One of the hallmarks of a good film is this: you know what’s going to happen because you’ve seen it before, and yet it’s still fun to watch. We know the rebels will destroy the Death Star in Episode IV, yet, damn, that ending is exciting to watch again and again. We know Roy will make it over Devil’s Tower to see the aliens land in Close Encounters, but hey, our hearts still race when they’re chasing him with helicopters.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the new Indiana Jones film will have such staying power. One reviewer said it correctly: in the first films the mystery kept us guessing until the end. Sure, in this film everyone suspected that the crystal skull was an alien artifact, but did we have to have Cate Blanchett as uber-sexy Irina Spalko just up and tell us halfway through the second act? And Karen Allen as Mirion: when did she become super-chick? Yeah, we got that she could belt back about fifty shots and drink any man under the table, but in the first film she’s hiding behind the bar during a gun fight (as any sane person would do). In this flick she’s literally driving an amphibious car off a cliff, timed just so that the car lands on a branch, gently places them into the river, then snaps back to knock some bumbling Russians off of their footholds. “I told you to trust me,” she says, and unfortunately, that’s precisely where I lost faith in the film.
It was Chekhov who said that if you present a gun in the first act you must fire it in the third. Now, enter Irina Spalko who spends several minutes in full-on evil villain mode, boasting about how she will control the minds of Americans with the psychic power she will gain from unlocking the secrets of the crystal skull. The movie opens with her trying to psychically read Jones’s mind. Yet I don’t recall ever seeing this gun fired, so to speak. Why is Oz, Jones’s friend, able to psychically recognize his friend’s arrival, and yet Spalko, who presumably has been studying psychic phenomenon for a long time, not able to produce anything extra-sensory in the entire script? Her explanation: “The skull doesn’t work for everyone.” More like it was convenient for the mediocre plot.
Hence, gun never fired. Instead, we are rewarded, after two action-filled hours, with seeing her disintegrate when she absorbs too much knowledge. While I found that exciting in a Lovecraftian sense, what this knowledge might be was never developed. Couldn’t the writers have given us a smidgen of what she and Dr. Jones saw to titillate our senses? Indiana Jones at one point stares into the crystal skull. Later, he says the skull, “Told me to return it.” Yet we never really know what he saw; he only squirms in the chair like he’s at the dentist. And, perhaps in the coolest special effect of all four movies, we witness the formation of a giant dimensional portal in the sky. Did Spielberg forget that in Close Encounters people were so curious as to what was inside the alien vessel that they forced him to go back and shoot another twenty minutes of internal footage of the alien ship? In this film we are never shown a glimmer of what might lie on the other side. Instead, we are supposed to be satisfied with the trite old alien grey — a creature that is about as new as, well, Close Encounters.
And Ray Winstone as Mac is about as interesting a character as, well, no one, because he really isn’t that interesting. Not a millimeter of depth for him. I can’t fault Shia LaBeouf for his role as Mutt. In some ways, he is the most interesting character in the script, though totally underdeveloped. And as much as they were supposed to be kindred, Harrison Ford and LaBeouf just didn’t share all that much chemistry. Besides one interesting scene in a 50’s malt shop, where the tension among the two runs high, I just didn’t enjoy their interaction. I have a theory why: the movie should have been Shia’s, not Ford’s. The scenes where Shia is the protagonist work because Ford just isn’t able to carry the film like he used to. Let’s face it, we all identified with the swashbuckling hero in the early films. Who wants to be over the hill and gray?
The movie was not without merit. I found the opening scene in the warehouse completely enjoyable, though I’m not sure how I felt about seeing the Ark of the Covenant, the seed of the three Abrahamic religions, tossed haphazardly about the warehouse, with its side torn open. It was of course a wink to the audience, but it was a cheap one. And John Hurt brought life to a lifeless character with Ox. It’s funny that the character with the least number of lines felt the most real to me, but such is the skill of Mr. Hurt.
It’s not a bad movie, per se, but it’s not a good one either. It seemed to me like a decent first draft of a story that “alas, didn’t quite work for me. Best of luck with this one.”