Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are pals: they do everything together. They produce movies together. Lucas writes many of Spielberg's stories. Hell, I bet they even steal each other's button-downs every now and then (Lucas stretched out all of Spielberg's, though). But one thing Spielberg shouldn't do is take a page from Lucas's directorial playbook. And that's what he did when he made Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
The main reason for my saying this is that Spielberg trades the thrilling stunt work that comprised many of the previous films' action scenes for over-the-top CGI spectacle. Wanna know why? Because the movie cost $185 million goddamn dollars, which has inflated to over $200 million in the eight years since the film's debut. This is a splashy, pricey movie that is well aware of its bigness. It's also as dumb as it is big, with a story by Lucas and Jeff Nathanson that is even wackier than the garbage from Temple of Doom. It fills out the cast not only with returning stars, Harrison Ford and Karen Allen, but also It Boy Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, John Hurt and Jim Broadbent (for about 25 gravitas-requiring seconds). Crystal Skull is nevertheless a whole lot of fun: it just has nothing on its mind.
Dr. Indiana Jones (Ford) is put on indefinite administrative leave after he survives a nuclear blast, the circumstances of which put the Red Scared FBI on high alert. This opens up his schedule for a young greaser improbably named Mutt Williams (LaBeouf) to waylay Indy on the way to a European sabbatical, letting him know that Indy's old friend and former colleague, Harold Oxley (Hurt), and Mutt's mom—who turns out to be none other than Marion Ravenwood from Raiders of the Lost Ark—have gone missing while in pursuit of El Dorado. Indy jets off with Mutt to South America, with icy KGB psychopath, Irina Spalko (Blanchett), and Indy's double-crossing partner-in-crime, Mac (Winstone), hot on their trail.
As was the case with the previous films, the plot is clothesline upon which to hang action set pieces. There's a car chase through the Amazonian jungle that involves hopping back and forth, inter-vehicular fencing and plenty of people flying through glass unscathed. The heroes get kidnapped, and then they're not kidnapped, and then they are again. Fight, fight, fight. Chase, chase, chase. Hurt shows up to explain the plot and to act spaced out and goofy. You see, he's under the spell of the Crystal Skull, an artifact from an ancient South American civilization that has mystical mind-control powers. Spalko wants that so she can rule the world. Indy wants it in a museum, or at least out of the wrong hands. And then the finale happens, which makes the jacked-up denouement of The Last Crusade look like an Ozu film.
What Crystal Skull has that the other films lacked is a supporting cast that is almost as worth watching as Ford himself. All the veteran actors are at the top of their game, and even LaBeouf makes a great case for an action hero, although it's entertaining to watch his puffed-out chest deflate at the sight of sexagenarian Indy kick more ass than he can. Spielberg, despite his reliance on already-outdated CGI, knows to keep the camera pulled back from the action, so we can see what they spent all the money on. Michael Kahn's editing is as tight as it's ever been, and series newcomer, Janusz Kaminski, replicates the sepia tones of Douglas Slocombe's earlier work while including plenty of his trademark blooming light. In 2008, a banner year for blockbuster action cinema, Crystal Skull's mostly old-fashioned approach distinguishes it. It's a shame that Spielberg couldn't keep it quite retro enough to give it the sense of grounding and charm of the best of the previous films.
Crystal Skull has a reputation for being unwatchable, and utter blasphemy to the memory of the previous three films. I find this to be way off base. I had about as good a time watching this as I did Raiders of the Lost Ark. So yeah, bring the pain and outrage, nostalgia nerds.