If you believe what you read on the message boards, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (262 screens) is just about the worst movie ever made. There are a few recurring comments, which I will hopefully address one at a time. But first I just want to say three things. One, I loved the film. I saw it twice, and it made me very happy both times. Secondly, I'm not working for George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, and they're not paying me to write this. (If they were, I'd probably be vacationing right now.) Thirdly, I want to argue that most of the disappointed reactions to the film had to do with two elements that are not actually in the film. (More on this later.)
Released in 1981, 1984 and 1989 respectively, the first three films are high on my list of the greatest summer movies of all time. I love them dearly; I yield to no one in my love for them. Raiders of the Lost Ark is certainly the best of the series, but truthfully, beyond an unmatched level of craftsmanship and enthusiasm, it's not exactly a work of art. It doesn't have much to say about the human condition except possibly for something about the juvenile repression of grown men -- but even that much is indirect and unintended.
The second and third movies lost the serious, professional edge of the first, and concentrated a little bit more on cartoonish non-reality. Pauline Kael made a passionate defense of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in her 1984 New Yorker review, arguing that Spielberg opened himself up more and directed it with more unbridled, infectious fun. But whereas Indy's relationship with Marion Ravenwood in the first felt grounded, Indy's relationship with Willie Scott in the second is straight out of bad screwball. The Last Crusade makes improvements with the additions of the "Young Indy" character (River Phoenix) and Indy's father (Sean Connery) but adds an even worse female lead (Alison Doody) and even more bad jokes; it feels even less "realistic" than the second entry.
It's no secret that these movies are based on numerous serials and adventure movies of the early part of the century, and in that Lucas and Spielberg are looking for nothing more than to re-capture their boyish excitement at having seen them. (Whereas someone like Quentin Tarantino wishes to make more of a comment on the reaction itself.) Their plan worked, because the three Indy movies -- despite their annoying flaws -- now represent that part of my childhood when movies first started to excite me. Is it possible, then, that we've outgrown Indy? No more than we've outgrown imagination.
Now, onto the fourth movie. One of the biggest complaints is: too much CGI. And in that complaint, one thing comes up: the groundhogs. Aren't those groundhogs onscreen for less than one minute of the 122 minute running time? What's the big deal? Yes, it's a failed joke, but why take down the entire movie? I submit that most of the jokes in all four films are bad, but that's part of their charm, like James Bond's terrible puns. Moreover, when people complain about too much CGI in a summer movie, it's like complaining about too many wings on an airplane. I don't hear any griping about the third act of Iron Man (345 screens) in which one digital robot battles another digital robot with none of the humanity that drove the rest of the film. (Don't get me wrong: I love Iron Man too.)
Another complaint is that the stunts are "unbelievable," including the long chase through the jungle on two seemingly parallel and obstruction-free roads, Mutt's vine-swinging and going over three sets of waterfalls. I agree that these are ridiculous, but they're cheerfully so and done completely within the gleeful, giant-sized guidelines of the movie and the series in general. (That's why the film has such a deliberately artificial look.) After all, in the earlier films, we also have Indy jumping over a break in the tracks in a mine cart, falling out of an airplane in an inflatable raft, etc. If I remember correctly, the MAD Magazine parody of the first film was all about its "unbelievability." This is not a new argument, and it never stopped the earlier movies. Realism is not, and never has been, a requirement for a good movie.
Finally, we get the general "not enough character development or plot." I for one was glad to have Marion (Karen Allen) back -- with her sparkly eyes and bright smile still intact -- and the shorthand between her and Indy said volumes in a few short scenes. I was also glad that Shia LaBeouf played his role straight instead of as an annoying comic sidekick. And Indy is one of the great characters in adventure movies, entering reluctantly into each situation, moving with a kind of cautious lope, and usually finding himself surprised to be in yet another situation (he's not exactly what you'd call a badass). As for plot, I'd argue that the search for the secret of the crystal skull is every bit as interesting as the search for some magic rocks. And though it's true that it lacks the historical interest of a religious artifact like the Ark or the Holy Grail, any prize in an Indy movie is ultimately a MacGuffin. (And, as Erik pointed out in one of his comments, the sci-fi theme fits closer to the 1950s setting.)
I haven't yet seen any posting or article that has reasonably backed up these or other complaints, and in truth none of them hold water. (Most of the complaints are snarky in tone.) There are really only two factors here: expectations and hype. We've seen, in recent years, many perfectly good movies are hated for no other reason than the existence of promotion and buzz, often created before anyone has even seen them: Eyes Wide Shut, The Blair Witch Project, The Phantom Menace, Amelie, Snakes on a Plane, Juno, etc. It's only natural to assert one's individuality against an oppressive system, like standing up to George Orwell's Big Brother. If nothing else, we'll go out of our way to prove to the hype-makers that they can't control our likes and dislikes, even if -- in the end -- we respond directly to the hype without paying any attention to the film.
But it's safe to say that, if these movies had just simply opened, as if in a void, with no advance word, people would have liked them just fine. In the case of Indiana Jones, it had much more at stake than the earlier entries, coming a full 19 years after the previous film, an entire generation's worth of changes in the way movies are made. That alone is enough to start the wags speculating. If there had been four or five movies in the interim, it wouldn't have been such a big deal -- much like the latest Bourne or Ocean's films. But this is not the movie's fault. Try this: imagine Kingdom of the Crystal Skull magically switching places in time with Temple of Doom or Last Crusade. I suspect that no matter which of these three sequels opened in 2008, it would have received virtually the same non-welcome. (Even if there were no CGI in the early entries, viewers would have found something else to gripe about.)This is one of the reasons I chose to study film history, so I can attempt to get around hype with the use of historical perspective. Movies generally, eventually settle into their proper places, regardless of what everyone wrote or blogged about them in their opening weeks and months. Sometimes it takes a generation or more, but flops like The Wizard of Oz make their way back to classic status and films that were once a big deal are forgotten. Indiana Jones will undoubtedly go down as a great, lightweight series, like the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films or the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films. Moreover, I predict that these films will become Spielberg's legacy, even though it's currently fashionable to praise his "serious" films; these are the films in which his true self comes through. May he continue to mine boyhood dreams for cinematic adventures.