George Lucas has had an idea for a fourth Indiana Jones movie for more than a decade now, but Spielberg and Ford wanted nothing to do with it. Eventually he wore them down and the result is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It’s easy to see why Spielberg and Ford were hesitant to make it. The direction of this fourth adventure is a marked departure from the other films. Then of course there’s the fact that Harrison Ford is older, a lot older, and now so is Indiana Jones. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had only two choices: Age the character along with their leading actor, or simply replace him. Wait, scratch that. There was a third option: leave well enough alone. Nobody said there had to be a fourth Indiana Jones movie, and though the one they’ve made works well enough, we might have been better off if Spielberg and Ford had stuck to their guns, leaving Indiana Jones to linger in our memory as the untarnished icon he always was. Indiana Jones isn’t supposed to be mortal, and while he may never actually die on screen his aching, creaking body seems headed there, albeit from natural causes.
Indiana’s survival is now the stuff of utter fantasy. Sure the tight spots he made it out of in previous movies stretched the bounds of believability, but now those bounds have been broken, snapped, and tossed straight out the window. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull does that in the first fifteen minutes, when Indy survives something so ludicrous that it’s right out of a bad, 1950s, sci-fi serial; which of course is what Lucas and Spielberg are using as inspiration. Later it gets even weirder as a key character, I kid you not, swings through the trees on vines and enlists the aid of a tribe of sympathetic monkeys.
The previous Indy movies were patterned after adventure products of the 30s, the time period in which the other three films were set. This one is set in the 50s, with Indiana Jones now an old man, and having in the time we’ve been away from him survived numerous trials and tribulations in WWII. That’s right, while we weren’t looking Indiana Jones was off storming Normandy. Apparently when the camera’s not on him Indiana Jones lives a secret life as Captain America. In the process, the always somewhat gruff doctor Jones has started wearing baggy old man pants and gotten downright surly. I mention his costume because it stands out. The hat’s the same, so is the whip, but what’s up with his pants? I think my grandpa has that same pair, he bought them at Goodwill for 99 cents. Doesn’t Harrison look old enough without dressing him in sensible, wrinkle-free slacks? Indiana Jones is supposed to look dashing and grungy, not frumpy.
He may be more grumpy and he may not be much of a dresser, but the glimmer hasn’t entirely gone out of Harrison’s eyes. We’re reacquainted with Indy in the midst of intrigue involving Russians. It’s the 50s, the Nazis have been defeated, and that means Indy must now fight communism. The Reds are led by an army officer named Irina Spalko, played by Cate Blanchett. From the outset she’s no match for Indiana Jones, and Cate’s take on the character seems to involve a lot of gaping and staring. Spalko is after an American secret and she drags Indy out to a certain spot in the Nevada desert, where our adventure begins, offset by comedic gophers which seem to have wandered over from the set of Caddyshack. From Nevada it’s off to South America, where the gophers are replaced by monkeys, and jungle clue chasing with Indiana and his friends can begin in earnest.
Aside from the dead end that is Cate Blanchett’s villain, it’s in Harrison’s interaction with the film’s supporting cast that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull works best. Shia LaBeouf joins the Indiana Jones universe as Mutt Williams, Indy’s sidekick dujour for this adventure. They have genuine chemistry together, and Jones works as a crotchety mentor figure for LaBeouf’s smart but rebellious 50s biker-punk character. Ford also still has chemistry with Karen Allen, first seen way back in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and returning here as an older, more mature Marion Ravenwood. It’s a different kind of rapport than the one they had in Raiders, a relationship tempered by time, age, and experience. It works, even though much of the time Allen is left with very little to do but observe.
But you’re here for adventure and there’s plenty of that. The movie soars in several character driven action sequences, and sags in others. Indiana has another one of those genius “shoot the sword guy” moments which alone makes Kingdom of the Crystal Skull worth the price of admission. Most of the effects are good, and it’s all well staged. Unfortunately, sometimes perhaps a little too well staged. This Indiana Jones feels less organic than any of the other movies. It feels more choreographed. Of course it’s all choreographed, but some of the action sequences in this one seem more like dance numbers than truly dangerous, rock-em-sock em Indiana Jones action. Even though old age should mean he’s more fragile, I never truly felt like Indiana was in trouble, and I’m not sure he ever did either. Maybe it’s because some of it goes so far over the top that it crosses that believability line I mentioned earlier. Or, and I hate to keep harping on this, maybe it’s Harrison’s age. There’s no way a guy this grey could pull any of this off, and so when he does, it’s harder than ever to buy into any of it.
Could his age also be to blame for the film's finale, where Indy spends most of his time standing back while everyone else does the hard work? The second part of the movie feels a lot like National Treasure, with Indy as a Nic Cage puzzle-solving cypher. Meanwhile, the puzzles aren't particularly engaging and if you haven't figured them out thirty minutes into the film, then you really should get out of the house more. That's not to say it's all puzzles, Indy does plenty of whip cracking and commie punching. Better still, Harrison manages to pull all of that off wonderfully. You'll geek out and cheer with every punch. The script simply seems to get lost towards the end, abandoning subplots and leaving Indiana standing around watching, as if even screenwriter David Koepp wasn't sure what the hell Lucas was thinking with this oddball MacGuffin.
I went into Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ready to dispense with the silly notion that Harrison Ford was too old to play Indiana, and walked out uncomfortable with the certainty that now the best way to describe Dr. Jones is not as dashing or daring, but as feisty. Anybody who’s any kind of an Indiana Jones fan (and who isn’t?) will no doubt find fun in this final chance to see Harrison back in the hat, but it’s hard not to wonder if we might not have been happier in the long run with Indiana Jones as a mythical figure somewhere off in the distance, never aging, never changing, and living solely for the rush of adrenaline that comes with adventure. The idea of a fourth Indiana Jones movie is better than the reality, and a few years from now I guarantee fans will find themselves more likely to re-watch Temple of Doom than to revisit this entertaining, yet past its prime Indy entry.