It pains me enormously that there are already two reviews out there for this film, under my name, and neither of them truly reflect what I feel for the film in question. They don’t now, certainly, but if I’m honest I don’t think they did at the time they were published either. One of my greatest regrets is that I didn’t come in and sleep on my opinion when I first saw the film at an exclusive midnight preview back at the time of its release. Mainly because the minute I awoke and saw the review I’d written at 3am, I instantly saw things that I didn’t agree with. An attempt at a second review didn’t right those wrongs as, anyone who has followed my love/hate relationship with this film in both the reviews and the talkbacks can confirm, I was nothing if not conflicted about my opinion on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Not anymore. I’ve seen the film eight times now. Yup, eight times. I know what I like and dislike about it, for certain. I know what I feel regards to it. So much so that when I was gifted a copy of the Region 1 two-disc edition for review purposes whilst holidaying in the US, I went from thinking “Woah, do I really want to put ANOTHER review of this film up on the site?” to “Yeah, I think I can finally right a few wrongs once and for all now that I’ve got enough distance and seen the film enough times!” Therefore, I’d like you to consider what follows as my definitive (and final) opinion on the film.
And this is going to be a review in which I do not touch on my hatred – yes HATRED – for the whole “aliens” related finale. I promise. My opinion on that remains completely the same, it’s out there, it’s well known, why waste time repeating it?
So… What first strikes you when digging into the extra features on the DVD is that maybe the answer to all that is wrong with this fourth Indiana Jones film lies in the heart of Steven Spielberg. It’s clearly obvious, no matter how much he masks it with flippancy and what not, that his heart is not completely taken with the concept (of aliens or “interdimensional beings”) that Lucas is forcing upon him. Maybe his affection was with Frank Darabont’s draft, which he spoke very favourably of, or Jeff Nathanson’s original script (before Lucas “tampered” with it) that David Koepp set to work on… We’ll never know. All I do know is that the fact that evidence of Spielberg’s heart not being completely in love with the material at hand, shows up on screen in various featurettes and documentaries on this DVD if you ask me.
I’ve said it time and time again but the Indiana Jones trilogy, to me, is cinematic perfection. I’m not one of those fans that gripes that Temple of Doom is “too dark” or Last Crusade is “too uneven and comical”. I see each of the movies as just flawless pieces of cinema; written, directed, performed and paced with a sense of faultlessness and precision unmatched in any other franchise. I’ve seen each of the first three movies well over a hundred times each, I shit you not, and they still feel so fresh and new to me each time I watch them. I ain’t kidding. So what probably hurts me the most about Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls is that I haven’t even got into double-figures in terms of how many times I’ve watched the movie, and already I’m finding I like it less and less with each viewing or finding new things that smart with me or, worst of all, coming to dislike things that I once liked a great deal.
I think that this can be explained by the fact that the original Indiana Jones trilogy felt, and still feels, like you are being taken on the ultimate, pitch-perfect, cinematic ride. This fourth movie feels like you’re being taken for a ride. We were sold a faulty bill of goods, that’s how I honestly feel. We were told that this was a return to the “old school” style of filmmaking like with the original movies and people, like myself, who were sceptical as to whether there was a way for a new Indy movie to exist in the modern blockbuster arena, didn’t even get a chance to see any such concerns put aside or confirmed because the “return to the old school” style spoken of, was nothing but false bluster.
There’s not a single moment in this movie where the stunt work is “as real” and down and dirty. There’s not a set-piece where the special effects don’t feel showy and intertwined with the action. There’s no location that is draw-droppingly beautiful filtered through Spielberg’s eye. All of these things are massively important components of what makes the first three movies so masterful. They’re all absent from this fourth movie. They’re all absent in the sense that they were never even attempted if you ask me:
The stunts never feel as if they’re done “for real” by anyone, like what Spielberg drew from Vic Armstrong in the original trilogy. They just feel as if they’re dangling someone off a wire in front of a green-screen. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg put Harrison Ford in front of a giant boulder and told him to run whilst setting it rolling in his direction. Here, Spielberg shows Ford a picture of what will be coming at him at a later date then sends him to stand in front of a green-screen. And, oh, that dreaded green-screen. We never once get to “feel” the location like we did with, say, Cairo, Egypt, Venice, Germany or India. We just always get the sensation that events are playing out on elaborate sets on studio backlots and sound-stages… and it makes the whole Indiana Jones experience feel cheap and, well, sort of equal to The Mummy movies.
