The biggest development, in terms of script, in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull might actually be George Lucas’s fingerprints. Between Last Crusade and this sequel, Lucas created the “Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” television series and introduced the idea of canon to the series. As an example, in Crystal Skull, Harrison Ford tells Shia LeBeouf about an adventure from the television show. There’s also the character being part of every historical event (he was in the O.S.S. during World War II–that one isn’t so far-fetched–but he was also at Roswell in 1947–that one is sort of ludicrous, but maybe not). It adds a different tone to the film; all of a sudden, everything needs to be explained. For the first time in an Indiana Jones movie, there’s significant exposition to the character’s off-screen life.
Another development (talking about Crystal Skull traditionally seems impossible, so I’m not even going to try) has to do with how the film handles age. Even with cheesy (but unfortunately necessary) techniques to reference absent friends, the film’s approach is somewhat startling. With an action-packed opening, even with a couple asides to aging, it’s hard to remember Harrison Ford is older (especially with a long break between this film and the last). Then, gradually, it becomes clear how aging has affected the character. LeBeouf’s presence allows for these moments, especially in the scenes with he, Ford and Karen Allen. Even as LeBeouf takes a more central role in the last act, it’s still Ford’s show and Crystal Skull becomes the first franchise film I can remember where age is really a factor and not just lip service (with the obvious exception of Rocky Balboa). Clint Eastwood, for instance, never actually let his action heroes be old. In Crystal Skull, for the most part, the film doesn’t discuss aging.
The next two differences are about production, less abstract.
First is the film’s frequent references to other films. The series started reinventing old serials, then maintained that air without being as directly referential. In Crystal Skull, the references are a lot more neon. It opens with an American Graffiti homage. It’s discreet, only noticeable when thinking about Lucas’s involvement. There’s a major Naked Jungle reference. But what Spielberg does in Crystal Skull, what makes it noteworthy, is apply modern filmmaking mores to a historical era. He even gets away with positioning LeBeouf in a Marlon Brando reference–he makes it work. The most successful example of this application is the motorcycle chase. It’s a fantastic, Indiana Jones motorcycle chase set in a late 1950s college town. It’s fantastic. But the film’s also, tonally, supposed to fit in the 1950s, not just terms of setting, but also genre. Crystal Skull owes more, plot-wise, not so much in execution, to the science fiction films of the era than anything else. Spielberg doesn’t work particularly well with that aspect and does a lot better with the Red Scare elements.
Spielberg’s also working very different technically. With CG (I’ll get to it in a minute) mattes instead of painted ones, Janusz Kaminski shoots a Technicolor adventure. Crystal Skull‘s cinematography, from the usually pedestrian Kaminski, looks wonderful. It might even be the best photographed in the series. The CG is almost exclusively excellent. The much-publicized jungle fight looks great, for instance. Only one strangely matted, too cartoony jungle swinging scene looks bad (for whatever reason, CG has never achieved the acknowledgment of artifice, like rear projection and mattes have). What Spielberg does with the CG, creating fantastic visuals–in addition to the 1950s story trappings–furthers that Technicolor label. Spielberg’s acting sequences are still top-form.
The story does suffer from those elements though. Just from the title–Kingdom of the Crystal Skull–it’s clear this one isn’t as salient as the Lost Ark or the Holy Grail. The title itself is absent any mystery or excitement (…and the Lost City or …and the Golden City would have worked better). It’s a hard story to title, just because the film’s more about what the character learns about himself–never a series emphasis. Koepp’s script has some really good moments, but there are lots of missed opportunities. In the end, it’s not his fault. Koepp can’t fix Lucas’s broken story (just because one can make an Indiana Jones sci-fi movie doesn’t mean he or she should).
Ford’s good in the film, playing the aging well. But because of that cold, action opening, it takes a while to see how Ford is handling the character’s aging. Once it’s clear, it’s fine. Ray Winstone is wasted in his supporting role. The character’s a script necessity, nothing else, and Winstone can’t do anything with it. Similarly, John Hurt’s fine doing a simple role–the casting is another difference with this one, it’s interested in casting recognizable actors. Karen Allen’s good, has some great moments with Ford and LeBeouf. She and Ford’s chemistry from twenty-seven years ago picks up without a hitch (too bad Lucas didn’t let Spielberg put her in every movie, she and Ford would have done a great Nick and Nora). Jim Broadbent’s goofy little role is fine enough too, but the approach (he’s a stand-in for Denholm Elliott) is unimaginative.
I’m not surprised Cate Blanchett is excellent. I assumed she would be good, but I never had any idea how great she’d be. Her character’s got the worst character arc, but Blanchett handles it with aplomb. She relishes in the character’s scripting problems, turning them into advantages.
Here’s the surprise–Shia LeBeouf. Under Spielberg’s direction, LeBeouf turns in a good, solid performance in an impossible role. He handles the period acting well, he handles the action well. Only when Spielberg puts him in a scene out of an unproduced Jurassic Park cartoon does he stumble. It’s a movie star turn and something I never would have thought LeBeouf could achieve.
Another unfortunate difference, the last, is John Williams’s score. He uses themes from the first and third films (there’s not a single acknowledgement of Temple of Doom in the entire film) and uses the main theme as much as he can. He never gives Crystal Skull its own theme. It’s a lazy score, exactly the kind of bored score Williams has been turning in since… well, as Last Crusade is his last enthusiastic one, for eighteen years (with a couple exceptions, I’m sure).
The big problem with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, besides that title, is the ending. There’s a big-time rip-off of The X-Files and, even though it’s competently produced and so on, it’s just wrong. Lucas’s silly story catches up with the film. Then, all of sudden, Spielberg and company turn it around for the last scene and the close. They don’t just, belatedly (which is even referenced in dialogue) correct history, they also end it on a great cinematic smile.
Just like Temple of Doom, Lucas hurts the film. But this time, it’s not too much Lucas.