After a 19-year sabbatical, the Doctor will see you now. Or, rather, you will see the doctor; after Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade put Harrison Ford's fedora-wearing rogue academic into the pop culture pantheon of greats, expectations are at a fever pitch for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Today's Cannes press screening feels like a courtesy at best; no critic's negative review will keep people from seeing this film -- and yet, at the same time, no amount of enthusiasm or expectation or nostalgia can make up for the things that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull gets wrong in its strained effort to throw Indiana Jones back up on the big screen.
Crystal Skull begins in 1957, as the Cold War is getting warmer; we're plunged into the thick of things, with Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) dragooned into helping a group of Soviet interlopers ransack the secret storage depot at Area 51 for a lost artifact of great power. The Commie bad guys are lead by the raven-haired razor-banged Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), whose early declaration " ... three times have I received the Order of Lenin ..." tells you a lot of what you need to know about her, and also serves as about all you're going to get. Spalko's hunting for the storyline-starting MacGuffin; Dr. Jones gets away, but the Soviets get the thingamabob; the chase is on.
Or, rather, it isn't; instead of plunging into the thick of things, we have to spend some time with Indy back on campus, where concerns about his patriotism see him dismissed from his position; on his way to the airport, he's found by the young Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), who claims his missing mother said Jones was the only man who could help her in her last desperate message from somewhere in South America. Indiana and Mutt soon head to Peru, on the trail of missing archaeologist professor Oxley (John Hurt) and Mutt's mom Mary, who we know by another name. ...
Loaded with moments referencing the earlier films and full of action sequences that don't measure up to past highlights of the series, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crustal Skull feels simultaneously self-conscious and self-satisfied, as if a little warm glow of past glory will soothe our bumps and blows from the clumsiness of the script. David Koepp wrote the screenplay from a story by Jeff Nathanson and George Lucas, and if Koepp's contributed lines and jokes fall flat, they're just small tarnished bits of brass on a ship that goes drastically off-course with Lucas at the helm. The plotline owes much to Lucas's tastes and enthusiasms, and while Lucas's tastes and enthusiasms may have given us such pleasures as the original idea for Indiana Jones, Chewbacca and Boba Fett, it must be noted that Lucas's tastes and enthusiasms have also given us Jar Jar Binks, the on-screen version of Howard the Duck and Michael Jackson as Captain Eo; Crystal Skull's loopy, rambling, convoluted plot and weirdly out-of-place tone put it much closer to the latter than the former. You can argue that science fiction and the super-natural are not that different, and therefore can go together relatively well, but taking Indiana Jones out of the eldritch and mystical and into the futuristic and technical feels a little clumsy here, as if the film's plot hook were a burden Lucas swore he could carry but which the whole cast has to struggle with.
The action sequences are nothing to write home about, either; there's nothing here with the inspired delight of the mine chase in Temple of Doom, or the sheer, guts-and-glory greatness of the truck chase in Raiders. Spileberg and Lucas have stated that there's a minimal amount of digital trickery in Crystal Skull, but it's like hearing someone in the throes of labor testifying to their virginity between contractions; many action sequences have the hollow, plastic brittle sheen of CGI, and the pixilated, expensive, overdone finale is presented with the expectation that we're supposed to be awed by it, as if it were some gaudy present the giver "accidentally" left the price tag on. And as for director Steven Spielberg, he may have done the impossible here; out of all his films, good and bad, Crystal Skull feels like the first one without a single shred of his personality in it, as if it were just another big, bland, expensive action movie.
Ford handles the role with no trace of weariness or of real enthusiasm, and the film gets a few jabs in about the passage of time at his expense. (One sight gag has khaki-clad, dirty Indy scrambling into a bright, clean vision of '50s suburbia; that's clever enough, but it then goes somewhere even funnier.) Cate Blanchett and Karen Allen both get let down by the script -- Spalko stays at one level throughout the film, while Marion's return is written with the expectation that we'll be glad of it, not necessarily in a way that it makes us glad. LaBeouf's supposed to be a '50s style rebel with his costume, accessories and attitude, but he mostly looks like a kid dressed up for a Happy Days theme party. He's also saddled with the film's single worst action beat -- a tribute to the '30s serials that birthed the look and feel of the Indiana Jones films which is more insipid than inspired -- and while he cannot pull it off, it's hard to imagine an actor who could.
It's rumored the French Department of Sanitation makes the gutters on the Croisette in front of the Palais du Cinema extra deep specifically to catch the spilled blood when the long knives come out for certain big-budget films that debut there; but, as Movie City News's David Poland points out, a host of big-budget films have premiered at Cannes out of competition since 2001, and every one has gone on to be among the top four moneymakers that summer. And I think most of us want Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull to be good, which it, sadly, is not. If we love the first three Indiana Jones films, it's because they had great action, mythic objects of wonder and great comedy touches within big, well-shaped stories; Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like it was reverse-engineered from that blueprint, as if enough action and props and comedy would then make a story. Crystal Skull may bring back the faces and themes we remember, but it's curiously bloated and malnourished, too much and not enough. It'll make a bunch of money, sure, but even after 19 years of waiting, I can't imagine it truly satisfying anyone's jones for Jones.