Twenty-seven years ago Indiana Jones first arrived on the screen in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Since then he’s made three sequels and been subject to endless novelizations, games and parodies. We’ve gotten to know Indy pretty well over this last generation, well enough to recognize Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for what it is, a pastiche of the first three movies mixed together with heaps of nostalgia and George Lucas’ own derivative brand of mythology and alternative archeology.
When Indiana Jones makes his appearance after 19 years in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it’s clear that he’s gotten a lot older and softer, but it’s also clear that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have gotten a lot older and softer too. Like its lead, its director and its visionary, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull still has some energy, but it’s bloated, slow and guilty of repeating itself.
The adventurous hero is gone replaced by a tired old man, a former government agent who worries about his job, defends his war record and clings nervously to the back of Shia LeBeouf’s motorcycle. A silly character who flails panicked in the swamp at the thought of grabbing onto a snake until Shia LeBeouf calms his fears by telling him it’s a rope. Lucas and Spielberg leave in just enough heroics for us to recognize the old Indiana Jones, but it’s a disappointed recognition like meeting a favorite uncle only to realize that he’s grown senile and can barely go to the bathroom on his own.
Much of the blame goes to George Lucas, the man behind the rewrite of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, who doesn’t spare Indiana Jones from the same ravages he inflicted on Star Wars. Not only is the old Indiana Jones gone but he’s virtually a supporting character in his own movie which teams him up with Shia LeBeouf as his bratty long lost son, Mutt Williams, Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, Ray Winstone as Mac and finally John Hurt as a mentally challenged Professor Oxley who speaks in riddles. Indiana Jones always had his sidekicks but in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it’s more like he’s another member of the Indy gang, which is exactly what Lucas likely intended.
Where Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom began in foreign locales, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull begins in exotic Nevada and then heads off to an even more exotic Ivy League college campus. Over a third of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull goes by before Indiana Jones even leaves American soil. Once he does there’s a single plane trip and then it’s a generic South American locale, complete with generic tribesmen with painted faces. Indiana Jones movies were always journey movies, but even that is lost as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull focuses its attention on two sprawling complexes, the Area 51 complex and the lost city and the area around it. There’s no real adventure because there’s hardly any room for adventure.
So what’s left? Steven Spielberg seemed terribly worried that spoilers would leak out to the audience, but every single plot twist and revelation in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull can be easily seen coming. Is there anyone in the audience who really doesn’t know well beforehand that Mutt Williams will turn out to be Indiana Jones’ son. Or that Mac is really working for the Russians even when he pretends not to be. Or that the crystal skulls belong to aliens or even that the pyramid will likely be a spaceship or that in the tradition of Indiana Jones villains, Irina Spalko will get exactly what she wants and it will destroy her. But Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s script is too determined to spoil it for you in case you can’t figure it out for yourself by actually having Indiana Jones come right out and tell her that early on in the movie.
Where the classic Indiana Jones films had the edge of the politically incorrect serials combined with the best scares, twists and action scenes that Spielberg could pull off, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is safely toned down and kid friendly. The creatures that pop up in the movie, from monkeys to red ants to a giant snake are safely CGI and look as unreal as anything in the Mummy films. To make Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull fully family friendly, Lucas and Spielberg even make sure that there’s a family on screen having actual adventures. It’s as if Terminator got remade by the director of Lassie.
By the time Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ends with an on screen wedding and Indiana Jones and Mutt Williams tussling for his signature hat, a not too subtle symbolic suggestion that Shia LeBeouf will be the star of the Indiana Jones movies pretty soon, it’s clear that while Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn’t quite another Phantom Menace, it’s so watered down and weak that it barely connects not only as an action movie or an adventure, but as anything beyond a diffuse nostalgia trip and a merchandising opportunity. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is Indiana Jones on life support, not so much because Harrison Ford got old, but because George Lucas and Steven Spielberg did, and seeing it reminds us that while Indiana Jones is still capable of cracking the whip, the men who made the gutsy movies and created the modern blockbuster are the ones who have lost their edge.