Irina Spalko confounds Indiana Jones with the power of her inappropriate hairstyle.
Imagine that the big movie opening this weekend was just called The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. There is no Raiders, no Temple of Doom, and no Last Crusade. We've never met Indiana Jones before and don't know what he did in World War II. Marion Williams is just an ex-girlfriend of an aged hero. How would you judge this movie if you didn't have a sentimental attachment to the other movies and characters? How does it look if you don't have the other movies to compare it to?
As a straightforward action movie, I think it works just fine. The action sequences, are, well, full of action. Some of them go on too long (the chase through the jungle), but anytime a movie comes in under two hours, I'm not going to complain too much. The story isn't the most connected, logical piece of work you'll ever see, but a certain level of silliness is tolerated in action adventure movies (and btw, the people who have been complaining about the aliens/UFO storyline in this movie as just another instance of Steven Spielberg working out his obsessions should take note of how that was a major theme in many '50s films). There are passages of clunky dialogue and bits of exposition that could be handled more gracefully (Aren't there dialogue writers anymore? Did this go to a script doctor at all? Did George Lucas write some of the lines? And I don't mean to pile on Lucas, but the prairie dogs and monkeys smacked a little too much of the dreaded Ewoks for me). But if you saw this movie without any knowledge of the other Indy films and enjoy a lot of action and big set pieces, you'd walk out satisfied.
The reason, though, why we should care about this movie at all is because of our familiarity with the characters and their stories. Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and screenwriter David Koepp (and Frank Darabont, however much he contributed to the actual final product) have constructed a film that elicits whatever charm it has, what makes it different than any other big summer movie, through a reliance on audience members' knowledge of the characters and their pasts. Yes, you can follow the plot of this movie without seeing the others, but many of the little jokes and moments come from what we've learned before--the snakes, the Marion-Indy bickering, the tendency for Indiana Jones to often have his derring-do go slightly awry (which was, as you may remember way, way back when Raiders first appeared, a comic riff upon the way heroes of the long-ago B-movie serials always had the most improbable exploits work without any bumps, injuries or miscues), not least the iconography of the hat and the whip.
If you're rating the movie this way, as a continuation of the series than as just another movie, then Harrison Ford is its saving grace. He wears his age well, and his wry, world weary, how-did-I-get-myself-into-this demeanor is part of what we've always loved about the character. He's unlike the action heroes of the past, who always know what to do next, who have no fears or weaknesses; he's unlike the action heroes of the day who are cynical and more interested in irony than sincerity.
This is a film that is about the use and abuse of knowledge. Much of Indiana Jones's success has always relied on the fact that he's not just an adventurer, but also a teacher with an unshakeable belief in the power of knowledge. He doesn't just bust open doors and knock out bad guys with a kick and a punch--he can decode ancient symbols. He knows the mythologies of long-dead tribes and the right dialect to communicate with the living ones. His role as a teacher is, appropriately, more emphasized than ever in this film (note his giving instruction to the student in the library, the dissertation on sandpits vs. quicksand, his admonishment to Mutt Williams to go to school). For Jones, knowledge is a way of understanding people and the past. Knowledge should help us make the world better by avoiding the mistakes that history teaches us. He understands the meaning of the Crystal Skull and knows that it must be returned to its proper place; it has knowledge to offer us, but that doesn't mean we should take it. There's a difference between understanding and grave robbing. His enemies in this film don't get this. Mac, his avaricious turncoat associate, suffers because he sees uncovering the past as a way of materially profiting. Irina Spalko, the KGB officer, wants to take from the Crystal Skull; she wants the knowledge that can be obtained from it as a means of power and for controlling others. In the end, that covetousness destroys her. Knowledge is important, but the intent behind the desire for it is just as crucial.
