Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Keep digging, Shia. We’ll tell you what the hole is for in a second.

Theatrical Release Date: 05/22/2008
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Shia LaBeouf, Ray Winstone, Karen Allen, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent

“You’re Junior. We named the dog Indiana.” This classic Sean Connery line spoken to Harrison Ford in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” continually manages to amuse me … though it’s being tested now that Steven Spielberg and George “buy my Star Wars products” Lucas have brought a fourth film to the franchise with “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”.

I say it’s being tested because it enables the naming of the possible heir to the archeological adventure franchise as Mutt Williams, played by Hollywood’s “it” boy, Shia LaBeouf. It’s no secret I’m not a fan of his, only liking his jittery, fast-talking brand of acting in “Holes” or as a voice in “Surf’s Up“. Since then, he’s gone on the play the same part in a number of films, both independent (“The Battle of Shaker Heights”, “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints”) and big-budget studio (“I, Robot”, “Constantine”, “Transformers“). Go ahead and try to find a difference in his characters other than geographic locale and the name in the credits … It’s not fun to attempt the impossible, is it?

In any case, with “Crystal Skull”, a new threat to the American way of life is posed and it’s up to Indiana and friends to stop it. It’s 1957 and the Cold War is in full swing, with McCarthyism and the Red Scare sweeping the nation. Enter in the amazing Cate Blanchett as a Soviet “doctor”, hell bent on attaining the power derived from possession of the Crystal Skull to tip the balance in favor of the Iron Curtain. She and her commie cronies remain hot on Indy’s heels as he attempts to unravel the mystery behind the legend and keep it’s value away from the Soviets.

That is, he sort of unravels the mystery. What made “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Last Crusade” so much fun was watching Indiana discover the secrets step by step. One clue led to another, and then another, and yet another, as Indy reconciled myths and legends with reality. Here, he deciphers a coded letter to find someone and then follows their lead to the end. While still fun, I missed having the discovery of things along the way.

Also, there’s a thematic bent surrounding the great mystery that didn’t quite sit right with me, when looking at the previous films. Sure, there were paranormal aspects before but this time, Spielberg, Lucas and screenwriter (of the final script) David Koepp all came together to envision a story that is one part Indiana Jones and two parts science fiction. I would have preferred a more grounded answer for the myths in question.

And trying not to give anything away, in regards to part of the mystery, there’s an allusion to the 13 apostles in Christian religion. However, this never gets more than a passing sentence and while I don’t need to get all “Da Vinci Code” about it, following that thread seemed like a train of thought the filmmakers forgot/declined to get into even though they were the ones who brought it up.

The acting is good all-around … aside from never believing that LaBeouf could be a motorcycle-driving greaser. (It was hilarious to see a driving double for him when the motorcycle had to do anything more than go in a straight line at moderate speed). Ford recaptures most of the essence of his character, and did as good of a job as possible to look the part, considering this is set 10 years after “Last Crusade” and it’s actually been 19 years.

Karen Allen’s return, while sadly more of a plot device for possible sequels than anything else, was a nice touch. Her energy really lifts the film up and gives Indiana the verbal sparring partner found in each installment of the franchise.

Behind the camera, Douglas Slocombe, who had been the cinematographer for the first three films had retired so Spielberg had Janusz Kaminski (who’s done all of his cinematography for the last 15 years) emulate Slocombe’s style as much as possible to retain the same look. Kaminiski was able to do so for the most part, helping “Crystal Skull” fit in with its much older sibling films.

Also helping to bridge the lengthy gap between films are numerous references to the original trilogy. From a shot of the Ark of the Covenent, to Indy’s fear of snakes, to the return of Karen Allen, to the cheesy (and fun) drawn-out character introductions, to the red line spanning a map as Indy travels to new locales – the nostalgia of it all helped create a wonderful atmosphere to soak in the new material. It would have been nice to see a few more homages to its predecessors (the opening transition of the old Paramount logo into a prairie dog hole was nice) but there is a fine line between tipping your hat and completely showing your hand, so overall the balance was okay with me.

I also give Spielberg points for avoiding the multiple ending phenomenon he’s been suffering from in recent films and getting the overall tone of the Indiana Jones franchise back on-screen so many, many … many, many … many, many years later. If there’s a critic proof film this summer, it’s this. So really, do you care what I rate this? Well, if you do (and you should), I’ll give “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” a 3 out of 5.

But hey! That’s an average rating, you say? Don’t take that to mean that I didn’t enjoy the film. It does capture the essence of the franchise but between introducing us to the possible future/demise of the franchise in Shia LaBeouf and focusing the plot on a sci-fi angle that’s more near and dear to Spielberg than the franchise, I just found too many things that didn’t work for me. Without my aversion to LaBeouf, I’d have given this another point so take that into account if it helps.

There’s also a scene in which Indy escapes utter annihilation in a comic and fun manner but it’s so implausible that I still can’t quite rectify it. Yes, he and his friends have survived unbelievable events before but never like this … this is taking it to a whole new level of tossing out the laws of science … when you see the film, you’ll know what I’m talking about … and will also be wondering just how in the hell our beloved hero didn’t die twenty minutes into the film (not that I’m complaining … much).

I suppose one could argue that this is still worth seeing, especially (and obviously) for those who loved the first three films. Just don’t expect as complete a film as either “Raiders” of “Last Crusade” … and with no glorious return of Short Round, I’d take “Temple of Doom” over this too. I think this is better than “Iron Man“, which had the head start on the summer blockbuster season, but I’m hoping that “The Dark Knight” is better than both of these put together. Only time will tell.