Recapturing the magic is hard.
It's funny, because walking home from a Sunday morning screening of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I had worked out that that would be my opening line. It was only when I typed it out that I realized that this was what the fourth Indiana Jones movie, and the first in 19 years, was about.
That recapturing magic is hard.
As Dr. Jones--played once again by Harrison Ford, still somehow making badass believable at 66--learns in this movie, the key to restoring magic is to go back to where it began, even if getting there is a long hike through the Amazon being chased by Communist soldiers, killer ants, and, like most Indy films, thousands of gallons of water. To make Crystal Skull, director Steven Spielberg and his Indy story partner George Lucas also went back to the beginning, mining the first and most successful entry in the franchise, Raiders of the Lost Ark, for the basic elements they would need to pull off a new adventure. This means a threat coming from a military superpower looking for the key to controlling the world, lots of chases in jeeps and trucks, and the return of Indiana's first movie love, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). Though the results aren't perfect, they do get as close as any of the succeeding films has gotten since Raiders (though Last Crusade is hot on this one's heels).
There has been much speculation about the plot for Crystal Skull, and I'm not going to add too much to the chatter here. The basic set-up is this: the Russkies want to find a mythical Crystal Skull that will lead them to the lost city of El Dorado and unlock a source of immense power. One of Indy's old colleagues, Professor Oxley (John Hurt), found the skull, but he ditched it when his capture by the Russians was imminent. Marion then tried to save Oxley, only to run afoul of the Commies herself, which is when she sent her son Mutt (Shia LeBeouf) to recruit Indy.
Nearly as much time has passed in the movie world as has passed in the real world. Indy is well near retirement age, having spent World War II and the intervening years serving his country as an agent in the OSS. The 1950s is proving to be less than kind to men of his ilk, as the Red Scare has made everyone paranoid, and even a decorated war hero can be the subject of suspicion. Spielberg is seizing on the mythology of the times--and more importantly, the mythology of the movies from the era--to create an homage to '50s sci-fi flicks and adventure shows in the same way the franchise began as an homage to 1930s cliffhanger serials. This means the movie doesn't exactly strive for realism, and the 1950s you see on the screen is about as authentic as the 1950s Spielberg helped create in Back to the Future. I was kind of hoping the jocks vs. greasers brawl Shia LeBeouf got into at the diner would cross paths with the skateboard chase between Biff and Marty McFly.
In fact, there are more than a few scenes in the movie that will likely test your suspension of disbelief, including the whole ten-minute over-the-top opening sequence, which comes complete with comedic reaction shots from prairie dogs. Keep in mind that all of the Indiana Jones movies begin with a somewhat disjointed action opener, and the real movie doesn't start until that bit is over. Grip your armrests tight and grit your teeth, because this one is awful, but if you can get through it, you should be able to make it the rest of the way. By the time Indy is riding through the university on the back of Mutt's Harley while being chased by thugs, you can feel confident surrendering yourself to the rollicking adventure. From there, not even Indy's magical disappearing and reappearing whip or the "Shia LeBeouf, King of the Monkeys" sequence should rattle you from enjoying yourself.
As with the rest of the Indiana Jones series, the bulk of action in Crystal Skull is done with real stuntmen rather than computer effects. How nice it was to see such a long list of stunt performers in the closing credits instead of endless CGI technicians! There are multiple chase scenes and treacherous obstacle courses in faraway temples to get the blood pumping, and of all four Indy movies, this one also has the most delicious villain. Cate Blanchett, in a Louise Brooks wig and tight military uniform, plays Irina Spalko, a Russian scientist searching the world for psychic artifacts as a booster for Stalin. Blanchett digs into the role with her usual aplomb, and I could have spent hours watching her acting villainous all by herself.
The MVP award, though, has to go to composer John Williams. It's been 27 years since we first heard it, but his Indiana Jones theme still plays like a call to adventure. Any punch, leap, or other feat of derring-do that comes accompanied with those trumpeted notes automatically feels more thrilling. Having just re-watched the entire original trilogy in preparation for Crystal Skull, I am like Pavlov's dog. Mimic that riff, and I reflexively start miming the cracking of a bullwhip.
Gosh, 27 years since Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's a long, long time. I don't want to oversell this, don't want to overstate the whole "recapturing the magic" bit, because as I said, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn't quite get it all back. Given how perfect Raiders was, I'm not even sure it's possible to ever replicate its specialness. That said, Crystal Skull gets the closest of any of the sequels, and it definitely reminded me of why I fell for the character in the first place. Not all will agree, and opinions after the showing I attended wildly varied, but I can honestly say I enjoyed myself enough to forgive any flaws. Go, watch, smile, and enjoy.