This past weekend I, like many of you I’m sure, went to see Harrison Ford revisit his signature whip and fedora in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. As someone who grew up watching the original Jones trilogy and all its glory, it’s safe to say expectations going in were high.
As a child the adventures of Indy and friends were exciting to watch and re-watch over and over again. Sure the films dealt with magic, mythology and a real-life super hero who always seemed impenetrable from bullets and lots of blows to the jaw (nobody takes a punch to the mouth like Harrison Ford). The action and stunt work was always top-notch, the films featured a welcomed sense of humor, and Spielberg and team always managed to tie in a bit of historical relevance to the storylines. While Crystal Skull had the majority of these aspects going for it, the film ultimately fell short of being anything more than just enjoyable due in large part to a laughable script, pointless and uninspiring side characters and silly CGI special effects.
It could be said that the fourth Indy film was done too late in the game for star Harrison Ford and perhaps Spielberg himself. The last shot of Indy and friends riding off into the sunset on horseback in 1989s The Last Crusade left the Indy saga open for more adventures but also gave viewers a nice bookend to a solid trilogy of films. Flash-forward almost 20 years and we now see a weathered and more moody Jones taking on the Soviets in a race for some mysterious skulls.
To be fair Crystal Skull is a fun summer blockbuster, possibly one of the better ones this year. It has all the popcorn thrills one could ask for and manages to provide fans with some inside jokes and pays homage (the Ark of the Covenant makes a cameo in the film’s opening warehouse scene) to the film’s predecessors. Still whereas the past Indy films garnered the luxury of being enjoyed on multiple viewings, Crystal Skull seems destined to end up as a fluffy, forgotten film in Spielberg’s repertoire joining the ranks of The Lost World and War of the Worlds. Doubtful that it will receive the same longevity as his other summer blockbusters like Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark.
So what happened? Crystal Skull had the potential to be something great. It manages to answer the question about what Indy has been up to all these years. Indy seems wiser and more comfortable with the sticky situations that arise (although he still maintains his, “I don’t believe in fairy tales” mentality when it comes to key plot points). Even the plot, which seemed questionable at first, references real beliefs and historical mysteries.
Where Crystal Skull lacks is in the basic essentials of filmmaking, which is surprising for someone as accomplished as Spielberg. For starters the dialogue is weak and lacking any substance. Gone are the memorable lines of the past films (“snakes, why it have to be snakes”); instead we are spoon fed corny jokes and one liners. Then there are the supporting players. The exciting prospect of this film was the return of Marion, Indy’s love interest/partner fromRaiders who unfortunately seems to just be along for ride and lacks any sole purpose in the plot. The same goes for the great John Hurt who appears as a rambling professor whose sole duty is to lead Indy and gang into another action sequence.
Indy’s new sidekick Mac, played by the wonderful British character actor Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast and The Departed) who is usually a scene-stealer, does little that is memorable and seems like just an afterthought of a character thrown in to the pot for the hell of it. Even Cate Blanchett who is at the top of her game currently, does little with the maniacal, sword wielding Soviet operative she embodies. What happened to the great creepy villains like the sleazy Nazi who melts in Raiders or the crazy dude from Temple of Doom who pulls people’s hearts out with his bare hands? Okay, the latter was a bit silly.
Then there is Shia LaBeouf’s turn as Mutt Williams, the fearless little punk who also does very little for the plot and seems to be featured merely as a way to remind viewers just how old and slow Indy is. Many people despise LaBeouf and while the actor is not great he’s also not horrible.
Harrison Ford does a good job reclaiming the Indy role and it shows that despite his current career slump he’s in the guy knows how to do action movies. Characters aside, the biggest let down of Crystal Skull is over-reliance on CGI effects, the likes of which are often too unbelievable, even for Indy world.
Watching Crystal Skull it’s hard to not draw comparisons to George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, which were highly anticipated, like Indy IV, but suffered from a focus on special effects wizardry instead of a quality story.
The technological advancements in the special effects department have given filmmakers the ability to take audiences to places they never thought they could see on a big screen, and Spielberg is no slouch when it comes to CGI. Jurassic Park for example took the new radical technology and created a suspenseful and credible science fiction film. With Crystal Skull, however, very few computer-altered scenes truly stand out as amazing and only hinder the already unbelievable plot. CGItechnological is a filmmaking tool like anything else that must be used with restraint and care. Too many CGI heavy films, particularly super hero flicks, are ultimately forgotten because they merely provide more of the same mediocre effects.
The past Indy films benefited from eye opening, old-fashioned stunt work (done by real stunt doubles, remember that!) and over the top action scenes that still managed to remain somewhat believable (I don’t know about you but I could probably out run a large boulder). With Crystal Skull the special effects seem to have been used as nothing more than an easy way to get the job done and ultimately take away from the thrills that the previous films provided viewers.
Take for example the large fire ant nest that some unlucky Soviet soldiers stumble upon. Instead of utilizing real life nasties like the snake-infested tomb in Raiders or the unsettling insect nest in Temple of Doom Spielberg manages to lose the squirming effect that made the past films so much fun with a fairly ridiculous CGI ant farm disaster.
Perhaps over analyzing a film that is clearly intended to be nothing more than a fun time at the movies is pointless. Spielberg even said this film is, “the sweet dessert I give those who had to chow down on the bitter herbs I used in Munich.” It could be that for generations just now getting into Indiana Jones this new adventure is candy for the eyes. May be it’s unrealistic to expect anything as good as Raiders or better since that film set the bar high for the whole summer blockbuster genre. Still the inner kid in me who grew up watching the Indy films with eyes wide open left the theater Friday night feeling disappointed–and I don’t think I was alone. Hopefully Spielberg has enough finesse and creativity left to take the upcoming film adaptation of Tintin, another piece of childhood nostalgia, to someplace magical.