If the Indiana Jones films were never exactly realistic, they were at least grounded; they were rooted in archaeology, in the earth—in the discovery of things ancient and mysterious, yes, but always terrestrial. Jones himself was grounded too, an unlikely hero by turns deft and incompetent, benefiting from equal doses of intelligence and dumb luck. And that made him all the more charming and his adventures all the more appealing. For the wide-eyed child in the audience, there was no need to conjure images of outer space, of aliens or monsters or supernatural powers; all you needed was a hat, a jacket and a rope. The fantasy was all the more effective for containing the illusion that it was within reach.
Throughout the first three films, producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg kept the series fairly close to that essential premise. As much as possible, they kept Indiana Jones’ feet on the ground, or at least somewhere beneath—in tunnels, in caverns, in crypts and caves. And that’s precisely where the latest installment loses its footing.
As entertainment, it’s good enough. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is pleasant viewing for two hours, with all the ingredients you expect from the series: ultra-villianous villians who, despite all their diabolical powers, simply can’t shoot straight; mysterious rites and riddles encoded on crumbling parchment; plenty of self-effacing humor, even if it isn’t always all that humorous; and that familiar, charming self-awareness, an attitude that shamelessly embraces the inherent absurdity of the whole enterprise.
The series began as a throwback to the old serials that accompanied the feature each week at movie theaters across America. It was both an homage and a modern update of those cliffhangers of yesteryear, a wild, silly ride through unlikely scenarios, with thrilling action and an utter lack of pretentiousness. It’s hard to expect series to retain its allure through one sequel much less three, but with nearly 20 years passing since the last film, expectations run abnormally high. So while there’s really not all that much to complain about—it’s still better than much of what passes for action entertainment these days, and takes itself far less seriously—Crystal Skull still manages to lose sight of one of the franchise’s essential charms.
Almost from the start, there’s something not quite right. There are hints of the supernatural waiting at the heart of the mystery, and the plot always seems poised for a plunge into Erich Von Daniken territory. But there’s always the hope that the inherent pragmatism of the character and his creators will reign in the excesses and that the solution will ultimately prove to be terrestrial in origin.
And yet, after two hours of chases that are three minutes longer than you’d like and four minutes longer than necessary, fight scenes with so many punches thrown that it seems there’s a quota in place, and three—count ‘em, three—waterfalls through which John Hurt never loses his grip on the prize, we come to an absurdly un-Indy-like ending that almost renders the hero obsolete during a spectacularly unspectacular special effects sequence. As a swirling paranormal maelstrom of destruction swirls overhead, Jones stands small and silhouetted in the immediate foreground, a mere observer of digital effects that are meaningless, emotionless and, despite all their fury, dramaless. Cast in shadow and virtually inanimate, Indiana looks, for all intents and purposes, like one of us, like a member of the audience just a few rows ahead—and just as irrelevant to the action on screen.
Despite the whirlwind of gimmickry that has been added to the formula, it is the old standbys that still deliver—the snakes, scorpions, quicksand, and, in one of the film’s most effective sequences, a swarming colony of man-eating ants. Lucas and Spielberg could have saved themselves a great deal of trouble had they stuck with the creepy-crawlies and stayed clear of the close encounters.