On top of all that though, when CGI pioneers like Spielberg and Lucas, are involved in this film, should the FX work be so damn shoddy in its execution? There’s not just some moments of iffy effects on show here. There’s actual moments of genuinely bad post-production effects. And that really kinda smarts a great deal. With the level of talent and money thrown at this thing, it’s bad enough that we have to be force-fed the concept that this script was really the “best” they could do after nearly twenty-years, but to be try and sold the notion that some of the effects on show here are “top of the line” is just not acceptable at all.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is full of some wonderful moments. Some downright majestic cinematic flashes of brilliance. Yet repeated viewings reveal that each of them comes somewhat cursed by some sort of poisoned chalice. The opening action sequence is damaged severely by the inane “escape via fridge” set-piece. The thrilling and audaciously shot motorcycle getaway is hurt by the whole crash in the library conclusion. The admittedly enjoyable jungle chase sequence is the most frustrating element of the whole movie. It wins our hearts and loses our hearts over and over again, time after time. We’re in, and then Shia’s scrotum takes a whacking by a set of plants whilst taking fencing lessons off his mum. We get won back and then Shia starts playing at Tarzan. We slowly but cautiously come round again and then we’ve got that horrendously realised, utterly stupid, waterfall sequence.
Spielberg and Lucas treat the film as if they’re training us as disciplined house-pets; they give, they take away, they treat, they punish. All the while, around the edges we can see the fun to be had in having Indiana Jones back on our screens and what it would be like to have him caught up in a truly GREAT new adventure.
This isn’t it. It’s a good, throwaway piece of entertainment. There’s no denying that. John Williams’ score goes a long way to helping finesse proceedings and the under-utilised support (so under-utilised that you cannot help but question their involvement in this full stop) from enjoyable performers like Ray Winstone and Jim Broadbent add to the fun. But like the rest of the film, their involvement only serves to create more questions in other areas of the casting: what the hell is with both John Hurt’s character and his performance? Was this really the best role you could write for Cate Blanchett? Did anyone think that bringing on Shia LaBeuof just to be revealed as “Indy’s son” was good enough? Did you not think it wise to actually write a character for him too?
I adored the reappearance of Karen Allen first time round and I’ve defended her time and time again to a few people on this site and friends in general. The thing is though, with each viewing, you start to find her more and more annoying. She’s not so much performing a character in a movie as she is walking on stage for a pantomime and slapping her thigh. Funny that one of the most likeable things about this film on first viewing has come to be one of the things I like least. My opinion on Harrison Ford hasn’t changed viewing to viewing. He still feels kind of awkward in the opening moments and then settles in brilliantly as the film goes on.
However, with any Indiana Jones movie, you should strap yourself in for the ride from the get-go through to the end credits and never find yourself without a huge, entertained grin on your face throughout. You don’t question anything. You just rejoice in the first-rate thrill-ride you’re being sold a seat on. Here, you find time to question why the hell Jones won’t take the leather jacket off or why the hell he keeps helping his enemies so willingly and so well for no other reason then it serves the screenplay.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, flaws and all and regardless of to what extent you debate it, is a good piece of disposable blockbuster fare that you’ll enjoy but kind of wipe from your mind after the credits have rolled. And this is as much an insult as it is a compliment, because whilst that is all well and good a verdict for something like The Mummy and its sequels, for an Indiana Jones movie it’s a crushing disappointment and there’s no escaping that!
BELOW: A Scene From A George Lucas Led Script Conference For Indiana Jones 4!