A lot of people, some of whom I respect, really hate this movie with a passion. To them, the fourth installment of the Indiana Jones series is an abomination that shit all over their collective childhoods.
My view of things is a lot more conflicted… First, much as the original Indiana Jones films are classic, iconic, even masterful, works of art, I’m not one for the argument that a new work of art should change how I feel about something I love. Raiders of the Lost Ark, to my mind, is about as close to a perfect action film as I could imagine; no amount of problematic storytelling could change that.
Second, it’s hardly as if the Indiana Jones series is a cinematic masterpiece to begin with. The first one, sure, is great – but The Last Crusade, and especially Temple of Doom, are both flawed films, in the case of Temple of Doom, extremely so. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is flawed, yes, but its not flawed in entirely different ways from previous films.
For all of these reasons, much as the easy crutch to fall upon is to shit all over a film for not living up to your (unrealistic) expectations, its important to judge a film on its own merits. So let’s do that.
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a flawed film, but the action direction of cinematic genius Steven Spielberg allows the film to overcome those flaws. It’s easy to forget, because so much of his recent work is more ponderous, that once upon a time Steven Spielberg was not just the premiere action filmmaker of his generation, but perhaps of all time. In Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, he has some new toys to play with, as well. Though at times the CGI in this film can border on distracting, for the most part he manages to blend modern visual effects with traditional filmmaking in ways that are natural and add to the action. Beyond just visual effects that create the most vivid elements of imagination, Spielberg uses CGI to enhance the camerawork, allowing us to follow the action in ways that would be difficult or downright impossible otherwise.
When Spielberg isn’t so busy with CGI distractions, he remains the master of the set-up and payoff – his action scenes are utterly predictable in all the best ways, every detail that was set-up previously paying off in action later on. This has long been his modus operandi, and it’s true of the humorous elements of his films as well.
The score of the film is instantly and persistently effective, a tremendous blend of past leitmotifs and new sounds, unmistakably the work of John Williams, and unquestionable.
Harrison Ford, playing a more grizzled, older Indiana Jones, may not have the same charisma he had in his youth, but it’s 90% there. It’s the same old Indy, a man who in one moment can think fast on his feet in a brawl, in another moment prescribe homework to a student without a moment’s hesitation.
Pitted up against Indy is Cate Blanchett as the Russian Irina Spalko, a Soviet agent who chews scenery like no other, and brings an impressive set of skills to the table. We’ve seen strong women before in this series, and villainous women too, but Irina Spalko is a particularly compelling and memorable villain, a woman who can go toe to toe with anyone in a battle of swords or wits. Cate Blanchett’s performance once again reminds us that she is one of the great living actresses of a generation, even in a genre role like this one.
Let’s talk about what doesn’t work in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – and to be clear, there are a number of things that don’t work.
Let’s start with the obvious: Mutt. It makes perfect sense to introduce a younger replacement to Indiana Jones from a franchise perspective, but I’m not sure this is really the character that anyone wanted. Mutt, as played by Shia LeBeouf, wears the clothes and hair of a greaser, but it’s clear that this is an act. What is less clear, unfortunately, is who he is beneath the greaser act. He’s a bit too obnoxious to be a younger version of his father, and there just isn’t really a clear characterization. A lot of people blame Shia LeBeouf for this; I think his performance is commendable but there really isn’t enough for him to work with. To be sure, we’ve seen what bad Shia LeBeouf looks like (in the Transformers films, for instance), and this is not that.
It’s also not clear that making Mutt the son of Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), from Raiders, is the best decision. Again, it’s a natural decision, to tie Mutt into the first, most famous, of the films, and to bring back a beloved character. But Marion never appeared in either of the two sequels, and watching this, it kind of feels like a character that maybe we didn’t need to see again. She’s not given nearly enough to do to justify her appearance beyond the semblance of creating an emotional arc for Indy.
Speaking of the emotional arc of the film, there are two main ones, and it’s really clear that one of these emotional arcs is not necessary. Simply put, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull should have been a father-son movie.
These are the main sins of the film; I could continue at length about this film, about its misuse of a great character actor like the late John Hurt, or the underuse of Jim Broadbent. But I could also highlight many more things that I found compelling, exciting, or fun, about this film.
It raises to mind the following thought: If any other director made a film like this one, we’d be applauding their sheer ambition, the scope and scale of their vision, the audacity to attempt to tell a story like this, to renew a beloved series of films. But since it’s Spielberg, and we know what he’s capable of, we expect nothing short of perfection. That’s a big ask, even for a veteran like Spielberg. Frankly, I’ll take what I can get, which is why I’m looking forward to the upcoming fifth Indiana Jones film, to be directed by Spielberg and released in 2020.