Roger Ebert’s thumb loved it, but a New York Times critic said, “I was bored out of my mind.” Holy schizo! Now that the fourth chapter in the Indiana Jones series has opened and we can see beyond the box-office gold rush, the truth emerges between the extremes, you know, the place where disappointment eats at your expectations.
Sure, I wanted Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to be as classically adventurous as Raiders of the Lost Ark, which kicked off the Indy saga in 1981. It isn’t. Crystal Skull is hit-and-miss like the clunky 1984 sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. And instead of the elegiac tone that lifted 1989’s presumptive valedictory, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas have gotten sillier.
The good news is that Harrison Ford can still rock a fedora and a bullwhip like nobody’s business as the globe-trotting archaeologist. The dark side is that after 19 years of wrangling between Spielberg and Lucas — in a mind-meld with writer David Koepp to craft just the right script for Indy 4 — they came up with this mess. Everything looks raided from the lost ark of the three previous Indy hits. What’s worse is that after a smashing opener involving Indy getting captured by Russians in Nevada, circa 1957, the film starts piling on atomic subplots. It’s a cliché overload. By midpoint, the movie starts to play like National Treasure meets The X-Files, with a touch of The Goonies, and I don’t mean any of these comparisons as a compliment.
Ford, 65 and in fine, feisty fettle, has a ball mixing it up with Shia LaBeouf, who is terrific as Mutt, the biker kid who joins Indy on a mission to find the Crystal dildo, or whatever the hell it is. “What are you, like, 80?” asks Mutt, an insult he has to eat after a motorcycle chase that shows Gramps still has what it takes. I kept waiting for Indy to spark with Cate Blanchett as Russian military scientist Irina Spalko, but the great Cate is stuck in a one-note-villain role with an accent that conjures up Rocky and Bullwinkle more than the desired red menace. Indy’s hots are reserved for an old flame. It’s a kick seeing Karen Allen return as Marion Ravenwood, Mutt’s mom and Indy’s love in Raiders. Some have hinted that Mutt might be Indy’s son. Ya think?
Total props go to the superior stunt work: Watch that three-tier waterfall! Catch that duel between Mutt and Irina on two speeding jeeps! And, oh, that army of man-eating ants! But I’d trade all the paranormal mumbo-jumbo and cutesy computer-generated prairie dogs for scenes that connected the characters on a human level. There was a chance here to show Indy getting smacked by time and the perils of intimacy and commitment. But those stunts leave real bruises. Audiences looking for emotional resonance in Indy 4 are doomed to the temple of disappointment. Spielberg and Lucas aren’t upping their creative game — they’re taking care of business.