I'd heard rumors of a fourth Indiana Jones film since before George Lucas set out to diminish the Star Wars universe with three prequels. Now that he's fulfilled that undertaking, I worried he may have set his sights on a similar fate for the other franchise that made Harrison Ford a household name two decades ago. Though nothing so severe has occurred with The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, this latest Indiana Jones film is not the note I would've preferred the series to end on.
The twenty years since Harrison Ford last donned the whip and fedora translates to about the same time for Indiana Jones, as since 1989's The Last Crusade, the series' setting has leapfrogged from 1939 to 1957. We're reintroduced to professor-by-day, archaeologist-by-night Colonel Jones (WWII has come and gone) as he is forced to reveal to Russian spies a discovery the United States government would rather keep secret. The object of their desire seems an unlikely find for an Indiana Jones film; unfortunately, as with the movie's three predecessors, the opening sequence hints at elements that will play a larger role in the overall plot.
Scrapped ideas from the Lucas drawing board often find their way into the finished product; consider the haunted house that was rejected as the focus of the third film but nonetheless made an appearance. In the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull's case, the idea for Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars has worked its way more deeply into the final film's plot than I would've liked. Xenoarchaeology has always been the domain of Captain Picard, not Professor Jones. The series needn't necessarily be limited to its roots — with each new film, the franchise becomes something it was not. But I've historically expected Indiana Jones to contain elements of magic and mysticism, not science fiction.
Despite that departure, much of the film is consistent in appearance and style with its predecessors, there is some obvious CGI in effect. Most noticeable are when it's used to generally wholly fabricated animals, such as gophers and monkeys, which might be acceptable were they integral to the plot, but more often they prove unnecessary set decoration, distracting from the story. Raiders of the Lost Ark had a genuine monkey; why couldn't this one? The Tarzan-style action that followed, though true to the pulp of the era in which the film is set, was absurd. Again, I've always found that Indiana Jones action which is not mystical is realistic, but this film strains one's credulity.
What isn't strained by this film is Harrison Ford, as he handles the action sequences surprisingly well, his performance as an adventurous archaeologist appearing not to have suffered the ravages of time. Near the film's beginning is a fun motorcycle ride through the streets of New Haven, Connecticut, which was made more enjoyable to this actor by noticing the many extras and saying, "That could've been me!" A later exhilarating scene is a rain forest car chase with clever combat and constantly shifting terrain that involves the entire cast. It culminates in a pugilistic bout that's accentuated with the satisfyingly sound of many meaty connections, reminiscent of Indy's round with the bald German boxer in the first film, which was similarly set on the precipice of annihilation.
But it does seem that Harrison Ford needs more help from his friends than usual, as evidenced by his growing party. Though Indiana Jones has never ventured out alone — where would he have been without Marian, Willie, Sallah, and Short Round? — this time his entourage numbers five, which detracts from Ford's spotlight. But the return of Karen Allen as Marian Ravenwood is a nice bookend to the series, and even I must admit that Shia LaBeouf didn't ruin Indiana Jones nearly as much as he did Transformers. A similarly expansive, though better received, effort is made when the film references the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, as pointed out to me by Showbits contributor GeneD. Though I've never seen that television series, I appreciated the official gesture to expand (or at least acknowledge) the canon of the expanded universe.
The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not the weakest of the four Indiana Jones film, but it is, with any luck, the last. As another review pointed out, The Last Crusade was a more fitting farewell to Henry Jones Jr. and Sr., and now feels a bit diminished by this continuing adventure. Yet Crystal Skull nonetheless gives us the thrill of seeing our hero back in the saddle, and the adventure he takes us on has enough surprises to make it worth the ride.