George Lucas is a moron. Sure, the man had two good ideas for movies in Star Wars and Indiana Jones, but even those gems were tarnished with crappy sequels (I refer to all three new Star Wars movies, most of Return of the Jedi, everything in Temple of Doom after Shanghai and that horseshit trailer for The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles which masquerades as the opening 20 minutes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). Sure, back in the 70s, when all the other nerdy weirdos were doing their best work (Spielberg, Schrader, Scorsese et al), Lucas seemed invincible. But if there’s one thing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull makes clear, it’s that George Lucas should’ve stopped in ’81.
The new Indie begins with Harrison Ford stowed in a trunk. Ford, who looks a bit like Spencer Tracey’s luggage these days, has been kidnapped by the Russians. The year is 1957. The Reds want Indie to help them find a mysterious packing crate stored at a top-secret U.S. military base. After donning his famous hat and cracking his famous whip, Indie makes short work of the Ruskies, and embarks on a new quest. He’s after a legendary crystal skull (no, I’ve never heard the legend either) in South America. Along the way, he meets Mutt (Shia LeBeouf), his long lost son; renews his acquaintance with Marion (Karen Allen), his long lost love; and misses the Nazis, his perfect nemesis (the Commies aren’t much cop).
Setting aside that the new movie was made because Harrison Ford missed being made a fuss of, Crystal Skull isn’t bad. If there were no Raiders of the Lost Ark, you’d think: hey, this Mummy substitute is alright! But the trouble is: Raiders. Everything that made that movie brilliant is here, but less. Compare the openings: Raiders, with its lost temple, its rolling boulder, Belloq, “Snakes!”, amphibious aircraft… the world’s greatest theme tune. And Crystal Skull, with its… warehouse. I’m trying to be kind here, but you can see where I struggle. Raiders of the Lost Ark is fast, dark, funny, sexy, and made when Spielberg, Lucas and Ford were on fire. Why make a sequel when they’re all old men? The same reason Woody Allen won’t stop: it’s familiar. Yes – there’s lots to enjoy in this movie. Spielberg still knows how to stage a chase and Harrison Ford was born too wry to let the joke be on him. But then there’s the George Lucas contribution: the MacGuffin, the axis of the story. In Raiders of the Lost Ark there’s a genuine sense of fear and dread as to what the Ark will hold, which is fulfilled with a screw-the-rating-system ending (“Shut your eyes!”). I defy anyone to feel anything at the end of Crystal Skull.
Harrison Ford has a good time as Indie. He’s been mired in dreck for ten (maybe twenty) years, but he hasn’t forgotten how to be a big star. Like Sean Connery, he gives the silly stuff dignity without being pompous. You still believe his authority and the idea he could give and take a punch. Shia LaBoeuf convinces too. He’s got Ford’s nose and that look – like he sees a fight he’d like to join – in his eyes. It’s a big task, being the son of Indiana Jones, but LaBoeuf copes. Karen Allen, beloved by anyone who mooned over Starman, is a ready foil for Ford and doubtless amazed to be playing a love interest of comparable age to the star (57 to Ford’s 65!). For the rest, they role out the Brits: Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent (is there a movie made in the last ten years without one of these guys?).
What made Indiana Jones great wasn’t that it was new; it was the way it was done. There was a breathless enthusiasm to Raiders of the Lost Ark, a very 70s/early 80s joie de vivre. Watching it now, you realize how plasticized movies have become, how buttoned down today’s summer movies seem in comparison with the break-out-the-pot-and-let’s-see-what-happens aesthetic that prevailed in Raiders, Close Encounters, Jaws… Spielberg and Lucas were making it up as they went along, using lady-killers like Ford as their wish fulfillment, mooning over Karen Allen, hanging out with Margot Kidder and whoever at a beachfront in Malibu… Somehow great ideas were born of this. Crystal Skull wouldn’t have cut it in 1981.