicably gives his characters the ability to succeed in doing anything remotely plausible that they attempt but criminally allows the characters to become keenly aware of this.
In the first place, the villain is devoid of mystery. Cate Blanchett’s Spalko appears, takes charge, but doesn’t take orders. Her henchmen are barely Star Trek “red shirts,” written to die in horrible ways while the heroes move on. Second, the beginning of the film plays directly into the plot. No independent adventure here showing us that Indy’s still got it; all this is part of the complete story. Finally, only once does Indy actually look likes he’s in danger, but it’s too early in the film and that’s a bad thing.
The credits identify one “George Lucas” as the writer here, so that’s where I’ll place the blame. The entire principle cast, from Harrison Ford to Cate Blanchett to Shia LaBeouf to Karen Allen, all are playing their parts to the hilt. But just before the start of the third act and just as the characters are really starting to feel like part of an Indy film, each character in turn suddenly realizes that there’s nothing they can’t do. Mutt figures it out first, then John Hurt’s character (hey look… the crystal skull is a get-out-of-danger-free card!) It dawns on Marion a few moments later for her to save the day, followed by Indy himself who even has the brass to count off the certain dooms they’re surviving. The heroes then simply walk to the last set location, watch the bad guys punished, and wait out the special effects until the credits roll (hey, it worked in Raiders, didn’t it?)
Sadly, upon returning to their happy ending, there’s no exposition or explanation for it. You left the country on the suspected Communist list, then you return with honors and complete forgiveness (I guess the top government brass saw the movie’s ending, too). Maybe we all put too much pressure on Mr. Lucas and Steven Spielberg to deliver the Indiana Jones of yesteryear, or maybe too much emphasis was placed on maneuvering Shia LaBeouf into taking over for Harrison Ford (which he could do just fine). The people with the creativity, connections, and the cash could have made anything on screen happen, but what we got instead looks like someone ripped off Chris Carter. Indy and his fans everywhere deserved better than this.
(one and a half skull recommendation out of four)