“How much of human life is lost in waiting?”
The Indiana Jones films have always been about fun. They’re a similar sort of throwback to the days of the pulp serials as the Star Wars films, but while Star Wars tells one story over six films in a science-fantasy environment, Indiana Jones tells different stories in the real world, but under fantastic circumstances. And Indy, our hero, may share the stage with companions on each go, but he’s very much the sole star, and the reason we keep coming back for more. He’s everything a hero should be: tough, smart, quick-witted and brave, and he always wants to do the right thing. And at times the circumstances by which he escapes death are pretty much impossible, but that’s fine with us, because he’s our hero. And the hero always gets out alive.
Raiders of the Lost Ark set the stage for what would become one of the top-grossing film franchises of the twentieth century. We had our hero, the girl (who was not only a love interest but pretty quick-witted herself), the sidekicks and, of course, the nasty villains. Ark was (and still is) a perfect example of the pulpy action adventure film. It was exciting. It was engrossing. It had a great story with great characters. It was fun. Indiana Jones, archaeologist, professor and adventurer, had the rugged good looks, the snappy fedora, and man was he good with that whip. He took on the dreaded Nazis and fought to retrieve the legendary Ark of the Covenant. And when it came down to tampering with said Ark, he survived because, as our hero, he knew exactly what to do. Indy takes chances, but he knows where to draw the line.
The sequel (which was technically a prequel) was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a film that followed a rather different pattern, and one that would remain different as its successors would more closely follow the formula of the first film. Temple of Doom is my personal favorite entry in the series (yes, I agree Willie Scott is damned annoying, but let’s face it: her idiocy is one of the most amusing things about the film). It’s much darker than all the others, and the violence is a bit more brutal… hell, this movie, along with Gremlins, is what led to the creation of the PG-13 rating. But in spite of its dark nature, it never forgets to be fun, and the action is incredible. The mine cart sequence remains one of the true great action scenes of the movie world. Let’s face it. They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was the first one of the series that I personally had the pleasure of seeing in the theater, and while it didn’t quite live up to the first two films, it was still very good. Indy was again pitted against the Nazis, hoping to be the first to find another holy treasure (in this case, the Holy Grail), and of course he’s forced into some wild situations, though ones not quite as fantastic as the first two outings. Still, he’s got Sallah and Marcus (friends from Ark) back to help him (well, Marcus doesn’t really help that much, but we love the bumbling old fool anyway), along with his dad, who proves nearly as big a burden as he is a help, and because of his presence we come to learn quite a bit about our hero. In fact, that was one of Last Crusade‘s major weaknesses; the film’s 1912 opening sought to explain everything from Indy’s chin scar to his fear of snakes. At times it felt like they were just trying to cram too much in, leaving less room for all the fantastic action we love. Still, we got a good escape sequence involving airplanes, and Indy’s mad battle with a Nazi tank was an unbeatable scene of intensity, though the film’s climax was a very close second. It was still a lot of fun, even if it simply wasn’t as amazing a film.
Then, the series went into development hell, and aside from a TV series that star Harrison Ford really wasn’t involved with outside of a couple token appearances, we heard nothing from our hero. We had stopped at a mere trilogy, shorted two films (oh yeah, for those of you not in the know, series co-creator George Lucas had originally promised five Indiana Jones films back in the day) that it seemed we would never get to see. So we all joined Indy in his past adventures again thanks to home video, and enjoyed what we had.
Now, at last, we have Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the long-awaited fourth film in the series. Yeah, it’s been nineteen years since Ford played the character, but age hasn’t slowed our hero down. Oh, sure, he looks older, but that’s about it. He’s still tough. He’s still quick-witted. He’s smarter than ever. He’s still damn good with that whip. And yes, he’s still afraid of snakes.
We’ve jumped ahead in time to 1957, and with the Nazis gone, our hero now faces the Soviets, commanded by Ukrainian Colonel-Doctor Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), a supporter of psychic warfare who, unfortunately for our hero, is also pretty good with a rapier and knows a bit of karate on top of that. She’s all business, and proves quite a match for Indy and his companions. She’s also after quite a remarkable artifact and brings Indy to the very warehouse we saw at the end of Ark in search of it. In addition to a terrific opening action scene, we get a fun, brief second look at the Ark. Good thing for the Soviets they weren’t interested in its power the way the Nazis were.
But what are the Soviets after? A body, which Indy himself helped exhume ten years prior. And not just any body. The body of an extra-terrestrial. One with a curiously-shaped head. And with a skeleton of pure crystal.
