There’s a moment early in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull where the film actually tells you it’s not going to be a very good Indiana Jones movie. Sure, it’s enjoyable enough for the first half, up until the film literally and figuratively gets lost in the jungle, but even still, the specter of that moment hangs over the proceedings, letting you know that the Hook Spielberg is back and probably just phoning it in so that George Lucas would stop bugging him about this really great Indy script he had.
It’s when Indy is being forced to lead the Soviets to the crate containing the remains of the Roswell alien. He realizes the crate has been magnetized, and begins opening up shotgun shells so that they can follow the trail of shot floating through the air. And you think, “Ah, he’s going to make it look like he’s helping them, but he’s really depleting all their ammo.” Classic Indiana Jones, taking a situation where his back is to the wall and turning it into a win. And then it doesn’t happen. He’s standing there at gunpoint and you’re waiting for the payoff of the bad guys’ guns being empty, and it doesn’t come. Sure, we get a pretty rousing and Indiana Jones-esque escape, but how can you set up such an obvious bit and then not follow through on it? And that pretty much sums up the entire film: a sure-fire set-up that never really follows through.
First, let’s talk about the Maytag in the room: the nuclear fridge. It doesn’t bother me. We’re talking about a series where Indy has hitched a ride atop a submarine through who knows how many miles of open Mediterranean, gotten Hitler’s autograph, and, particularly, free-fallen from an airplane in an inflatable life raft and survived without a scratch. Him hopping into a refrigerator to ride out an atomic bomb test? That fits right in, if you ask me.
And even up until Indy heads off to the jungles of South America, the film is pretty fun, even if Mutt kind of rolls up out of nowhere simply because they seemed to figure it was time for him to introduce himself. The chase through the campus is a worthy addition to the Jones canon, and at this point Indy still seems like his old self.
Then he arrives in South America and turns into the cranky old man Harrison Ford has sadly become these days. And what’s worse, he turns into a completely reactive hero. He’s not even doing any discovering of his own, not solving any mysteries or puzzling through any challenges. His path is pretty well spelled out for him: go here, do this, go to next place, repeat. And that’s not Indiana Jones. That’s a badly written D&D module.
It’s been rightly pointed out that Raiders of the Lost Ark is notable for the fact that Indy fails pretty much the entire way. He loses the idol to Belloq in the prologue, gets Marion kidnapped, constantly loses the Ark to the Nazis, and ends up completely empty-handed at the end of the film. But what makes him heroic is that he never gives up, that he’s being proactive even in the face of defeat. Even when he’s got written instructions in Last Crusade, they still require him to use his intelligence to parse their true meaning, and still has to make that leap of faith at the end. The Indiana Jones of Crystal Skull would probably still be sitting in the Well of Souls waiting for someone to come by to tell him the way out.
And then we get the reunion with Marion and Mutt’s reveal as his son and the wedding and we’re watching something we really don’t want to see — our hero growing old. The reason Last Crusade was such a perfect ending to the series is that Indy not only rides off into the sunset, but into our memories. He’s perfectly preserved as the hero we’ve seen him be over the last three films, his story unending, his adventures eternal. But Crystal Skull puts a period at the end of the sentence, when what we want is an ellipsis. There’s a reason they keep recasting James Bond, you know: we want our heroes to live forever, not settle down.
So we’re left with a tantalizing ride up the roller coaster that turns into a merry-go-round. I don’t have quite the amount of vitriol for this film that some do, and part of that may just be the sheer nostalgic pleasure of seeing Indy on-screen again. But most likely, it’s the memories of the Indy I remember that it conjures up rather than the actual Indy it shows me.