Make no mistake, the fourth Indiana Jones movie is a cheese-covered orgy of bad ideas.
As the film begins, you really get a sense of how enamored Lucas and Spielberg are of their own contributions to Americana, and how desperately they want Crystal Skull to be included. Americana has rarely been so self-referential. "Remember me? I’m Americana!" it seems to shout.
The film’s opening sequence (Nevada, 1957) is a throwaway scene, in which a hot rod filled with screaming teenagers blasting rock n roll and looking like they took a wrong turn off the set of American Graffiti weave their way through a military convoy. They drive off and the next thing we know, KGB agents led by Cate Blanchett (in full cartoon mode) are breaking into Area 51. They’ve kidnapped Dr. Jones to help them find what they’re looking for, and his first arrival onscreen is preceded by a shot of the fedora that lasts approximately twelve minutes. Yeah guys, we get it, we’re excited too. Now shoot the goddamned movie.
The next half hour is an uneasy mix of unnecessary self referencing (look, there’s the ark of the covenant, remember that??) and old timey nationalism which seems strangely un-Indy. In this first post-WWII Indy flick, we learn that our distinguished Professor of Achaeology is now also a decorated war hero. In his first brush with death, Spalko asks Indy if he has any last words. “I like Ike,” he responds. Uh, what? I feel like those Narnia kids.
After Jones evades the Russians and survives a nuclear explosion from ground zero by hiding in a refrigerator (don’t ask) Shia Lebeouf shows up on a motorcycle in the fruitiest homage to The Wild One you’ll ever see. He begs Indy to help find a mutual friend of theirs, a professor (John Hurt – playing basically the same character he did in The Proposition) who disappeared while searching for the titular crystal skull.
And by this point the Russians are after both of them; they too seek the crystal skull. Some burly KGB agents corner Indy and Mutt (LeBeouf) in a diner, but they manage to escape during a melee after Mutt starts a bar fight between the Socs and the Greasers. Cue sax music.
Which brings us to the next phase of the movie: the you’re-not-even-trying-anymore phase. Early in pre-production, some worried access to CGI effects would ruin Indy’s aesthetic. Fret not, fanboys, the action has much more in common with the Three Stooges or a Mexican sitcom than with video games. We’re willing to give Indy some leeway with cheesiness and the cornball, wink-wink, high-five-the-audience moments, but do we really need Shia LeBeouf straddling two moving jeeps and taking random jungle flora to the nuts?
Defining moment: at one point while running through the Amazon jungle (pursued by the Russians, of course) Indy and Marion Ravenwood happen upon some quicksand. They start to sink and it’s up to Shia to find something with which to pull them out. He runs off into the jungle and when the sand’s about chest high, he finally returns with… a fucking snake. He pulls them out of the quicksand with a fucking snake.
The cutesy animal moments might be the oddest leitmotif in Crystal Skull. Maybe Spielberg’s been watching too many Bruckheimer movies because we’re treated to at least six reaction shots from a random prairie dog, and oh hey did I mention that at one point Shia LeBeouf swings through the trees and attacks Spalko with an army of monkeys? Because yeah, that totally happens.
Early reviews complained that it never feels like Indy’s truly in peril, and it’s hard not to agree. Instead of sending Indy over a waterfall in a raft once and making it count, they send him over three times, but never convincingly. Spielberg could give us the rush of the fall, some underwater shots, the actors struggling towards the shore – anything to give it drama. Instead, each time it’s just “Oh no, the waterfalls!”, then a wide shot of the raft going over and a quick cut to the actors back in the raft with wet clothes and the waterfall in the background. Here we go again! If you’re going to go this Vaudeville with it, why not put Indy in blackface? That might’ve been funny.
As Jack Handey once said, “I bet the main reason the police keep people away from a plane crash is they don’t want anybody walking in and lying down in the crash stuff then when somebody comes up act like they just woke up and go, ‘What was THAT?!’” It’s a similar challenge for the actors in Crystal Skull. You get the feeling Harrison Ford could get shot in the face with a shotgun at point blank range and all that would happen is he’d have a dirty face and his bill would spin around a lá Daffy Duck.
I’m torn on my final assessment because the last 15 minutes are so laugh out loud hilarious that they might make the entire movie worth seeing. There are aliens, Indy trying to get rid of the skull that’s corrupted his friend’s mind (playing Frodo to Hurt’s Gollum, if you will), and an epilogue so unabashedly saccharine that it’d make Lord of the Rings blush. Even over the laughter and groans, you can almost hear George Lucas’ fat fists pounding the table at Chuck E. Cheese. The finale is his pizza party.
Hell, even I couldn’t help but applaud at the end. Everyone loves a train wreck.
Final Grade: C-