Film review: Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull

Only a few days have passed since Sunday’s Indy IV premiere in Cannes, but it already feels like eons. And I’ve already spilled a fair amount of web ink on this mega blockbuster in previous blogs— Indy vs the indies: Indiana Jones in the Kingdom of Cannes and The Second Coming of Steven Spielberg: Indy Encounters of the Fourth Kind — so forgive me if I betray signs of Indy fatigue.

In a nutshell, the movie, like a lot of things in life, is great fun at first, turns into be a bit of grind in the sagging mid-section, then picks up at the end with a graceful flourish. If you plan to see this movie, and don’t want anything spoiled stop reading right now. I won’t give away any major plot twists, but with this sort of entertainment, it’s probably best to have it hit you as fresh as possible, right from the opening shot, especially when there’s so much hype out there in the first place.

You still with me? Okay. I loved the first half hour. It opens with a scene of joyriding in the Nevada desert in 1957, with Elvis Presley singing Hound Dog on the soundtrack. As the filmmakers have now explained countless times, setting this Indy installment in the Cold War was not a contrivance but a necessity, given that the character has aged by two decades since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But staging the first action scene at a nuclear test site in the desert—with our hero trapped in replica town populated by Norman Rockwell-like mannequins that are about to be annihilated—is inspired. We’ve all seen that macabre military footage what happens to buildings and dummies in a nuclear blast. Here we get to see it enacted on the big screen, in a vision ‘of ’50s America being vaporized that’s the most powerful scene of the movie. And the film’s most glorious image occurs at the end of that sequence, as Indiana Jones stands silhouetted against a mushroom cloud. In retrospect, I would have been quite happy if the picture had ended right there. A half-hour Indy short.

Also, the action in that first act is the best.. It’s pure physical stunt work, directed with an energy and humour that recall the silent era.

Cate Blanchett makes a spectacular entrance as a cold-eyed dominatrix of a Russian spy, and maintains her steely poise throughout. She to have stepped right out of a James Bond film—007 should be so lucky. She makes a worthy foil for Harrison Ford,who turns his age to his advantage, compounding the irony of the archeologist as grimacing action hero. Ford has fun with the age issue, in bouts of repartee with Mutt Williams (Shia La Boeuf), the callow young man who appears poised to inherit the Indy mantle. LaBoeuf makes his entrance on a motorcyle, wearing leathers and shades, in a picture-perfect homage to Marlon Brando in The Wild One. It’s one of countless movie references, and they’re all spelled out so clearly that after a while you feel like you’re on the tram ride at the Universal Studios theme park. Many of the allusions are, in fact, to Spielberg’s own movies, notably E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Aliens have invaded the franchise.

In Cannes, Spielberg boasted to the press that, in a world of digital effects, this Indiana Jones honours old-fashioned stunt work. “There’s no inspiration when a cast and a director walk onto a blue screen stage,” he said. “I wanted to walk out onto a soundstage and be in a temple. . . I was a real advocate for making as much of this movie as possible practical magic as opposed to digital magic.” That’s a bit disingenuous. Sure, there’s lots of real stuntwork. In fact, the best action sequences appear to be “analog.” But there’s also a wealth of computer effects–army ants, waterfall plunges, extra-terrestrials–especially in the latter part of the movie.

Accusing Steven Spielberg of overkill at this point in his career, however, seems redundant. Indy IV is an entertaining big screen ride for the whole family, excluding small children and fussy cinephiles. And for those who like this sort of thing, it does make sense to see it on the big screen rather than wait for the DVD.

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