REVIEW REVISITED: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

This is a reprint of my review which was first published on Three Men on a Blog in January 2011, with a number of minor revisions. My original review can be found here. You can also read my WhatCulture! article on the film here. 

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (USA, 2008) 
Directed by Steven Spielberg 
Starring Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Shia LeBoeuf, Cate Blanchett

Nostalgia is a very dangerous thing. Having great memories of a certain point in one's life is fantastic, but any attempt to recapture that moment when everything around you has changed is bound to end in failure. All that remains once the forced smiles have disappeared is a sad sense of disappointment and an increased awareness of the rapid passage of time.
It is with a similarly heavy heart that we approach the fourth, but perhaps not final, Indiana Jones film, which comes 19 years after the original trilogy bowed out on a high with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It's been a long time coming, having gone through various scripts since The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles wrapped in the mid-1990s. Steven Spielberg, who felt he had matured as a film-maker since the originals, only agreed to make a fourth film if he could guarantee the fans something new and entertaining. And in all fairness, he has partially succeeded.
The problem, as Spielberg readily admits, is that so much has changed since the original trilogy. On the one hand, there have been many films, if not entire franchises, which have unashamedly ripped off Indiana Jones. Romancing the Stone, Tomb Raider and National Treasure all try to do their own version of the films with varying degrees of success. On the other hand, the action genre has changed beyond recognition, through the work of John McTiernan, the Wachowskis, Paul Greengrass and (unfortunately) Michael Bay. Just as James Bond looks out of place next to Jason Bourne, so Indiana Jones feels at best like affectionate old hat.
What this all means is that 'Indy 4' has the dual burden of having to update the series to give it a relevance or purpose, while also retaining the nostalgic, B-movie aesthetic and pantomime content which made the originals so much fun. To everyone's surprise, and some disappointment, what we end up with is just more of the same. It's delivered every bit as efficiently and light-heartedly as the originals, but with an even more deliberate nostalgia and not much of an attempt to argue its case for existing.
Proof of this is easily found in the plot, which borrows heavily from the first three films. The central strand, about recovering an ancient religious artefact which may have magical powers, is a straight lift from Last Crusade, only with Mayan mythology rather than Christian iconography. The involvement of foreign armies (the Russians on this occasion) sits very close to Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Cate Blanchett's character filling in for both Belloq and Major Toht. And the scenes of underground tribal warriors clearly resemble the mine scenes in Temple of Doom, with vague, heavily watered-down hints of Apocalypto.
All that has been said so far makes the film seem like a simple case of George Lucas betraying the fans that made him rich and famous, ruthlessly milking a cash cow while flogging a dead horse. One of the big criticisms centres on the involvement of aliens in the story, which brings with it a lot of special effects and the kind of preposterous mythological dialogue which was already quite silly when The Omen was being made. But, at the risk of a massive backlash, this idea is more or less in keeping with the spirit of the series, even if its execution is not. The work of Erich von Däniken, about the possibility of extra-terrestrial influence on prehistoric societies, is every bit as preposterous as the legend of the Holy Grail - it doesn't in and of itself make the story any less compelling or entertaining.
Just like its predecessors, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is at heart an upmarket B-movie, which pays tribute to the matinee idols and boys' own adventures of Lucas' and Spielberg's youth. The new material (well, I say new) is handled in the same pulpy way as the other plots: it matters in relation to keeping up with the story, but you don't have to go away and think about it afterwards. And the film does a fairly decent job of showing how certain aspects have moved on; there's a sad moment of Indy looking at photos of his dad and Marcus Brody, but we don't linger on the details long enough for it to get mawkish.
Spielberg has always been as his best directing light-hearted, crowd-pleasing popcorn fodder; even when the films are familiar in terms of story and themes, they are better assembled and more engaging than his 'serious' works. And in this film there is a lot of fun to be had. There's nothing quite as witty as the sword vs. gun fight in Raiders, or all the banter between father and son in Last Crusade. But the scene where a fight breaks out between the rockers and the jocks to the sound of 'Shake Rattle & Roll' is pretty funny, as is the Russians chasing Indy and Mutt through hordes of pro-Marxist demonstrators.
Like the originals, there is an element of silliness involved. If you find yourself losing it when Indy survives a nuclear blast by hiding in a lead-lined fridge, then you're not going to get through it. But for those of us who are left, the film manages to keep up the entertainment just enough for us not to notice. Let's be honest, if you handle a guy who manages to survive such amazing stunts, even at this ripe old age, then the prospect of crystal aliens or a sand-based obelisk with a lake underneath isn't going to faze you.
The stunts and set-pieces in Crystal Skull are also generally well-played. Most of them refer directly back to the previous films - the truck chase through the jungle begins almost exactly like the truck chase in Raiders. Others are more generic, such as the cars racing along a cliff or driving a motorbike through a building. As before, these scenes are unremarkable but efficiently delivered, with Harrison Ford still doing most of his own stunts.
The performances are also quite enjoyable, like seeing old friends again after a long time apart. Ford handles the older persona of Henry Jones Jr. pretty well, proving he is still skilled with the whip and can deliver one-liners every bit as tartly. It's good to see the feisty Karen Allen back on screen, and her character is much more substantial than either of Indy's other conquests - as he says himself, the problem with the others was that "they weren't you".
Elsewhere we have John Hurt and Cate Blanchett having a good time chewing the scenery, and Ray Winstone turning even the silliest line into something vaguely threatening. The one weak link is Shia LeBoeuf, who isn't convincing either as Indy's son or as a rebel-without-a-cause. When he first romps on screen, looking like a kid dressing up as Marlon Brando, you sort of forgive him and expect improvement. But he simply isn't charismatic enough to carry the film, let alone any future instalments.
But the main problem, which stops Crystal Skull from being just another decent film, is the ending. The actual ending, with Indy and Marion getting married, isn't a problem at all: it's a fitting way for these characters to wind up and Spielberg's sentimentality isn't out of place. But the scenes preceding it, with the crystal skeletons merging and the flying saucer destroying a whole valley, do look for all the world like Lucas snuck behind the camera while Spielberg was on his coffee break. The special effects are poorly obvious, it's boring to watch and the characters are lost in the wide shots as everything blows up and nobody cares.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not a terrible film by any means. It recaptures the tone of the originals very well, something which is both its biggest strength and its greatest weakness. It is staggeringly unremarkable in its plot and execution, but at under 2 hours long it is much less bloated and baggy than either the Star Wars prequels or the Pirates of the Caribbean series. In the end, it's probably as good, if not slightly better than we had any right to expect. But if a fifth instalment should come along soon, it might not be so easily embraced.