Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 17, 2012)
When a legendary movie franchise returns after a long hiatus, the results don’t usually seem to be pretty. In 1990, The Godfather Part III attempted to live up to its two classic predecessors and failed miserably; it offered a decent flick at best, but not one that remotely compared to the earlier movies.
The Star Wars series returned from a 16-year break with 1999’s The Phantom Menace. Though the flick earned tons of money, it inspired widespread derision from fans. Very few – if any - find the “Prequel Trilogy” to match up to the “Original Trilogy”, and many fans see Phantom Menace as the worst of the bunch.
Back in the 1980s, the Indiana Jones films reigned supreme. 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade all found massive audiences and entertained a generation of fans.
And that was that. Crusade ended with Indy’s literal ride into the sunset, and we never figured to see him on the big screen again. However, rumors persisted for years that a fourth Indy flick would materialize, and after many aborted attempts, the franchise finally came back with 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Commercially, the film was a hit. It made $312 million, a figure not reached by the first three movies (unless we adjust for inflation, of course). This seemed to be a “soft” blockbuster, though, as Skull appeared to fail to inspire the popular response that greeted The Dark Knight and Iron Man. I think the Indy reputation drew in fans more than anything about Skull itself.
Set in 1957 – 19 years after the last Indy adventure - Skull takes our hero (Harrison Ford) to a secret military base in the Nevada desert. Soviet spies captured him and his cohort George “Mac” McHale (Ray Winstone) so they could make sense of a mysterious discovery. Led by a mysterious psychic named Colonel Dr. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), the Russkies want Indy to help them with the remains of an alien who crashed at Roswell 10 years earlier.
In the midst of this, Indy starts to make his escape, only to find his “buddy” Mac sold his services to the Reds and turns on him. Even without Mac’s help, however, Indy inevitably finds his way out of the bind and escapes, though the Soviets manage to make off with their prize. When the FBI interviews him, they suspect he aided the commies, and he loses his teaching job due to the witch hunt environment.
Before Indy leaves town, however, he learns that an old colleague named Professor Harold Oxley (John Hurt) has been abducted and will be killed without intervention. He learns this from Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a young greaser close to Oxley. They discuss a spooky crystal skull that may be used to open the powers of a mystical lost Amazonian city called Acator. Thus launches Indy’s big quest to find Oxley, outwit Spalko, and solve the mystery of the crystal skull.
I think Skull is a perfectly entertaining movie, but it’s not in the same class as its predecessors. Honestly, it can be tough for me to separate my feelings about the film that exists and the film that I hoped to see. Just as The Godfather Part III and The Phantom Menace suffered from years of pent-up anticipation, fans entered Skull with enormously high expectations. Maybe someday I’ll be able to view the flick better on its own merits, but right now I think it’s difficult for me to watch Skull without the interference of my dreams of what could have been.
I feel that Skull provides the most muddled of the four Indy movies. If you look at the stories of the first three, they’re all pretty simple in terms of what Indy needed to do. Raiders and Crusade went with basic quests to find magical objects. Temple was a bit more complex due to the elements with the religious cult and related complications, but it still was pretty simple good vs. evil.
Some of that informs Skull, and viewers will likely experience some déjà vu, as the flick’s Soviets play and feel an awful lot like the Nazis in Raiders and Crusade. It’s as if the folks behind Skull just took the old German antagonists and slapped new clothes on them; there’s very little to distinguish this flick’s Soviets from the Nazis of the earlier movies. That’s one moderate drawback, as it’d be nice to get some villains who feel less familiar.
I realize that Skull has a tough time related to its distinction between familiarity and originality. On one hand, viewers want something that bears the unmistakable Indiana Jones feel, but on the other, they want something fresh and new. Like Crusade, Skull probably relies a little too much on the tried and true, though unlike Crusade, it doesn’t bring a lot of verve to the presentation. While Crusade definitely smacked of Raiders Revisited, it had enough pizzazz behind it to succeed. If nothing else, the chemistry between Ford and Sean Connery made it a delight.
No such sparks fly in Skull. Clearly the movie wants to make Ford and LaBeouf into a new team, but they don’t really connect, at least not on a level close to that of Ford and Connery. Ford and LaBeouf do fine together, but their interactions never boast much zing. We always feel like LaBeouf is there mostly to be groomed as a future action star, not because the story really needs him. Mutt is a generally forgettable character.
At least Skull offers the revival of Ford. He’d lost a lot of his movie star luster in recent years, and he often seemed bored in the films he did. His return to Indy gives him a real spring in his step and demonstrates that he still has life to him. Ford is the best thing about the movie, as he almost recaptures the spirit of the earlier movies.
I recognize that this review largely consists of complaints, and that displeases me. In truth, Skull offers an entertaining little flick. It has a mix of good action scenes and just enough excitement to keep us interested. The problem stems from my feeling that it simply doesn’t live up to its predecessors. Skull offers a generally good action film, but that’s not quite enough when one considers the legacy of the Indiana Jones series. Chalk it up as a bit of a disappointment, but an enjoyable one.