INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL
directed by Steven Spielberg
area theaters, starts Thursday
Here's your hat, Indy, but, really, what's your hurry? Because 19 years after the Last Crusade that clearly wasn't, it's almost unfathomable that this hoary mishmash is the best that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg could cough up.
Have we learned nothing about disturbing dusty relics and mussing with primordial remains? These only lead to trouble—melted faces, some crazy dude sticking his fist in your chest, and, well, more melting faces. This time, though, an even worse fate lies ahead for trampling trespassers: National Treasure by way of The X-Files, only not as pleasurable as so dreadful a coupling would suggest. Bury thyself, Dr. Jones, and pray no one disturbs the corpse in this or any other millennium.
From humdrum start to shrugging finish, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull bears almost no resemblance to its three predecessors. It's absent the spark and spirit of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the grown-up menace and slapdash comedy of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the loose-limbed effervescence and emotional jolts of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It's hard to tell whether Spielberg and Lucas are trying too hard or not trying at all—the thing's such a mess, such an unmitigated disaster, that damned is the scholar stuck with the unfortunate task of deciphering this cynical, clinical gibberish in decades to come.
Much has been made of Lucas and Spielberg, and a cadre of screenwriters (including the solely credited David Koepp), pushing the franchise into the late 1950s—away from the Nazis and biblical collectors' items and toward the Russians and ETs. Early word suggested a film verging on summer camp, as creaky ol' Indy (Harrison Ford, looking not a day over 62) donned fedora and whip and Cate Blanchett slipped into dominatrix bob-cut bangs and borscht-scented accent for some outer-space trip flavored with the era's grade-Z conventions, just as the first films proffered yellowed pulp cliffhangers and widescreen smirks. But Crystal Skull is no fun at all—not for a single second, not even accidentally. Not even with Shia LaBeouf terribly miscast as Marlon Brando as the Wild One. (The Mild One? Sure, fine.)
The dialogue's drab when not absolutely dumb; the actors seem lost if not outright listless; the scant action sequences appear to have been filmed entirely in front of green screens, suggesting a movie shot during breaks from lunch catered in a studio boss's office. (Is anyone sure producer Lucas didn't actually direct?) And the storyline's a bunch of convoluted mumbo and pointless jumbo having to do with Russians and mind control and the mythical golden South American city of El Dorado, which, according to The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, may have been constructed by "visitors" who taught the locals how to, um, farm. Twenty years between offerings, and this is all that the A-team could come up with? Close Encounters of the Turd Kind?
"I'm making this up as I go," said Indiana Jones 27 long years ago, and Raiders possessed the kineticism of the improvised sprawled across myriad continents. Temple of Doom was more precise, from its beautifully choreographed opening sequence to its roller-coaster ride through a mine shaft—best sequence in the series, hands (and heads!) down. And for all its flaws as a Raiders rehash, at least Last Crusade allowed plenty of room in which Ford and Sean Connery could play a rousing game of comedic tag.
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is as joyless as its predecessors were blissful. Its sole intention seems to be the launching of a new franchise with LaBeouf's Mutt as heir to his father's fedora. And no, it spoils nothing to give away that LaBeouf is the son of Indiana Jones and Karen Allen's Marion Ravenwood, who appears late in the film and serves little function other than to grin like a schoolgirl at the professor who got away.
There is one rather brilliant sequence, set in a model suburbia that serves as an Army testing ground for nuclear bombs. We're reminded, in a blinding flash, that the Indiana Jones who bested the Nazis is no match for the atomic age. But random asides aside (including a few mentions of government witch hunts), the movie has no interest in exploring the morality of 1950s America or the mortality of Indiana Jones. It's just an exercise in creating instant nostalgia for boxed sets on sale at a Big Box near you. There are even references to episodes of the Young Indiana Jones TV show, about as close as the film gets to clever. (One sight gag, involving a familiar relic, didn't even elicit a chuckle among an amped-up preview audience last weekend.)
Still, Indy lumbers forward, surviving not only the copious attacks on his age—"What're you, like, 80?" asks a sneering Mutt upon introduction—but also one more chase in a hijacked truck carrying the key to global domination. This being a George Lucas movie, the dangers are almost entirely computer-generated now. The climactic pursuit through a South American jungle looks like it was shot on the forest moon of Endor, complete with ferocious CG monkeys. The monkeys, however, fare better than Blanchett, who has absolutely no idea what to do with her role. She's equal parts evil and incompetent, and she's the least dangerous villain Indiana Jones has ever faced. Turns out that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are far more threatening foes.