I’m going to skip the precursory discussion of the first three films and which one’s my favorite (TEMPLE OF DOOM, though I feel RAIDERS is probably a better movie) and instead dive right into the series’ latest outing, INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. Please consider yourself duly warned that there are going to be a lot of spoilers here, so if you haven’t seen it yet, and don’t want to know anything, stop reading now, and come back later.
It has been 19 years between Indiana Jones films, and between the events that take place in THE LAST CRUSADE and KINGDOM. The year is now 1957, and the Cold War is raging. Indy, now older, but no less capable, is kidnaped by Soviet spies and forced to help them find mummified remains in a warehouse at Area 51. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what those remains are, exactly, and once they are found, the villain, Irina Spalko, wants to use the remains to further her knowledge and research into the field of psychic warfare. The ensuing journey takes Indy and the Russians on a trek to South America and into ancient Mayan temples while trying to return an ancient religious relic (a crystal skull) to its home.
The film is decidedly different from the original trilogy in its subject matter, but not in its tone. The wit and humor is still intact, as is the sense of wonder and thrilling action set pieces. I have no doubt that many viewers will take issue with the fact that the Indiana Jones movies have moved into science fiction territory, but I really can’t understand why that in and of itself is an issue. The original films were throwbacks to the adventure films of the 1930s, when Merian C. Cooper and the like ruled the day, and exotic locales and action were what put tickets in people’s hands. They took place in the 1930s, and imitated the movies of the era. So it goes with KINGDOM, which takes place in the 1950s and features many of the popular genre motifs of the decade, sci-fi included. There are more updates for the character as well, though none so noticeable as the existence of aliens. Really, though, when one thinks about it, is an alien race really that much more realistic than the Ark of the Covenant being opened and melting anyone who looks into it, complete with spirits flying about the room? I don’t think so.
Aside from that, the argument can be made that the aliens themselves are religious artifacts, just like the Ark, the Grail and the Sankara stones from the first three films, and thus fit perfectly in line with the series’ mythos. All of this, though, is really just getting into semantics. The one thing that anyone really cares about is if the wait was worth it, if it was any good, and if Harrison Ford is worth a damn. The answer to all three questions is a resounding “Yes” as far as I’m concerned.
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have delivered an Indiana Jones film, just like they promised. It’s action-packed, suspenseful, full of real archeological information (yes, there is archeological evidence and theories that back up the whole Mayan technology from an alien race angle), and, perhaps most importantly, it’s really, really fun. This is exactly what I was expecting, and I knew just enough about the angle taken with the updating of the series to not be too surprised by the way it all played out, meaning I knew about the inclusion of science fiction and pulp before I even stepped foot in the theater. Did I know there was going to be aliens actually in the film? No, but I knew that it probably had something to do with what artifacts Indy was hunting, already being exposed to the theories about ancient cultures and technological advances. Nothing about the plot feels out of place for one second.
The action sequences are what the series is known for, providing some of the most memorable setpieces in movie history, including the giant stone in RAIDERS, the mine cart in TEMPLE and the tank chase in CRUSADE. Add to that list not one, but two amazing stunt sets in KINGDOM: the opening warehouse/bomb sequence, and a motorcycle/car chase through the University grounds. Each is thrilling in its set-up and execution, and each feels more fresh than anything that could be conceived by the likes of Michael Bay. Even a throwaway action/comedy bit like the "three times it drops" waterfall scene is better and more pleasing than the majority of what gets acknowledged as an action sequence. The amazing action is just one more way that Spielberg and Lucas prove they still know how to make a good film when their hearts are in the right place. They love Indiana Jones, and though either one of them has their soft spots as, they know the character of Jones and what does and does not work.
And rest assured, this is a pure Indiana Jones film, not a pass-the-torch movie, and certainly not a movie about anyone else other than Jones himself. The biggest question I had going in was whether or not Harrison Ford would show up for the job. I’m a huge fan of his, but it’s no secret that he’s been zombie-like in the majority of his movies since AIR FORCE ONE. Well, from scene one, Harrison Ford owns the screen like he did all those years ago, and it’s one of the best things that could have ever happened. Mr. Ford has been an actor I’ve missed looking forward to seeing. Hopefully, some of this will rub off on his future performances. About the acting throughout the film, I must say that there aren’t any weak links. Some actors aren’t given enough to do, but that’s not their fault as much as it is the screenplays. Cate Blanchett is quite good as Irina Spalko, and it’s refreshing to see Karen Allen reprise her role as Marion Ravenwood. Shia LaBeouf also turns in an entertaining performance as Mutt Williams, Indy’s sidekick of sorts, and I’m pleased that, despite the character turning out to be Henry Jones III as I think we all suspected, neither Lucas nor Spielberg managed to make him precious and unbearable, though there is one scene, ludicrously staged and involving Mutt swinging from vines with an assist from some CGI monkeys that had me almost to the point of groaning. At least they had the good taste not to include a Tarzan call.
INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is the third best of the series, after RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and TEMPLE OF DOOM. It’s a strong film, and fits perfectly with the spirit in which the series was created. The script is a little weak, but to be honest, it’s maybe as good a script as could be culled from about five or six bypassed screenplays over the past twenty years, so I’m letting David Koepp off the hook. On a side note, I went to see KINGDOM twice in twenty-four hours, something I haven’t done in years. It’s an exhilarating ride I had to experience again, and more likely than not, I’ll be back for yet another round.