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May 23, 2008 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | May 23, 2008 |

The greatest disappointment of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — and in a movie where (among other things) a young hero swings among vines like Tarzan, there are several disappointments — is that the filmmakers lacked the confidence to wholeheartedly embrace the character they’d created and instead resorted to riffing on his age and that of the entire series. Director Steven Spielberg and producer/story man George Lucas hauled something magical out of thin air when they gave life to Indiana Jones more than 25 years ago, but rather than return to that parallel fictional universe, they’ve tried to drag Indy into our own, and they wind up getting stuck halfway between worlds. The first half of the film is stronger, but also more weirdly apologetic about the fact that Indy has returned at all, as if screenwriter David Koepp were given instructions to act mildly embarrassed about the project for the first 50 pages. Much of the film is a meta-nod to the others, eschewing character-based humor or revelation for knowing winks at the audience. I can’t believe this is the script that convinced the principles to make another film. Spielberg is a smart and gifted filmmaker, and though he always maintained a certain intellectual distance from the material even while putting his heart into it, not until now has that distance become tinged with irony or, horrifyingly, the aroma of parody.

Spielberg’s intent to trade on the memories of the earlier films — specifically on the first one, Raiders of the Lost Ark — is evident from the first frame. The Paramount logo is the same faded one that preceded Raiders, and it dissolves into a matching silhouette of an anthill, as opposed to the actual mountains of the old film. Even the typeface of the credits is the same. As a convoy of Army trucks blasts down a desert highway, a title card reveals the setting to be Nevada, 1957. The caravan stops at the entrance to a secret government testing ground that will turn out to be Area 51, where soldiers hop out and kill the guards on duty. Once the trucks enter the facility, the bad guys open up the trunk and extract two rumpled older men who are clearly hostages: George “Mac” McHale (Ray Winstone) and Indiana Jones himself (Harrison Ford). Indy’s introduction here isn’t quite the menacing and anti-heroic reveal it was in Raiders, when he stepped from the shadows after whipping a cowardly jungle guide, but it still plays into one of the better ideas of the series in the way there’s always a certain amount of ceremony when Indy first appears. But Spielberg crosses from celebrating his hero to skewering his age when Mac tells Indy that escaping won’t be easy, to which Indy replies, “Not as easy as it used to be.” The bad guys, it turns out, are Russians, led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), and they’ve kidnapped Indy and his cohort to help them find some kind of mummy the Russians really want to get their hands on. Spielberg gets some more use out the series’ mythology when Indy and the rest enter a giant warehouse packed with rows of wooden crates: This is clearly the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, rescued by Indy a lifetime ago. Maybe Spielberg hopes that starting the new adventure here will give it some of the energy and verve of the old film, but it doesn’t quite work.

In a series of plot turns too ludicrous to describe except to say that death fridges and prairie dogs come into play, Indy escapes and returns to his old life as a college professor of archaeology, only to be let go once the FBI begins kicking up dirt about his rumored run-in with the KGB. He’s about to leave town when he runs into Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a teenager who knew an old colleague of Indy’s and who’s been given a message to deliver to Indy. The letter promises to reveal the location of the crystal skull, an ancient artifact from El Dorado that could control the world, give its owner cosmic power, etc. Pursued by more Russians, Indy and Mutt escape on Mutt’s motorcycle in one of the film’s high-octane but largely suspenseless chase scenes. Koepp’s dialogue alternates between flat and jokey, and the script is nothing more than a series of loosely joined scenes without the connective benefit of a goal. Indy and Mutt set off for the Amazon to find the crystal skull, where they run right into Irina, who’s got several of Indy’s friends in tow, including Mac; Professor Oxley (John Hurt), who sent the letter with Mutt; and Marion (Karen Allen), Indy’s former love from Raiders who hasn’t been seen or mentioned since the first film. Irina has the crystal skull, but she wants Indy’s help to find the lost city from whence it came.

With nothing more to drive the film than a sketchy objective and a dull ancient artifact, Spielberg just kills time, having the Russians chase the good guys around the jungle in an increasingly numbing series of action set pieces. There’s never any doubt that the good guys will make it, but what’s worse, there’s never any reason to hope they will. Spielberg avoids even the most rudimentary, action-movie-level characterizations, and the resulting story is slack. He can’t even jump-start the Indy-Marion relationship, which has had 27 years to build up. Ford does his damnedest to bring the character back to life, but there’s only so much he can do with lackluster material. His chemistry with Allen could’ve saved their story and provided some emotional weight to the rest of the film, but it never materializes, or rather, it materializes almost nonsensically. Indy and Marion manage to fall back in love without really speaking to each other.

To go into the rest of the plot would be to relive it, and at this point I’d much rather keep my memories of what the series used to be instead of acknowledging what it’s become. Suffice it to say that this is the coldest Indiana Jones film yet, thanks in no small part to the advent of CGI in the gap between this film and 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Many of the action sequences rely on an increasingly blurry presentation of what looks like the good guy fighting what might be the bad guy in the middle of what’s definitely a fake jungle. It’s in one of these scenes that Mutt, tangled in a vine, begins swinging from branch to branch before landing in a Russian jeep and beating up the villains, aided by the monkeys who’d been swinging right alongside him. The sequence is an unfortunate parallel to the rest of the film: It’s not particularly exciting, and it’s not particularly funny; it’s just a bad idea.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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