Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Review
Warning: The following review is spoiler intense. I'm afraid it proved to be unavoidable as I had far too many complaints. Feel free to scroll down for my overall summary.
It’s 1957 and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his friend Mac (Ray Winstone) find their situation compromised in the Roswell desert when soviet agents, led by psychic Irana Spalko (Cate Blanchett) force them to help locate the whereabouts of a mysterious artefact. Indy manages to escape their clutches and get back to Marshall College, where he learns that he must take an indefinite leave of absence as he‘s now feared of being a communist sympathiser. When heading for his next destination he’s greeted by a young man by the name of Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), who asks of Jones to help him search for Indy’s old friend Harold Oxley (John Hurt), a researcher who had once found a crystal skull of unknown origin in the mountains of Peru. Mutt desperately needs Indy’s help, informing him that his mother Marion (Karen Allen) has been kidnapped by those seeking the skull, in a bid to unlock its secret powers and put an end to the cold war.
I won’t bore you, dear reader, with talk of the Indiana Jones trilogy, childhood memories and how action films aren‘t the way they used to be. After all we all know the films, the man, the legend and so forth. So we’ll just get to the point.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull taps into mythology and historic events, just as the others before it did, but this time it places a far greater spin on the science fiction angle than ever before. It elaborates on the idea of Cold War Russia, with Joseph Stalin attempting to create a psychic army, while trying to unlock the secrets of an alien skull that comes from the mysterious city of Eldorado. It’s a strong idea, and one which could have been entirely captivating, had director Stephen Spielberg not decided to literally turn the franchise on its head. Maybe it’s just me, but I never had issues with Raiders’s Ark of the Covenant, Doom’s Indian stones and Last Crusade’s Holy Grail - each of which had strong religious and spiritual ties as a theme. However, I find myself struggling to accept the storyline here. A crystal skull: the head of an alien being who came to earth in his big spaceship and settled with his friends - the Mayan city itself being a mothership which has been cunningly hidden away for centuries. Christ, it sounds stupid just typing it out. What initially works in KOTCS favour is the general ambiguity of the subject, certainly during the arguably stronger first half of the film, which conjectures and supposes and rallies off tonnes of exposition; it feels like solid theorising which lays firm groundwork, alongside offering a fresh take with a Russian enemy set against the backdrop of an atomic age.
But David Koepp with his hand-me-down script and Spielberg overdo things; they just have to shove it in our face and explain away every little detail, and I’m not sure we really needed it. It’s during the second half of the film that things simply fall apart; the adventure stales a little; the humour wanes; the set-pieces are over elaborate, and most of them feature LaBeouf either sword-fighting on moving vehicles or swinging through the jungle like Tarzan. I kid you not, Spielberg actually throws in a monumentally embarrassing sequence with monkeys. Meanwhile, Indy - who is all we’re really paying to see - tends to hold his own in a few fisticuff battles, and about the most ridiculous thing he ends up doing is surviving an atomic blast while hiding in a refrigerator, which then goes hurtling miles outside of its blast zone. And that’s before mentioning the diabolical handling of Marion saving everyone by driving off a cliff and landing perfectly onto a branch which lowers them all to safety. Don’t get me wrong, I like big action and the Indy films are certainly guilty of offering a few big and dumb moments, but somehow this all just feels wrong. Suffice it to say I absolutely loathed the last twenty minutes or so when we’re expected to accept such an oddball plot device as inter-dimensional beings taking flight in their saucer. KOTCS only ever works when it’s more grounded in “reality”. Yes, that’s perhaps a stretch in terms of what we’ve come to expect, but this time around there‘s little to behold. The car chase across the rapids reminded me of the ridiculous Pirates of the Caribbean 2 wheel chase, while the deadly Ant attack seems to have been lifted straight from The Mummy. Moreover Spielberg directly lifts from the previous Indy films, so we have another terrifying waterfall drop x 3, which leaves very little in terms of innovation. The best parts involve Indy escaping from baddies in truly heroic style, backed by John Williams timeless anthem: the opening ten minutes being a showcase example where his quick thinking and wits get him out of a sticky situation, and then there‘s a terrific motorcycle sequence in which he and Mutt try to outrun their KGB pursuers. The stunt work is marvellous indeed, while some of the CG moments tend to distract, if mainly because they’re used for comic effect.
However, despite an abundance of flaws KOTCS does have its fun moments, and it’s thank to a superb ensemble. Seeing Harrison Ford back with the hat is wonderful. There aren’t too many heroes like Indy and it’s as if he never went away. Of course he’s naturally aged, but Ford plays up to it remarkably well and his mannerisms are as they always were. Likewise Shia LaBeouf proves to be a nice addition to the series, fully capable as Indy’s sidekick, whilst matching Ford’s excellent sense of timing. That his subplot about an estranged father and son feels like it’s taken from the previous instalment in the franchise seems to matter little as it brings things about full circle for our hero. Seeing Karen Allen most certainly brings a smile back on the face. She’s an infectious presence, and if I had any complaint with regards to Marion it’s that she just isn’t in it enough. It’s during the banter between she and Ford that the film tends to serve up its greatest moments. Somewhat more limited in scope is Cate Blanchett, who makes for a sexy and eccentric villain, who's ultimate demise feels all too familiar, while an underused Ray Winstone swaps allegiances every half hour, and we can all see the pay-off regarding his character a mile away.
In summary I wanted to love KOTCS, I honestly did. Hell, I enjoy all the Indy films. Raiders is about as close to perfection as you can get; Temple of Doom is lavishly shot and has a unique atmosphere all to itself, and while Last Crusade has just a couple of bumps it remains a highly entertaining feature on account of a very strong father/son dynamic. KOTCS, I’m afraid, has far too many bumpy moments for me to rate it as highly as I would any of the aforementioned films, but worse than that it actually leaves me bored. In the end its mythology just doesn’t sink too well; its action is fun but ridiculously over the top, while incorporating some pretty tedious humour. Seeing Ford in a passionate role again is great, but the script is just horrible, and you can truly believe that half a dozen people scrambled over the past two decades to come up with something even remotely shoot-able.