Most of the other characters work reasonably well in this movie. Karen Allen is a welcome sight, still reliably spunky, if a bit manic at times. And aside from her past history with Indy, it's also refreshing to see an age appropriate love interest for an action hero (pairing a twenty year old tart with sixty-something Ford would have been too much). Winstone fills his typical role well enough. Considering the amount of words he had to speak, John Hurt picked up one of the easiest paychecks ever, but then again, Oxley is one of those parts that only Hurt could play.
As Spalko, Cate Blanchett is cold enough for the Cold War, but I was taken out of the film somewhat by her inexplicable costume and hairstyle. The jumpsuit/mechanics overalls style outfit that she wears at the beginning of the film seems appropriately Soviet, but then why does she change into a uniform that is more appropriate for Stalin circa 1919? Did he leave it to her when he died in 1953? And I cannot for the life of me think of a reason why a KGB officer in 1957 would sport the signature hairstyle of a glamorous silent movie star (Louise Brooks). This is the most puzzling hairstyle since Drew Barrymore in the '80s-set The Wedding Singer sported hair that no one in the '80s would even have been able to imagine. Then again, George Lucas, the man behind many of filmdom's worst hairstyle choices, was involved, so perhaps that's the best explanation.
Mutt Williams, played by Shia LaBeouf, was a disappointment to me, mostly in that I didn't feel his character was terribly clear. He's introduced on his motorcycle and in a leather jacket, in a painfully obvious reference to Marlon Brando in The Wild One. The problem, though, is that LaBeouf just doesn't come off as that tough. He looks like he's playing at being a greaser and a tough guy, rather than really being one. He'd never be, like Brando, the leader of a gang of wild teens rebelling against whatever you've got; he'd be the hanger on in the gang who fetched and carried for Brando and tried to copy (unsuccessfully) his every move. So my question is whether that's who his character is supposed to be--a tough guy wannabe? Or is he actually supposed to be the tough guy? If the former, they weren't clear enough about this; if the latter, it's a piece of miscasting. There's a reason why LaBeouf has typically played the guy who's trying to do the right thing. He's not reform school material, he's organizer of the prom committee (btw, the friend I saw the movie with pointed out, quite reasonably, that considering the incestuous world of archaeology professors and academia presented in these films, where everyone seems to know each other, it's hard to ask us to believe that Jones wouldn't know that Mutt is his son, or at the very least that Marion had married and had a son. I didn't care enough about Mutt to worry about that).
Not quite a character, but almost as important is the actual Crystal Skull, and I found it a little disappointing. It looked like it was made of lucite, not crystal. Same with the skeletons in the temple at the end. Couldn't they have come up with something that looked a little more mystical and otherworldly? Or at least shinier? It should have been something that makes audiences ooh and aah, or react somehow when they see it, but I wasn't impressed. It's a minor point, but like I said, with a movie of this budget, it's not wrong to ask to be awed by the title prop.
Some of the negative reviews I read seemed to be asking too much of this film. I read reviews that complained that there was too much frenetic action, too much obvious theme park prep material, and not enough character development. Well, it's a summer popcorn movie--how much do you really ask of it? The worst crime attributed to it is the accusation that it somehow diminishes the other films ("I'm running home right now to watch Raiders to forget this!" "Why did they have to make this movie?!" "Thanks for raping my childhood memories!"). I don't understand this--whether you loved it, hated it, or fell somewhere in between, how could this movie affect what you feel about the others? That doesn't make sense. Rating it as part of the series, no, I don't believe it is out of place--it's not as good as Raiders, but that's impossible, if for no other reason than that Raiders seemed so fresh and different from other action adventure movies when it was released. But the familiar Indiana Jones character makes a decent return and reminds us why we liked him in the first place. It's on par with the other two Indy films in that it has some good moments, some bad moments, some great action, some tiresome action. It's not great, it's not awful. It's worth your summer movie time and ticket, because it has enough good moments and great action to withstand the bad moments and tiresome action. And it is under two hours. If for nothing else, let us thank Steven Spielberg for giving us a summer movie that gets us out in time to still enjoy a summer night.