Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (****)
As the fourth instalment of one of the most successful franchises in movie history, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is intrinsically unsatisfactory. It tacks itself on to an internally sound trilogy that began and ended in the ’80s, one that spoke fluently and dynamically to a generation of filmgoers. That said, Crystal Skull has shrewdly anticipated its own awkwardness; it is a consciously strange entity, one as desolate and esoteric in concept as it is entertaining in construct.
The film begins, of course, with a pickle out of which it seems logically impossible for Harrison Ford’s Indy to escape. The difference here is that we’re several years into the ’50s. Indy has been captured by Soviet operatives—headed by Cate Blanchett’s sublimely evil Irina Spalko, alone worth the price of admission—and smuggled into Nevada’s Area 51 to help them unearth an artifact Spalko believes will further her country’s political agenda. Gone is the nostalgic, postmodern romanticism of the last three films; Crystal Skull, even down to its CGI and to Ford’s hilariously lethargic performance, is exceptionally cynical, and, as a subsequent nuclear detonation and seemingly left-field alien invasion plot reveal, practically post-apocalyptic.
Suffice it to say Crystal Skull has enough ideas in it to keep film studies students busy for decades: Spielberg and Lucas, assisted by screenwriter David Koepp, have taken the franchise from Raiders’ Jewish mysticism to a very unsettling and bizarre form of secular mysticism. It would be silly, of course, not to praise the film for its terrific set of chase sequences, though even the jolts in Crystal Skull are packed with meaning. As a film about collectivism and civilization, it shows masses of beings—humans of all races, ants and, yes, extraterrestrials—insatiably, mesmerically hungry for dominance (at Spalko’s inevitable demise, she chants with Faustian bravado, “I vant to know everything! Tell me everything!”). Spielberg and Lucas may have done an expert job of shitting all over the trails blazed by their Hollywood Renaissance peers, but Crystal Skull reminds us that their populism is considerably more engaging and intelligent than most of the blockbusting junk it spawned.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is now playing at SilverCity Yonge-Eglinton Centre (2300 Yonge St.), Scotiabank Theatre (259 Richmond St. W.), the Varsity (55 Bloor St. W.) and other theatres.