There’s anticipated, then there’s highly anticipated and even strongly anticipated and then there is the level of audience expectation for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It’s the kind of anticipation that didn’t accompany the resurrections of other screen icons like Rocky or Rambo. Nope, this is in a class of its own. I’ve known expectant parents who weren’t as pent up as some of the Indy fans I’ve spoken to in recent months.
“Will Crystal Skull hold up to the originals?” they ask.
“Can senior citizen Harrison Ford (he’s 66 years old!) convincingly don Indy’s fedora after a gap of twenty four years?”
“Will George Lucas tarnish the Indy franchise as badly as he has buggered up Star Wars?” they bleat.
The answers, I’m glad to report are yes, yes and no.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a return to form for not only Lucas, but also Steven Spielberg and Ford. Separately they churn out trash like Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, The Terminal and Hollywood Homicide, but bound together sparks fly. Lucas has kept only the clichés necessary for the continuity of Indiana’s character; Spielberg has amped up the action and the pacing and Ford fits the lead role like a well worn-in pair of slippers.
In this cold war story’s opening minutes Indy (Harrison Ford) is taken prisoner by Russians dressed as American soldiers, led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). Seems she’s interested in an artifact that could help her exert mind control over entire armies; an artifact that Indy can help her locate. In a breathless sequence involving car chases, rockets and an atomic bomb blast Indy escapes. Soon he teams up with a switchblade-toting juvenile delinquent in a leather jacket (Shia LeBeouf) and together they high tail it to the Peruvian jungle, racing against time to reach the Crystal Skull before Irina and her KGB thugs.
Of course that’s the Reader’s Digest version of the story. There’s also double crosses, rekindled love, giant ants, a snake that comes to the rescue, science fiction and action, action, action. While there is nothing here as iconic as the giant boulder chase or the Nazi face-melt from Raiders of the Lost Ark by and large Crystal Skull does a good job of paying homage to the original three movies.
At the heart of the film, of course, is Harrison Ford. Of all the actors who came of age in the 1970s—De Niro, Pacino, Hoffman, Hackman—Ford may be the most ironically American. He’s not the best actor of the bunch, not by a long shot, but like John Wayne he represents what is good about the United States—strength, courage and ingenuity. He brings these traits to every character he plays, but Indiana Jones is his greatest creation and the two decades between films in the franchise hasn’t dimmed that light one bit. He’s aged—LeBeouf’s character asks, “What are you, like 80?”—but fedora planted firmly on the top of his head he is still the heroic icon he was when the first film hit theatres and Ronald Reagan was president.
That’s great for movie fans who lined up to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on opening day, but audiences have changed in the years since the last movie was released, and there is a whole generation of moviegoers who have never seen an Indy movie projected on a screen. It raises the question of whether kids will be interested in Indy’s old-fashioned brand of screen hero. Sure, there’s action and adventure a plenty, but I wonder if today’s audiences, many of whom weren’t even born when Indy first bull whipped a golden idol out of the hands of the bad guys, aren’t more cynical and more likely to gravitate towards a deeply flawed and conflicted hero like Iron Man’s Tony Stark. It would be a shame if they didn’t. In these dark and dangerous times a bit of simple, straightforward heroics just might be a good thing.