Like the Paramount logo mountain peak in the now-famous opening dissolve that started it all nearly three decades ago, Raiders of the Lost Ark towers over the surrounding landscape. My friend and fellow critic Jeff Overstreet considers it the greatest action movie of all time, and I tend to agree.
On the one hand, while Raiders pays loving homage to the swashbuckling serials of the past, it transcends them as decisively as Star Wars transcended the adventures of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. On the other hand, while Raiders, together with Star Wars, essentially created a whole genre of popcorn-adventure imitators still going strong today, little if anything in the past 27 years has come close to even rivaling the original.
This includes the imitators that happen to have Indiana Jones in the title. As I’ve written elsewhere, there never was a persuasive series here; there’s just Raiders, followed by a couple of Indiana Jones flicks. The sequels may have imitated that famous opening shot with the mountaintop, but it was just homage to homage. The real peak was never reached again.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seems aware of this from the very first shot, which of course begins with the Paramount logo, and then dissolves to something considerably smaller than any of the previous pinnacles in the earlier films. This shouldn’t necessarily be taken to suggest that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the least consequential of Dr. Jones’ adventures, but perhaps it is the most aware that it will never rival the original.
The 19 years since the last Indy film are both a limitation and an asset. As with other recent ’80s nostalgia sequels like Live Free or Die Hard, Terminator 3 and Rocky Balboa, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull comes so late that it feels more like legitimate homage than an effort to continue the franchise per se. Where a real sequel asks what happened next, these latter-day homages ask, “Where are they now?”
With that different question come different expectations. We might hope for a superior achievement, but we know better than to expect more than popcorn entertainment, pretty much disposable except for nostalgia value. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull delivers what we expect. Don’t hope for more.
Like John McClane in Live Free or Die Hard, Indy can’t pretend to be the same man he once was, and Lucas and Spielberg have allowed Indy to age into the Eisenhower era. Russians, obviously, are the new Nazis, but it’s more than that. Indy’s roots are in 1930s pulp fiction; the pulp fiction of the 1950s had different concerns, from science fiction to spy stories.
Accordingly, the iconography of 1950s culture is here, from the startling image at the end of the bravura first act to the sense-overloading special-effects extravaganza of the finale. The soundtrack includes Elvis and the Everly Brothers, and hot-rodding, anti-Red demonstrations and references to espionage and McCarthyism all put in appearances. Indy’s youthful sidekick, the oddly named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), is a leather-jacketed biker overtly, if entirely superficially, recalling Brando in The Wild One. Yet the title itself signals that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is still a 1930s Republic serial at heart. Ancient temples and deathtraps, vehicular fight scenes, lost cities, creepy-crawly vermin and literal cliffhanging remain very much the order of the day.
The title, alas, also points to the film’s key weakness, a mystical artifact du jour — like the sankara stones in Temple of Doom — that doesn’t ring any bells for the average moviegoer. Raiders and Last Crusade were both set in a Judeo-Christian context, lending them an aura of importance, even spiritual significance. With Raiders, they had us at “Lost Ark”; and of course the Holy Grail is, well, the Holy Grail. After that, perhaps almost anything would have been anticlimactic, but surely they could have done better than going back to mystic stone artifacts from some tribal culture.
At least Crystal Skull basically avoids the potential pitfalls of New Age gooeyness lurking on all sides of the subject matter. Crystal skulls really do exist, though they don’t look like the ones in the film. The real ones are touted by enthusiasts as mystic pre-Columbian Mesoamerican artifacts, exceeding the capacity of pre-modern craftsmanship and possessing psychic or healing powers — claims connected with New Age beliefs in ancient visitors from the stars, pre-modern super-technology, and the paranormal properties of crystals. (Experts believe crystal skulls are of modern origin.)
The movie plays with this iconography, with black-bobbed Russki villainess Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), a Soviet parapsychologist researcher searching for magical MacGuffins with potential military applications against Western democracy. But here doesn’t seem to be any particular worldview hiding in the wings, even when Spalko sneers, “Belief, Dr. Jones, is a gift you have yet to receive.”
“Oh, I believe, sweetheart,” Indy shoots back, meaning, as far as I can tell, that he believes that his adventures tend to end in paranormal pyrotechnics, and it’s best to stay out of the way of that sort of thing.
The one way in which Crystal Skull does hark back to Raiders is the welcome return of Karen Allen as Indy’s one true love, Marion Ravenwood. The rapport of their scenes together, even when they’re bickering, represents all that was lacking in earlier sequels with their inconsequential female leads.
In other ways, though, the film continues the trajectory of the sequels, which got progressively sillier and more over-the-top. Last Crusade does have some rollicking action scenes, but without the restraint and minimal sop to realism that make for real excitement. Ironically, the more they ramp up the action, the less exciting it is.
Crystal Skull’s best scenes are more low-key. I love the sequence with Indy and Marion sinking into a pit of sand, which makes the situation about the characters rather than the crisis. I also appreciate a brief exchange between Indy and Mutt about the latter’s dropout status, allowing Indy to be a real person with opinions, values and an outlook on life, not just a swashbuckling grandpa.
What could be Indy’s last bow ends on a nostalgic, fan-pleasing note, and for a moment playfully flirts with the notion of the fedora passing to Shia’s character. But the movie is smart enough to know that there will never be another Indy — and, even in his 60s, Indy has too much panache to pass the torch to some wet-behind-the-ears wannabe. The fedora belongs to him, now and forever.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.