Delays, disagreements over scripts and a general concern that Harrison Ford would be too old to be Indiana Jones nearly 20 years after the last in what was a classic trilogy of adventure films should have been enough to suggest a fourth entry could be too difficult to bring up to the high standards George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had set for themselves. Now, here it is on the big screen, but only following close scrutiny by all parties that this package did the famous franchise justice. Ford, Lucas, Spielberg, a script by Spider-man and War of the Worlds writer David Koepp and a cast including Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Shia LaBeouf and Karen Allen gave us hope they were right. Sadly it’s not the case as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull only just manages to better its own copycats The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001). What a sad state of affairs.
George Lucas claims the key to a great movie is the MacGuffin — a plot device that motivates the characters and gets the story going. After Indy’s hunts for the Ark of the Covenant, ancient Indian village stones and the Holy Grail, now Lucas brings us a search for a crystal skull in the shape of an alien’s head. This is a strange choice for an Indiana Jones film as X-File-style references to Roswell and the sinking feeling it will all go a bit Close Encounters of the Third Kind at any moment don’t fit well with the archaeologist’s usual concerns, yet at least there’s still the same amount of tomb raiding and a hunt for a lost city. Of course, it’s not the same with the Russian army replacing the Nazis as the main foes, but the sense of something missing haunts this updated Indy.
This isn’t going to be the Indy we are used to seeing.
The energetic set pieces which kick-started the initial three films is lacking here, replaced by a laboured set up to introduce Indy’s latest adventuring pal Mac (Winstone) and the Russians as the bad guys led by a scary, black haired Blanchett as taskmaster Irina Spalko. When Indy finally makes his escape the obligatory whip action stutters into life as he jumps around an uninspiring warehouse setting with little of the humour which once set it apart from other action movies. When he finds himself amid an atomic testing site, it becomes apparent this isn’t going to be the Indy we are used to seeing.
In a bid to mask Ford’s age, Indy has been transported to the 1950s and is a war veteran with friends in the US Army — namely a man called General Ross in a cameo from Alan Dale. Seeing him quizzed by FBI agents and addressed as a colonel removes much of the fun atmosphere that came with the original trilogy and causes the story to stagger along with attempts to fill in the gaps since The Last Crusade merely perfunctory. When LaBeouf shows up to tag along as bland sidekick Mutt Williams, Indy loses much of the status that comes from taking centre stage and gives the impression he’s lost his edge in the field. Even the appearance of Allen to reprise her Marion Ravenwood character from Raiders of the Lost Ark fails to inject the sexual tension his love interests normally bring to the films. Rather, she serves as another plot point like the wasted Hurt as the crazy Professor ‘Ox’ Oxley who leads them to a finale more fitting with a sci-fi flick.
Even considering the burden of expectation sitting on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it fails to come reasonably close to what have been half way acceptable as an update. It does offer a very impressive action sequence through the Peruvian jungle and Spielberg has retain the look of the previous outings, however what is missing is that magic innocence Indy once embodied of a boy in a man’s body searching for adventure. Ford looks as though he feels out of place and the fact the film had a difficult production history gives it that committee feel of too many ideas being shoe-horned in to try to please too many executives. Or at least George Lucas. Like the Star Wars prequels, Lucas probably thought his experience would serve him well when in fact he lost the golden touch a long time ago. You’ll probably come out hoping the third film in The Mummy series will be better as the imitator gets the chance to surpass the previous master. That, in itself, is a disappointment and is another example of how frustrating Hollywood’s obsession with updating or remaking whatever proved successful years ago threatens to undermine its rich history.