I still remember the night in 1981 when, at age 13, my parents took me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you're a serious moviegoer, you remember these kinds of moments as touchstones in your life. I sat in my seat at the local shoebox-y mall cinema, but mentally I was somewhere else altogether. I laughed, I was thrilled, and I felt the kind of exhilaration that defines the term "movie magic." Each Indy sequel was greeted with an intense and equal enthusiasm. My friends and I could barely pay attention in school on opening day of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom because we were all going to see it that night. And it just so happened that I went to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on my 21st birthday. How's that for a present?
So here we are, almost 19 years later (how is that possible?) with the big screen's most beloved archaeologist returning once more with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Excuse that puddle of liquid on the floor. It's just me drooling with excitement.
I put myself on a media blackout prior to seeing the movie so that none of the surprises would be blown for me. In that spirit, I'm going to provide only the most cursory of plot descriptions, with no significant spoilers.
The new film opens with a moment that reminded me of George Lucas' classic American Graffiti: a group of teens joyrides through the desert in a vintage car, rock music blaring from the radio. This lets us know that it's now the 1950's. When we first see Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, obviously) in that same desert, he's a bit older but still just as rugged as ever. Indy's been kidnapped and brought to Area 51, the famous site of a supposed alien spacecraft crash. A Russian military leader named Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) wants him to locate a mysterious object inside a government warehouse. Spalko is a hardcore Commie with a strong interest in the paranormal, and it doesn't take Indy long to realize that her motives are considerably less than pure.
We don't initially get a good look at what she forces him to dig up in that warehouse, but itís clearly otherworldly. After a daring escape, Indy returns to the classroom and is soon sought out by a young man named Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf), who is like something out of a James Dean movie: slicked back hair, motorcycle, switchblade in the pocket. Mutt informs Indy that an old colleague, Professor Oxley (John Hurt), is in grave danger, having apparently made a rather earth-shattering discovery. The two travel to Peru, where they follow clues left behind by Oxley. This leads them to find a crystal skull that, according to legend, has magical powers and points the way to a lost city of gold. Given that Spalko begins pursuing them relentlessly the moment they find it, the skull clearly also has a connection to the item she sought in the Area 51 warehouse.
Indy and Mutt then try to find and rescue Oxley, foil Spalko, and return the skull to its place of origin in order to find out its real purpose. Along the way, they encounter Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Indy's love interest from the first film, who has some very special ties to the situation.
Despite how it may read, I really haven't told you much at all about the plot of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. There's a lot more to it than that, but half the fun is discovering these mysteries for yourself.
Whereas the earlier Indiana Jones films found inspiration in the old serialized cliffhangers of the 30's and 40's, Crystal Skull, as a friend/colleague pointed out, draws inspiration from the sci-fi flicks of the 1950's. Aliens, the fear of Communism, and A-bomb paranoia (the seeds of those pictures) all provide the basis for excitement, suspense, or humor here. While the whole template of the series remains intact, director Steven Spielberg, producer George Lucas, and writer David Koepp have found a way to move the character into a different decade with its own set of era-specific challenges. I'm tempted to blow something right here, but I'm not going to. Just notice where Indy ends up immediately after the opening warehouse chase and consider how clever it is to put this character into such dangerously unfamiliar terrain. This sequence is one of my favorite movie scenes of the last few years. Dropping Indy into the 1950's was a masterstroke that opens up a world of new possibilities.
The Indiana Jones pictures have always been built on thrill-a-minute excitement, and this one is no different. In addition to the scene I alluded to above, there's a brilliant motorcycle chase unlike any I've ever seen before in its inventiveness and quality stunt execution. Later on, Indy and crew face roiling rapids, hostile natives, booby-trapped catacombs, and, of course, snakes. There's also a sequence involving ants that is almost guaranteed to make your skin crawl. One of the other major set pieces is a jeep chase through the jungle, where various characters hop from one vehicle to another while playing "hot potato" with the skull. Spielberg perfectly recaptures the nail-biting, we're-never-out-of-danger pacing that has been a trademark of this series without it ever feeling like he's repeating himself.
And, man, is this movie funny! If you keep your eyes and ears peeled, there are some hilarious in-joke references to the other Indy adventures. A lot of the banter between Indy and Mutt is witty as well. Shia LeBeouf was an inspired choice for the role of Mutt. I'm at a loss to put it into words, but somehow he seems like exactly the right fit for this series. Like Harrison Ford, he's got an everyman kind of action hero appeal, as well as a talent for deadpan comedy. While on the surface they may not seem all that similar, LeBeouf and Ford are, in many ways, cut from the same mold.
This, of course, brings us to Ford himself. The actor has not had a lot of luck on screen in the last few years, often appearing in movies that were ill-suited to his strengths (Hollywood Homicide) or which he seemed to be sleepwalking through (Firewall). Watching Crystal Skull, you can feel Ford becoming reinvigorated again as he puts on the famous fedora and grabs the bullwhip. You know that sense of relaxation you get when you take off your Sunday Best clothing and put on a T-shirt and sweatpants? Well, Ford exudes that sensation here. He's obviously loving the chance to step into Indy's shoes again, and he's every bit as charismatic and archetypal in the role as he ever was. It's good to be home again - for him and for us.
Indulge me for a second here while I get a little defensive. Any time a movie is as heavily anticipated as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is, there are going to be people waiting to slag it. I'm not talking about folks - critics or audience members - for whom the film genuinely does not work; I'm referring to that weird contingent of people who try to proclaim their own coolness by attacking something they just know a lot of others are going to enjoy. Their gripes are predictable, and I'd like to address them up front. There's too much CGI. Yes, there is CGI, and had there been back in 1981, Spielberg would have used them in the original. Why should he not use all the available tools to tell his story? The CGI looks unconvincing in some parts, particularly the jeep chase. No, it doesn't, and I think it was intentional. In spite of modern effects capabilities, the film wants to maintain the low-tech look of its cinematic forefathers. Harrison Ford is too old. Blatantly untrue. As he's aged, the character has aged, and the story has fun addressing that. Aliens? Really? Sure, why not? The series has always been about exploring the mysterious and unknown. What could be more mysterious and unknown than that?
I'll admit, the movie is not perfect. The plot is, at times, just a tad more complicated than it needs to be. And the Crystal Skull is perhaps a less interesting artifact than the Lost Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail. The truth is that no film will ever equal Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's one of the classic movies of all time. But Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is easily in line with the two other sequels. It gives you exactly what you expect action- and humor-wise, while still finding new elements to include. In terms of tone, I'd say it is probably closest to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
In other words, it's a total blast from start to finish. Maybe there will be some disappointment from viewers who, after 19 years, expect this to be the Greatest Movie Ever. It's not, so get that out of your system now. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is exactly what it should be: a solid, thrill-packed, immensely entertaining chapter in one of the most enjoyable adventure series in movie history.
( 1/2 out of four)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is rated PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images. The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat