Retro Review: “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)”

A while back, I was rewatching the Indiana Jones films as I have an old DVD box set with the first 3 movies. It then occurred to me that I hadn’t watched the fourth since it came out in 2008, and I remembered it being pretty terrible. Intrigued, I went to watch it again, and though it was certainly better than what my memory may have initially told me, it was still not a particularly impressive work and is easily the worst of the series thus far.

Let’s remove this albatross from the room at the start: I do not have any qualm with the fact that the story is ultimately about an alien who arrived to Earth in a UFO however many thousands of years ago. The concept itself has been one that remains a popular thought even in 2021, and Indiana Jones being about weirdly spiritual and fantasy-relevant plot devices would fit somewhat naturally into a niche that allows a crystal skull to be a physical representation of an alien who is trapped on earth and needs to literally recollect itself to depart. What I do have a qualm with is the fact that the story itself seems to play itself so safe in every single aspect, or attempt to do things that previous Indiana Jones films have simply done better with the same beats. If it’s not things the previous Indiana Jones films did, then it’s your usual Hollywood tropes: Jones reunites with a lover he met who had a strong bond seemingly only when they shared adrenaline-fueled danger journeys, and it’s revealed the character accompanying them is their love child. Said love child has exhibited tons of shared characteristics between both characters and now is resentful of the main character, but comes to accept them by film’s end. Even if you haven’t directly seen a film do this, you certainly would have called it happening- it’s a standard plot for Hollywood blockbusters, and it’s presented without any in-depth criticism or commentary. It just… is, and while this isn’t necessarily bad per se, the fact it pushes no boundaries just leaves it feeling mostly hollow or with untapped potential.

And while no, I never did expect this film to have an intelligent deconstruction of previous Indiana Jones movies or anything, at the very least this franchise could have evolved a bit over the years. In fact, most of my criticism of this film is less that it’s bad of itself but rather than it’s competent but completely brand recognition- playing the safest cards for every hand without even attempting to push any boundaries or even evolve alongside the film industry since 1989 when The Last Crusade was released. It had been nearly 20 years, but this film’s preoccupation with just releasing the exact same type of Indiana Jones branded movie does a disservice to what it could have been. Despite the time skip between the third and fourth films- both in the real world and for the characters- there could have been some manner of incorporation of style perhaps reminiscent of the time it’s set in? Perhaps something visual that compares and contrasts the previous style to the new one? But instead, we are simply given the expected “Steven Spielberg presents… Indiana Jones” treatment, which is not unexpected but still nothing new.

In fact, a number of classic elements from previous Indy movies are simply not here (or reduced significantly) and replaced with manufactured drama focusing on the involvement of Shia LeBeouf’s character Mutt. Whether or not this is his fault or Spielberg’s fault, I do not know- but what I do know is that we get much less of the archaeological mystery segments with long winds of talking for much more action, and the quality of this film is less because of it. They aren’t entirely gone or anything, but the focus is clearly shifted from them to more action-oriented affairs, or just having Indy and Co. be captured and transported places against their will to the intended locale. While we’re talking about the characters here, let’s discuss the acting: it’s entirely average, and both Harrison Ford and Karen Allen seem as though they barely want to be there. Anyone who knows me is aware of how much I love Cate Blanchett, but her fake Soviet accent is both unconvincing and utterly distracting. It baffles me that they didn’t cast someone more experienced for the role, but for 2008 and having seen Blanchett give a stellar performance in Lord of the Rings, I’m sure the opinion was swayed towards her marketability.

Despite my many words here mostly being complaining, I’m really digging into a film that is simply disappointing to me personally. I am someone who was even able to appreciate many things about The Last Crusade, but somehow I found myself disappointed even further than that particular movie. Surely, there could have been a lot more done for this film to turn it in a positive direction, but many choices were made not to. This isn’t quite as soulless a cash grab as could have been made, but it’s definitely cutting it close, and given the recent pictures of Harrison Ford on set for a fifth installment, I imagine this could have gone a lot worse- because it likely will. I give this film a 5 out of 10.

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