Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Or more like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Da Vinci National Treasure X-Files Mummy Code*

If there is one thing that can be said about the latest Indiana Jones movie to come out in nearly twenty years, it's this: don't let anyone ever tell you that a 65-year-old man can't play an action hero. Harrison Ford remains a stalwart marvel in this film, and anyone deigning to make walker and wheelchair jokes can quietly set about eating crow. Forturnately and unfortunately, however, there is much more to say about Indiana Jones and Words...Words...Words... Let's start with the good news.

There is no shortage of thrills in the latest installment in this franchise. From breathtaking chases through city streets and rainforests, to some downright creepy moments (particularly for the insect-phobic), Kingdom delivers the adrenaline-laced goods without hesitation. Harrison Ford portrays the older and wiser Indy exactly as he should have, as a man who has visibly aged, who is a little slower, more cautious, less cocky, and not quite as lithe, but who is just as hardy and determined, and perhaps even smarter with age. Shia LaBeouf was also a welcome addition to the cast, and made cocky greaser Mutt Williams likeable and relatively sympathetic.

Now, for the not-so-good, which unfortunately tips the scales. What made Temple of Doom fall far from the greatness of the first film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and solified it's last place on the roster after The Last Crusade was lack of chemistry between Indy and another leading character. There was no Marian Ravenwood or Henry Jones Sr. that allowed Indiana's charisma to shine, and the movie simply failed to ignite on the character level. The very same can be said for Kingdom. Although it doesn't disappoint as much Temple of Doom did, it didn't come close to rising to the occasion of matching the interpersonal magic other two movies. While it was intended for Shia Lebouf to fill the heartfelt character role, there wasn't quite enough substance there to allow their chemistry to flourish. The return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood should also have been enthusiastically welcome, but the result fell short as the story did little more than just stick her in the middle of the action with nothing to do other than inspire nostalgia and deliver insipid dialog.

The villains were also a weakspot in this film. Because the plot takes place in the mid-50s, Indiana Jones is no longer fighting Nazis. The country is at the height of the Red Scare, so Russians are the enemy, and Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) is public enemy number one. Leading a group of Russians to acquire the ultimate in psychic weaponry from the Peruvian rainforests, her aim is to ultimately rule the world through mind-control. Blanchett clearly had fun with the role, enunciating every Ukrainian-tinged syllable with abundant zest. The problem is she wasn't nearly imposing enough. If the idea of an enemy is to create a sense of danger for our heroes, she actually failed quite miserably.

But now to the most controversial plot addition to the Indiana series. It is one that will have fans split down the middle and perhaps more than one person seething at the name of George Lucas at a level that nearly tops the ire directed toward the Star Wars prequels. Although Lucas didn't physically write the screenplay, his influence over the story feels quite palpable here. Indiana Jones has faced all manner of supernatural events, from the lethal energy of the Ark of the Covenant to the healing power of the Holy Grail. We accepted these things because he was just as much of a skeptic as the rest of us. But science fiction? Aliens? UFOs? This may just be asking too much for even the most ardent Indy fan to accept.

Some will argue that it fits the timeframe of the story well, as pop culture and folklore revolved heavily around UFO sightings at the time not to mention what happened in Roswell, New Mexico, and if the adventures of Indiana Jones are based on the pulp adventure stories of their time, there is nothing incongruent here. The problem is in the execution, as it puts Indy on completely different territory than we're used to seeing him. As a bit of a realist, he's normally just as skeptical as we are about some of these legends, and in that healthy skepticism, we always had someone we could trust. Jones knows Gods, idols, and artifacts of human civilization, and he is a dependable hero because we are able to rely on his knowledge of these things to carry him through danger, and by the end, we always felt he learned something new and was significally affected by what he saw. But even Jones was a little out of his element here, and the climax just felt awkward. He seemed neither surprised nor affected much by what he saw, and as a result, the audience can't help but be underwhelmed as well.

Overall, though, the film was not as major a disappointment as it could have been, based on the fact that what it did do right, it did well enough to keep a smile on my face, even if I felt that it was on a different dimension from the other films. The enduring likeability of Harrison Ford has a lot to do with this. Even with its slightly lackluster dialog, 2-dimensional characters, and its higher-than-normal demands on the viewer to suspend disbelief, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a worthy enough trip to the theater. The key is just lowering your expectations and shutting off that part of your brain that insists on adding logic to the mix, which has always been key to enjoying any Indiana Jones film. Just be sure to bring along your tolerance for whimsy on this one, because you're definitely going to need it.

Final Grade: B-

*Caption help courtesy of Ian T. Healy, good friend and fellow writer.

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