After enduring endless years of rumors, canceled scripts, and constantly shifting release dates, the long-awaited return of Indiana Jones finally graced the big screen in the form of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It mattered little that two decades had elapsed since the last adventure or that Harrison Ford now found himself in his mid-60s. With Steven Spielberg directing and George Lucas overseeing from a distance, expectations soared. Surely, they had learned from the Star Wars prequel debacle and would handle this beloved franchise with the care it deserved — or so we hoped.

On May 20, 2008, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull burst into theaters, met with mixed but generally lukewarm reviews. Roger Ebert awarded it three and a half stars, proclaiming, “I can say that if you liked the other Indiana Jones movies, you will like this one, and that if you did not, there is no talking to you. And I can also say that a critic trying to place it into a hierarchy with the others would probably keep a straight face while recommending the second pound of sausage.”

Initially, I found the film satisfactory, though it failed to capture the enchantment of its predecessors. Undeterred, I watched it repeatedly, even resorting to a bootleg copy in my quest to love it.

However, my brother changed my resolve with a single question: “Would you love Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as much if it weren’t an Indiana Jones movie?” That question lingered, triggering a moment of introspection. The answer became painfully clear: No. Suddenly, the film’s flaws emerged with sharper clarity — the lackluster CGI, the perplexing plot, the underwhelming ending, and the disappointing sets. It was an unwelcome realization that Spielberg had let us down — it was The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace all over again.

While Kingdom of the Crystal Skull may have amassed considerable box office success, its impact proved short-lived. It swiftly receded from the collective consciousness, its lone lasting contribution to society being the oft-used phrase, “Nuke the fridge.” Years passed, and now we stand on the precipice of yet another Indiana Jones escapade, The Dial of Destiny. Spielberg has transitioned to the role of producer, with James Mangold assuming the director’s chair. My excitement may pale in comparison to that of 15 years ago, yet I approach this latest installment with cautious optimism, hoping for a gratifying journey back into the timeless world of Indiana Jones.

As per tradition with any beloved franchise, I recently embarked on a rewatch of all four Indy films, including Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. To my surprise, my feelings toward it have mellowed somewhat — I found myself appreciating it more than expected this time around. However, a tinge of frustration still lingers, casting a shadow on my overall impression.

Crystal Skull has a lot of great moments. The opening scene is terrific. We see soldiers racing a car full of teens in 1950s America. Spielberg draws from his bag of tricks — crash zooms, high-speed tracking shots, and reflection shots — to infuse the sequence with a sense of fun, then pulls the rug out when the soldiers turn out to be evil Russians on a quest to break into Area 51. Then, the ultimate gag: while the Russians were having fun racing those teens, Indy lay crumpled in the trunk with his pal Mac (Ray Winstone).

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We get the signature silhouette produced by that holy, unnatural “Spielberg Light.” Then, the reveal — an aged, world-weary Indy, cynical as ever, turns to face the camera for the first time in nearly 20 years. The moment is thrilling, even if Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography lacks Douglas Slocombe’s rugged realism. 

Next, we meet Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko. Her accent is a little goofy, but remember, these are cartoons, kids. We also meet Igor Jijikine’s Dovchenko, the film’s signature brute, and partake in the first action set piece, an exciting, stunt spectacular set within Area 51. Indy dodges bullets, swings into vehicles using his whip, gets a few laughs, and then battles Dovchenko. Am I wrong for thinking this bit rivals Temple of Doom’s opening as best in the franchise? The stunts are incredible, and the pacing is exquisite.

The film’s most controversial scene is the “Nuke the Fridge” moment, where Indy survives a nuclear bomb by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator. While the idea isn’t terrible, its cartoonish execution undermines it. The sequence prioritizes humor over thrilling action, but I must admit the shot of Indy gazing at the mushroom cloud remains a striking image.

Regarding the aliens, Spielberg openly expressed his disdain for the extraterrestrial MacGuffin. While the early sequences build intrigue, the payoff with the Crystal Skull is disappointing. I had hoped for a more pronounced emphasis on horror, with a terrifying antagonist lurking in the shadows. Unfortunately, the inclusion of alien adversaries serves no purpose and muddles the narrative.

