Fourth time may not be the charm, but it's certainly good enough. At least in the case of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the fourth and (hopefully) last of the Indiana Jones Quadrilogy. I say hopefully not because this movie is a disservice. Far from it, in fact. However, like a quadrilogy, it is a bit awkward and disjointed, and all parties involved risk tarnishing the famed archaeologist's reputation if they dip into the tried and true formula one time too many. Speaking of the formula, as I watched the movie, I realized there were certain things that HAD to be there for it to be an Indiana Jones adventure. I have decided to rank these parts against previous efforts, to give fans a sense of what to expect from this movie. Beware some minor spoilers, and one fairly large one about the ending (which in all honesty, would not hurt the watchability of the film in the least in my opinion).
The Antagonist: Red Scare era Russians
1st place: Nazis (Raiders and Last Crusade)
2nd place: Crazy psycho cult (Temple of Doom)
3rd place: Kingdom
Yes, I have to say that I think Spielberg and Lucas were trying to slip something political in on us, and while these Russians are serviceable as baddies, they cannot compare to the iconic Nazis as epic foes, nor can they compete with the menacing members of the crazy cult from Temple of Doom. I was never able to shake the feeling that these Russians were nothing more than "Nazis Lite". Blanchet is a fine actress, but her performance is so far over the top that I heard John Malkovich called her. He wanted his Russian accent back from Rounders.
The premise/artifact: Seeking an alien artifact (The Crystal Skull)
1st place: Ark of the covenant (Raiders)
2nd place: The Holy Grail (Last Crusade)
3rd place: Kingdom
4th place: Whatever it was in Temple of Doom. Someone, please remind me.
I think that with George Lucas' penchant for satisfying his own whims with an occasional disregard for fans left many with bated breath, hoping that he didn't take it too far. I feel fairly certain that few fans will be outraged by this change of pace for the series, and I for one am glad that they took some liberties and went for something different. Even though there are some half-hearted attempts to mask this "mystery", I have little doubt that anyone who has been on vacation to Saturn for the past few months and hasn't caught wind of the extra-terrestrial overtones said to permeate the picture will have caught on about 20 minutes in.
Opening set piece: Indy outsmarts Russians at Area 51 and narrowly escapes a nuclear blast
1st place: Raiding the idol (Raiders)
2nd place: Kingdom
3rd place: River Phoenix and the Train (Last Crusade)
4th place: Jazz club chaos (Temple of Doom)
As perfectly and wonderously choreographed as it was, this opening romp is unable to unseat the perfect opening to the first Indiana Jones movie, with the wonderfully nostalgic rolling slab o' death, hundreds of natives with blow darts, and narrow bi-plane escape where we learn for the first time that Indy hates snakes. Of course, this isn't to Crystal Skull's detriment. It's sort of like saying DaVinci had a hard time topping the Mona Lisa. If anything, the opening to Crystal Skull is so good, the meat of the movie seems a little lacking in comparison.
Indy's Curmudgeonly Sense of Humor
1st place: Last Crusade
Defining moment: Throws german off of Zeppelin, and when bewildered passengers are concerned, Indy counters with "No ticket." Honestly, however, there are too many to name here.
2nd place: Raiders
Defining moment: Boom! Swordsman goes down!
3rd place: Kingdom
Defining moment: I really can't reveal this, it would be a pretty bad spoiler, BUT it involves a snake, and it's pretty clever.
4th place: Temple of Doom
Defining moment: Not sure. Eating monkey brains?
Raiders one moment almost powered it to the top of the rankings, it's so good, so anti-climatic. But for sheer charm (and for the cleverest screenplay as well) it is hard to top Crusade. In contrast, Kingdom feels a bit contrived at times, a bit forced, a bit like, well, it's almost as though all parties involved hadn't done a movie of this type in nearly 20 years. Fancy that. When the charm and chemistry of the characters works, it is great, and don't think for a second that the movie doesn't have a sense of humor, it's just that when something doesn't work, it jars you back to reality, and forces you to think to yourself "That should've been left out." Can't think of too many moments like that in Crusade. I can't think of any moments like that in Crusade.
Nasty creature moment: Millions of angry army ants
1st place: Snakes (Raiders)
2nd place: Army Ants! (Kingdom)
3rd place: Bugs (Temple of Doom)
4th place: Rats (Last Crusade)
While unable to compete with snakes (which are basically the Nazis of the animal kingdom) the army ants in this movie are fierce. There are a couple of moments that ensure that Kingdom earns every inch of its PG-13 rating, and those moments do not disappoint.
Female companion: Marian Ravenwood
1st: Marian Ravenwood (Raiders and Kingdom)
2nd: Two timing German hussey (Last Crusade)
3rd: The future Mrs. Steven Spielberg (Temple of Doom)
In a huge nod to fans, Marian comes back, and in many ways the chemistry shines. If anything, I felt that the relationship could have had more moments, more time to let the relationship develop. Thank heavens for strong female heroines, unlike the Annoying chick hall of fame inductee from Temple of Doom. Sheesh.
Outrageous Action Apocalyptic Climax: (MAJOR SPOILER)
Little green men vaporize Ruskies, annhilate a lost city, and leave no trace
1st: MELTING NAZIS!!! (Raiders)
2nd: Open heart surgery (Temple of Doom)
3rd: The three trials (Last Crusade)
4th: Ze Martians (Kingdom)
So much CGI is out of place in the Indy universe, and as another reviewer put it, Spielberg has done this before, and done it better. Why the appropriate ending would be an amalgamation of The Ark melting Hitler's minions and Close Encounters is beyond me, unless Stevie has a wheel he spins for movie endings, and these two happened to come up again. A bit disappointing.
Final quick hits: I felt Indy was a bit anachronistic in the late 50's, although they manage to recapture most of his magic. Also, bonus points for not trying to play Harrison younger than he is. Ultimately, some moments have a been there done that feel, but when the place you're visiting is a creepy sepulcre with Indiana Jones, you don't mind going back. This movie felt like a little less than the sum of it's parts. While individually scenes were excellent, together as a whole, the flow was off, and the overall package didn't seem quite right. When I take scenes as individual pieces, they work much better. Action ultimately trumps writing and story in this fourth movie, so fans of Indy's wit may be a bit disappointed. There are about 20 minutes towards the middle of the movie that I could have done without. Shia LeBouf doesn't Jar Jar anything, but ultimately I'm not sure how much he added (certainly not as much as Connery in Last Crusade). Strike that, there is ONE Jar Jar moment, and all I'm going to say is Tarzan. You'll know what I mean. In terms of an end for the series, it is awkward that it, and not Last Crusade (especially considering the name!) will be the series' capstone. While parts of it shine, Last Crusade was a more appropriate ride into the sunset.
When all is said and done, if you asked me would you rather have an imperfect but entertaining fourth Indy movie or nothing, I would answer that I'd rather have it, and that's what Spielberg has given us. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull gets three out of four bull whip cracks, and probably takes it's place as about the third best Indy pic, behind Raiders and Crusade, but for the most part ahead of Temple of Doom. Older kids will enjoy, but the intensity is probably too much for the young ones (remember, every last bit of that PG-13 is used to the max). I didn't feel cheated as a full price view, but as a counter point, my wife said that she'd have felt better paying matinee money for this one. Lower your expectations and enjoy. Expect the world and be disappointed.