Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg, 2008)
Twenty years is a huge amount of time especially in this age of very rapid technological advancements and global warming. If we are to believe Al Gore, we might actually get to see the green in Greenland in tweny years time. While twenty years is enough time for the entire humankind to change continents, it took the creative team of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas a little bit less than twenty years (it has been around nineteen years since Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) rode into the sunset in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade (1989)) to mount another adventure for Hollywood's most famous archeologist.
Plotwise, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull manages to bridge the two decade-gap, with Indiana Jones evidently carrying the physical burdens of old age (which we're constantly reminded of by several gags and jokes). Indy is forced to resume his adventuring ways when a group of Russian commies, headed by a very devious Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, sporting a hammy Russian accent, to my heart's guilty delight), plucks him out of retirement to locate a relic he unearthed long ago from Roswell. His involvement with the commies gets him into trouble with the American government, which is also busy penetrating into the atomic age (the film's most enduring frame is when Indy stands against a mushroom cloud; forget the flimsy science behind his survival and just indulge in the moment where pop icon is pitted against historical icon). He is sacked from his professorial job; runs into punk-with-a-mission Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) who turns out to be the son of a former flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); and gets deeply involved in Irina's obsession for finding the mythical city of the crystal skulls.
The story starts out thick with promise and intrigue. The idea of having Indy traverse through the annals of history (getting victimized by McCarthy's paranoid government, surviving the atomic bomb) and of having a film icon suffer through the repercussions of old age (which is becoming a Hollywood trend with the re-introduction of several aging screen heroes in Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, 2006), Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, 2007) and Live Free or Die Hard (Len Wiseman, 2007)) is witty. It's just too bad that Spielberg and Lucas' team cannot extend that initial fascination with their hero's humanity and his place in human history to deeper lengths, or at least beyond the occasional jokes. As such, history is a mere backdrop for the film; with the Cold War-scenario as plausible precursor to the film's slight 50's sci-fi elements; the recognizable moments as reason for cinematographer Janusz Kaminski to compose frames worthy of the covers of cinematographers' journals and film magazines.
Spielberg and Lucas is clearly more interested in exploiting the franchise rather than deepening the lore behind the films. Thus, Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is more of the same. It's not exactly a bad thing, but it ain't good either. The movie's a lot of fun, with its relentless jungle chases and its tomb-raiding, puzzle-solving, twist-revealing excesses. While it's a novelty seeing a sixty plus year old Indiana Jones dodge punches and breeze through traps, it certainly wears off easily. The movie doesn't have the same vitality, the same that made the past three Indiana Jones flicks so watchable. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like the product of a long-retired franchise revived and kept alive by a pacemaker. In other words, the movie runs on a mechanical heart. Spielberg's attempts to thicken the father-son angle between Indy and his son, and the love-hate relationship between Indy and Raven, remain to be feeble attempts.
Two decades after The Last Crusade, Spielberg has gone to win two Oscars (and a couple more nominations) and a huge chunk of recognition. His days of directing popcorn entertainment seem to be over, concentrating on more serious fare, or if not, films that have more depth than a riproaring adventure down the Amazon river. Dumbed down to cater to the requirements of the franchise, Spielberg's work feels unwieldly if not utterly embarrassing. Of course, Lucas hasn't grown much in talent during the past twenty years, especially if we're to base it on the failure that was the Star Wars prequels. His business sense is indubitable though. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, although hardly the creative success the twenty years waiting time would merit, is another success story for Lucas, especially when he runs to the bank with the millions of dollars earned from the tickets, DVDs (and Blu-ray discs), and other kinds of merchandise sold out of this geriatric adventure.