Another frustration arises after the opening. Government officials interrogate Indy, alluding to his involvement in World War II. It begs the question: why didn’t we get that film? Imagining Indy’s adventures in Nazi-occupied Europe, searching for treasures amidst the backdrop of the war, feels like a missed opportunity. The potential for an enthralling storyline practically writes itself.

Crystal Skull starts strong but gradually declines halfway through. Mutt’s introduction and LaBeouf’s performance in the 50s diner scene are highlights, offering a blend of exposition and character development. Mutt’s actions reveal his personality: reaching for a beer, getting distracted, and finding Indy has removed it. It sets up his character effectively, although it lacks a satisfying payoff.

The motorcycle chase is enjoyable, featuring clever stunts and a light tone reminiscent of Indy and Marion’s Cairo adventure in Raiders. However, it ultimately leads to nothing substantial. Spielberg’s attempt at humor, like Indy giving pointers in the library and Brody’s head landing in the goons’ lap, falls flat.

The unresolved Government vs. Indy subplot is another puzzling aspect of the film. Despite Indy’s impressive war record, the FBI doesn’t trust him, resulting in his dismissal from Marshall College. However, without any explanation, he is reinstated at the end of the film. There’s no evidence of his innocence or significant contribution. There are a lot of half-cocked ideas here, but no one seemed eager to flesh them out.

The plot gains momentum as Indy and Mutt embark on their journey to Peru, delving into actual archaeology for the first time in the series. Their witty banter adds to the enjoyment, and I love how their dynamic shifts when Indy realizes Mutt is his son.

However, it is when they fall into the clutches of Mac and Spalko that the film begins to struggle. While it is delightful to see the return of Marion, her presence in the film feels somewhat unnecessary. She does not significantly contribute to the adventure and primarily exists to recreate moments from Raiders. An alternative approach could have been to introduce Marion at the beginning of the film, revealing her and Indy’s fractured relationship resulting from his inability to move beyond his quest for personal glory. This would have provided a transformative journey for Indy, changing his perspective and allowing him to return home as a better man ready to settle down with Marion, his ultimate treasure.

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Moving on.

Fortunately, the next big set piece delivers. Indy and his crew hijack a truck, unleashing an action sequence that blends awe-inspiring moments with a touch of silliness. The scene pulsates with energy as fists fly, Mutt engages in a sword fight, and a swarm of killer ants descends upon them. There’s a flicker of the old magic, albeit dim. However, the overall tone veers more towards slapstick comedy than intense action, diluting the sense of high stakes. If the film intended to establish Mutt as the heir to Indiana Jones, he deserved a more captivating set piece to showcase his potential. Instead, he finds himself swinging on vines, accompanied by a group of inexplicably friendly monkeys who appear oddly enchanted by his haircut.

Crystal Skull Breaks Down Late

The final part of Crystal Skull really irks me. I was expecting a thrilling journey with Indy and Mutt as the dynamic duo, but instead, they get overshadowed by a committee of lackluster characters like Marion, Oxley, and Mac.

Likewise, the plot itself needs a better hook. Picture this: the Russians are hell-bent on using the Crystal Skull to win the space race and unleash chaos upon the world. Indy steps up to the plate to save the day and prevent a global catastrophe. Along the way, our aged hero develops a connection with Mutt, his long-lost son, and rekindles his love for Marion. That’s the kind of hook we needed! But no, we’re left with a bunch of characters going through pointless sequences that leave us scratching our heads.

Spielberg wanted Indy back, but not in this film. There were so many promising ideas that never fully blossomed. What drives Indy in this film? Who knows? Even Mutt’s supposed dilemma barely registers on Indy’s radar. It’s like they’re just going through the motions without any real purpose.

And don’t get me started on the lack of momentum and a truly menacing villain. Spalko, played by Cate Blanchett, falls flat compared to the iconic baddies we’ve encountered in the past. Where’s the excitement? Where’s the sense of danger that kept us on the edge of our seats? It’s sorely missing.

Overall, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like a missed opportunity. Sure, it’s watchable and carries some nostalgic charm, but it can’t hold a candle to the brilliance of Raiders, Temple of Doom, or Last Crusade. Let’s hope that the next installment, Dial of Destiny, delivers the thrilling adventure we’ve been craving. It’s time to reignite our cinema souls with epic fun and remind ourselves why we fell in love with Indiana Jones in the first place.

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