Indy, at first, looks as though he might gain the upper hand, but his longtime friend Mac (Ray Winstone) betrays him, forcing him to make his dazzling escape alone. We’re back to the more fantastic daring escapes that we loved so much in the first two films, including Indy surviving a nuclear blast by shutting himself in a refrigerator (“Those things can be deathtraps!” General Ross (Alan Dale) remarks later on). Indy’s involvement with the Soviets (and Mac) attracts the attention of the FBI, who suspect him of communism, and now Indy’s teaching job is in peril, with his friend Dean Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent) forced into resigning just to save Indy’s career. It seems Indy’s days with the university are over, and possibly his adventure is over, too.
Enter Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), who brings Indy a letter written in gibberish by old friend and colleague Harold “Ox” Oxley (John Hurt). Mutt has a bad attitude, rides a motorcycle and really keeps after that meticulously combed hair, but he forms a bond with Indy after being impressed at his abilities. “For an old man, you ain’t bad in a fight,” he says.
Turns out Ox’s gibberish is actually a riddle in a long-dead language, but Indy being our hero manages to decipher it, and he and Mutt are off to Peru. The artifact Indy is after this time is the titular Crystal Skull, from the same species of creature as the one Indy exhumed ten years ago. As we come to learn, this creature was not only thought of as God by the Mayans, but is the same one hidden in Area 51 in Roswell. It appears these beings, whatever they may be called, have quite an involvement with Earth history. And the Skull has unusual properties; it attracts metal (and even gold) like a magnet, and has quite a powerful psychic effect on humans and animals. In fact, the Skull is the reason Ox is currently insane.
Mutt’s reason for making the trip, however, is because he wishes to rescue not only his old friend Ox, but his mother as well, who herself went looking for him before only to be kidnapped. And, surprise of surprises, his mother is none other than Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen, reprising her role from Raiders of the Lost Ark), and no sooner are she and Indy reunited than they’re bickering again. “Same old, same old,” Indy mutters.
The next revelation more surprising, and let’s just say in involves Mutt’s real name being Henry. I’ll leave you to figure out the rest.
Mutt is quite the bad boy. He’s quit numerous schools and considers formal education a waste of time. He admits being good with a blade but considers it to be a useless skill along with everything else schools teach. This sounds like just a bunch of throwaway information, but it serves as a convenient explanation for what comes later.
Hanging around Indy brings out a better side in Mutt, and he begins to demonstrate the same sort of smarts and toughness as Indy, especially when he takes on Irina in a fencing duel. Marion proves that time hasn’t slowed her down any, either, and saves Indy’s skin more than once. And, while they hadn’t parted on good terms before, she and Indy warm up to each other again, which Mutt doesn’t seem to take too well.
The destination: Akator, the ancient city of gold (called “El Dorado” by the Conquistadors), where the Crystal Skull must be returned. The one who returns the Skull gains the powers hidden in Akator, and this is what Irina and the Soviets are really after. Indy, of course, means to return the Skull because it’s the right thing to do (plus it told him to), and the trick is to get there first. Which isn’t so easy, especially when aggressive natives, soldiers with guns and an army of the most dangerously intelligent man-eating ants ever are in the way.
What we’re treated to here is a feast of fun. Crystal Skull returns the series to its fantastic roots, giving us exciting action (and lots of it), with daring, impossible escapes and pulse-pounding events like Indy and his friends falling down three waterfalls in a row. We have a truly relentless group of villains and a love interest that never gets in the way of the adventure. We have John Williams’ epic score once again. We even have aliens! And not just any aliens, either; they’re inter-dimensional beings according to Ox. They don’t take their flying saucer into space, but into “the space between spaces”. Hey, it’s no more unbelievable than an Ark that melts a Nazi’s face!
Everyone in the cast gives good performances. Age hasn’t slowed Ford down a bit; he’s proven he’s really NOT too old to play Indiana Jones. LaBeouf is also quite good. This young man has already shown in movies like Disturbia and Transformers that he can do acting and action like a pro, and he fits in quite well here. Blanchett is superb as Irina. Hard to believe this woman of action was once Galadriel. Allen and Winstone give their roles their all and play off of Ford’s quieter performance perfectly. And Hurt is good in everything he does.
Is this as fresh as Raiders of the Lost Ark? No. Is this as intense as Temple of Doom? No. But is it as much fun? You better believe it. It’s brought the series back with a bang, and without a single dull moment. On my scale, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull gets a 10/10. Everyone should have the pleasure of seeing at least one Indiana Jones movie in the theater during their lifetime, and this one does the trick nicely. Now we just need that promised fifth film. Yeah, George, I’m talkin’ to you. Just don’t make us wait nineteen more years, okay? If you do, Ford really WILL be too old to play Indy. But right now he isn’t, and this damn fun film proves it.
Welcome back, Indy. We’ve really missed you.