'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull'
EmptyWhat do you know, the film billed as a return of Indiana Jones turns out instead to be a sequel to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
Extraterrestrials and a spaceship mix it up with well-lit caves, tumbles over waterfalls and swings through the jungle that would make Tarzan gape. Director Steven Spielberg seems intent on celebrating his entire early movie career in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Whatever story there is, a murky journey to return a spectacular archeological find to its rightful home — an unusual goal of the old grave-robber — gets swamped in a sea of stunts and CGI that are relentless as the scenes and character relationships are charmless.
"Crystal Skull" will have its huge audience when it opens worldwide Thursday (it screened Out of Competition here). Indeed it had that audience the day the project was announced. What is disappointing to those who fondly remember "Raiders of the Lost Ark," lo those 27 years ago, is the loss of wit and romance. This film feels like work, whether it's poor Harrison Ford straining to keep pace with his younger self or Spielberg and writer David Koepp piling on the thrill-ride acrobatics that have only scant connection to the plot.
In the first 22 minutes, old Indy survives a kidnapping, shoot-outs, auto crashes inside a mysterious warehouse, a ride in a desert rocket and an A-bomb detonation. Spielberg is only getting warmed up.
The film never pauses to let these characters enjoy a drink or take each other's measure. Indy's original flame, Karen Allen's Marion Ravenwood, also makes a welcome return; she even has a surprise for Indiana — yet this moment is lost in the forward momentum.
Losing his job during the Red Scare of the '50s, Indy is persuaded by young Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) — who keeps those iconic '50s images flowing by arriving on a motorbike like Brando in "The Wild One" — to take off on a vague adventure in South America to save his mother and retrieve the Crystal Skull of Akator.
This trip hooks the duo up with a spy (Ray Winstone) who changes sides every half-hour; a Soviet villain (Cate Blanchett) with close-cropped hair, black skin-tight fencing garb and absolutely no point in her villainy; and a crazy loon (John Hurt) who, like Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness," has been in the jungle too long.
Once the group possesses the Crystal Skull — it does keep changing hands between Indy and the Soviet army — no one seems to know quite what to do with it. But it has its uses: At different times, it opens doors, triggers cave machinery, wards off giant red ants and scares hostile natives. For all anyone knows, it might pay the bill at a fancy restaurant.
After about an hour, the film abandons any pretense of story for a rush through fights, chases, machine gun fire, scorpions, quicksand, monkeys, huge snakes and finally a secret city — part Mayan, part Aztec, certain to become both a video game and amusement park attraction.
At no time does any of Indy's gang seem in real jeopardy. Bullets splash all around, but not even the brim of his fedora gets nicked. Waterfalls are mere dips in the water, collapsing ruins an excuse for free-exercise tumbles and the villains mere annoyances.
The actors are asked to do little more than look reasonably alert. This proves to be Indiana Jones' greatest challenge.