INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL Directed by Steven Spielberg, with Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Shia LaBeouf and Cate Blanchett. 124 minutes. A Paramount Pictures release. Opens today (Thursday, May 22). For venues and times, see listings. Rating: NNN
The last time George Lucas revisited one of his decades-old blockbuster trilogies, we ended up with Jar Jar Binks. In the new Indiana Jones, we get the slightly less laughable Mutt Williams, played by the slightly more multi-dimensional Shia LaBeouf.
The reason for adding Mutt to the Indy mythology is obvious: Harrison Ford is old enough to collect social security, and his last bona fide box office smash was 1997’s Air Force One.
LaBeouf, coming off hits Disturbia and Transformers, will bring in young moviegoers unfamiliar with the old fart in the fedora.
At least that’s the idea. While I applaud the attempt to shake the dust off, Mutt is too much of an annoying contrivance, like when tiresome sitcoms add a new kid to keep the series afloat. And like the film itself, he’ll likely appeal most to fans who grew up on the original films.
The original trilogy was an homage to the cliffhanger serials popular in the period in which they were set, the late 1930s. The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, both arriving in theatres and set some 19 years after Indiana and company literally rode off into the sunset, is planted squarely in the 1950s and pays homage to the drive-in blockbusters of that era. Those movies were about giant ants, atomic bombs and saucer men from Mars, and Indy IV gives us all three, thanks to a hokey plot better suited to the forthcoming X Files sequel.
It opens with a roadster crammed with giggling high schoolers trying to outrace an army convoy along a lonely stretch of desert highway. It’s the most thrilling sequence in the film, harkening back to the drag race in Lucas’s American Graffiti. It left me wishing we’d stuck with those kids instead of following the soldiers into Area 51, that military base near Roswell, New Mexico, where the U.S. government hides its most important secrets.
One of those secrets, the MacGuffin in the middle of all this, is the mysterious crystal skull, which is shaped like an alien’s head from director Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
Seems Stalin has an interest in paranormal artifacts, much as Hitler did – sadistic dictators think alike, I guess – and KGB Colonel Spalko (Cate Blanchett) is sent to hunt it down. Spalko has mind-?reading abilities, so it’s no wonder Blanchett, in a severe black haircut with lots of bangs, looks like a Vulcan.
The pursuit of the crystal skull leads to the usual Indy globe-trotting – to the Peruvian jungle, hidden ruins, booby traps and drops over not one, not two, but three waterfalls. Taken together, Indy’s quest is little more than a series of action set pieces strung precariously together.
And where previously he made his impossible escapes seem even more impossible (and he never came away unscathed), here his death-defying isn’t nearly so defiant.
But in this age of Bourne’s action supremacy and CGI-fuelled Michael Bayhem, there’s something quaintly thrilling about this distinctly old Hollywood old-school approach to action adventure. The fisticuffs, in the truest sense of the term, are refreshing for their very datedness.
Indy’s – and Ford’s – age makes for frequent punchlines, yet Ford is still whip smart and world-weary in the role. And it’s a tremendous kick to see him swing back into action.
Also back from the first film is Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who is introduced much too late and given far too little to do. Only during a prolonged truck chase along a cliff edge do we see any evidence of the brash spitfire that endeared her to Raiders fans.
As Indy once said, “It ain’t the years, honey, it’s the mileage,” and in this case Lucas, Spielberg and Ford run fresh outta blacktop around the time Mutt comes to the rescue by swinging through the jungle on vines while leading a monkey army. Still, just as I did at Raiders Of The Lost Ark when I was 10 years old, I left the theatre humming the theme… and I know I wasn’t alone.