WFTB Score: 7/20
The plot: With the Cold War in full swing, Dr Henry ‘Indiana’ Jones Jr. finds himself ‘borrowed’ by the Russians to locate a hidden artefact. He escapes, but the news that respected archaeologist Harold Oxley has gone missing in Peru sends him back on a collision course with the Commies, this time with concerned protégé Mutt Williams in tow. As Indy is to find out, Mutt is more than a travelling companion – he’s a close link to an old friend.
Being trussed up in a car boot isn’t the first place you’d expect to find an archaeology professor, unless that professor is Dr ‘Indiana’ Jones (Harrison Ford), inveterate adventurer and former scourge of the Nazis’ hunt for powerful relics. However, it’s now 1957 and the bad guys doing the trussing are the Russians. Led by bad girl Colonel Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), an expert in Stalin’s psychic research programme, the Reds kidnap Indy and his sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone) to locate an artefact from Roswell from a secret army storage facility. Mac turns out to be a turncoat, but Indy uses his wits and his whip to extricate himself, only to find himself in the path of a nuclear blast and, surviving that (of course!), under investigation by an ultra-suspicious FBI who make it impossible for Dr Jones to return quietly to teaching. Bound for Europe, Indy is waylaid by young ‘Mutt’ Williams (Shia LaBeouf) who tells a tale of his mentor Harold ‘Ox’ Oxley (John Hurt), kidnapped and destined for death in deepest, darkest Peru along with his mother whilst searching for the Crystal Skull, a relic with powerful psychic properties. With a riddling letter from Ox to help them, Indy and Mutt head for Peru in search of the skull; unsurprisingly, Spalko and her troops aren’t far behind. Indy’s prepared for them, less prepared for a revelation from Mutt’s mother Mary – make that Marion (Karen Allen) – and completely unprepared for the secrets held within Akator, otherwise known as El Dorado.
It doesn’t matter how this movie came into being nineteen years after The Last Crusade, a title laden with finality if ever there was one. It only matters that the end result is any good. Unfortunately, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn’t any good on a pretty massive scale. For starters, the screenplay is totally naff. Raiders of the Lost Ark assumed its audience had an adult sensibility, and whilst its sequels undoubtedly went for a lighter tone (for better or worse), they all took Indy’s adventures seriously. In KotCS the formula may be present – start with a mini-adventure, go back to college, head out again for stunts and punch-ups aplenty – but it’s as if Spielberg and producer/co-writer George Lucas resisted playing the film straight for fear of boring the kids. B-movie extravagances are part and parcel of Indy’s world, so I’m not particularly vexed about the silly ‘nuke the fridge’ moment; no, the things that ruin the movie are the unnecessarily stupid bits: reacting gophers, or rescue from quicksand using a snake. By the time LaBeouf’s ridiculous hairstyle was supposedly justified by a helpful troupe of bequiffed monkeys, my palm was hitting my face with painful regularity, and I got the uneasy feeling that Spielberg and/or Lucas were winking at me.
As for the much-criticised ‘Saucer men from Mars’ denouement, there’s effectively no difference between the religious supernatural and alien supernatural, but the appearance of aliens in the Indiana Jones universe simply doesn’t feel right (by the way, I don’t buy the story that Spielberg didn’t want to do another extra-terrestrial movie, but was talked round when the aliens became ‘inter-dimensional’).
Silly stories can be – not excused, exactly, but overlooked – if the resulting action is exciting (Highlander works on exactly this principle). However, Spielberg shoots himself in the foot by combining the franchise’s trademark combat on top of vehicles with overly polished special effects which highlight the fact that very little of the action takes place on location. This detracts greatly from the action since you’re never entirely sure what the actors/stuntmen are doing for themselves and what’s being done in the guts of a supercomputer. No doubt many of the stunts are real, but as the film progresses it becomes increasingly hard to tell as CGI effects become increasingly predominant and finally take over completely – the monkeys, the aggressive ants, almost everything at Akator. The viewer’s brain simply doesn’t accept that Indy’s life (or anyone else’s) is truly in danger, which is both an irony and a shame. The exciting, thrillingly real action of Raiders and its sequels influenced films like Romancing the Stone and games such as Tomb Raider and Uncharted; by relying so heavily on computer effects, KotCS feels as though it’s copying them rather than building on everything the previous Indiana Jones movies were so good at.
KotCS is a let-down in terms of plot and action, then, but any film can still be distinguished by its cast. Harrison Ford is thankfully pretty good, charismatic and still physically capable despite his advancing years, even if a plethora of middle-distance shots (plus the woefully inaccurate machine-gun fire of the enemy) bring late-Roger Moore-era Bond to mind. Sadly, others blow it. Shia LaBeouf has already fessed up to ‘dropping the ball’ as far as playing Son of Indy goes, and far from being a chip off the old block, he’s a bland, undercooked, soggy chip from the moment he pitches up as a Brando-wannabe greaser. Actually, that bit’s unintentionally funny; the rest of the time he’s merely as dull as he is detached, and he’s not the only one having an off day: Cate Blanchett labours under a horrible wig, unflattering uniform and equally ill-fitting accent; Allen is game but woefully underwritten, while Winstone’s Mac is a cockneyfied mess of muddled motivations. Finally, John Hurt is okay, though he must have had the thought ‘gibber all the way to the bank’ in his mind every second he had hold of that daft skull.
Fanboy culture can be vicious and childish, and you should ignore any review of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull claiming Spielberg and Lucas have sullied (or worse) the reviewer’s childhoods – in short, this is no Phantom Menace. KotCS has occasional bright spots, such as John Williams’ almost completely recycled music, and the quickest glimpse of a previous treasure; regrettably, the whole film acts as a reminder of past glories, and if this is the last we see of Dr Jones, it’s a shame that he bows out on such a flat note.