With the sort of blind, rabid hatred usually reserved for the likes of Jar Jar Binks and Peter Parker’s Spider-Man 3 emo hair, the forth Indiana Jones movie arrived in cinemas to quite possibly the most vitriolic audience response you could possibly imagine. Think I’m exaggerating? Ok then, answer me this, how many other movie releases can you name that’s inspired the creators of South Park to dedicate an extended rape joke in honor of it?
Uncomfortable animated homages to The Accused aside, while Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull isn’t quite the affront to the near-flawless franchise people make it out to be it’s admittedly pretty close – after all, it’s not every film that comes along who managed to find a new official term for Jumping The Shark thanks to the preposterous use of a fridge to shield against the destructive power of an atomic bomb (Nuke The Fridge, in case you were wondering).
It’s 1957 and rumpled adventurer Indiana Jones has been abducted by Russian spies and taken to Area 51 to dig out an artifact that has significance to their boss and strict bob and bangs enthusiast, Irina Spalko. It seems that Russian high command has plans for a crystallized, alien skull that has telepathic properties that could aid them in the paranoia soaked times of the Cold War and Jones has knowledge as to where to locate it, but after causing maximum damage the archeologist manages to escape only to find himself blackballed by a suspicious FBI. Before he can adapt to this new development he’s approached by a motorbike riding, youth with the handle of Mutt who looking for his help in locating his kidnapped mother and father figure who are also mixed up in this skull-based conspiracy and soon the two are bonding on their way to Peru to solve the mystery. While negotiating haves and clashing with those pesky Russians again, both Indy and Mutt suspect that there may be more of a connection between them that they first realised. As the mad chase to return the blinged up skull back to it’s resting place heats up and Indy and his growing entourage traverse waterfalls, killer ants and crazed natives in order to reach a mythical lost city, no one can possibly predict what they’ll find at the end of their adventure. Mainly because it’s a bit stupid…
In the face of such unfettered anger that exploded the second the film dared to open with a shot of a CGI prairie dog, time has unsurprisingly shown that some of the backlash was a little bit unwarranted. Spielberg may have been somewhat out of practice when making a breezy action adventure movie thanks to decades of crafting darker, harder edged blockbusters such as Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report, but his eye for a inventive set piece is still evident – the problem is that he and Lucas seems to have complety lost touch with what made these movies great in the first place. The easy place to place blame was the use of CGI for certain things but that’s always been a somewhat of a cop-out answer to me; no the real issue here is Lucas’ insistence on crapping on his own franchise by stubbornly demanding to awkwardly cram a science fiction flavour into proceedings and Spielberg’s inability of talking his friend out of of such bullshit despite freely admitting in interviews that he thought it was a bad idea. Big George is well versed in making bad decisions when returning to classic properties (it took him three attempts to get those prequels right for God’s sake) but why on earth would Steve sign off on this nonsense if he didn’t believe in it?
Enabling behavior aside, Crystal Skull, like it’s aging protagonist, trots when it should sprint, rambles when it should shout and expects us to care despite some ernest box ticking. We are served the requisite big, complicated vehicle chase at the end of the third act, a giant henchman to trade haymakers with and a squirmy encounter with some phobia triggering beastie (giant ants this time around), but everytime it feels like the film has finally found it’s groove, it screws things up by dropping something idiotic on us out of nowhere. Be it the legitimately cringe inducing part where Mutt swings with CGI monkeys and leads them to attack his enemies, to the aforementioned scene where Jones uses a home appliance to endure a nuclear blast (yes, the series is a regular home to some truly far fetched moments – but a fucking fridge, guys?).
Some scenes manage to land, however, with a small comedic bit dedicated to Indy’s ophidiophobia causing him an issue when a snake is used as a lifeline in order to save him from quicksand but any semblance of balance or goodwill the film has managed to sustain up to the directionless finale flies right out the fucking window when an actual flying saucer turns up and cements the fact that the only legitimately memorable moments in this film are the bad ones…
The cast similarly struggle: Harrion Ford fare pretty well and is admittedly in great shape for his age but rarely shifts out of second gear for the action but it’s genuinely great to see Karen Allen’s Marion again. However, the ability to maintain a Russian accent seems to be a rare chink in Cate Blanchett’s acting armour and both John Hurt and Ray Winstone strain against not have that much to do except talk nonsense or be shifty, but it’s Shia LaBeouf who has to endure the worst of it as the Brando-esque dipshit, Mutt. To be fair, it’s not entirely his fault as Hollywood was insisting on cramming him down or throats at an ungodly rate thanks to his breakout role in Transformers, but having him poised to be a possible future stand in for one of the greatest action heroes in cinema was simply a step too far and the moment he dares to even think of picking up that legendary fedora and putting it on stirs a primal and unnecessary desire in you to see his hands broken for the character’s sheer audacity.
As I said before, the problem is not that Spielberg can’t make action films anymore, it’s just he can’t make THESE kind of action films and that his career and style has moved on from the innocent romps of the eighties where you could melt a Nazi or throw a screaming cult member to the alligators with reckless abandon and not have a care in the world. The guy who made Jaws and Close Encounters made those films, not the guy who made Schindler’s List and Amistad and expecting him to go “backwards” in his career to recapture his former glories was perhaps being unreasonable; but either way this is a disappointing plummet in qualities since Indy previously rode off into the sunset at the end of his last crusade.
Regrettably, the belated return of cinema’s greatest adventure turns out to be a case of tomb little, tomb late….