I will be writing a full review for posting at Ohio.com Wednesday. Right now, I'm sorting out ideas, so what follows the jump is more in the way of notes, and basically spoiler-free. But there they are.
I've been trying to decide whether "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is a failure of vision or a failure of nerve. I lean toward the former, since George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are not the guys to doubt their abilities and ideas. Rather, I think he and Lucas and all associated with this film just didn't have enough good ideas to make a whole movie.
You see that fairly early on. "Crystal Skull" starts with what appears to be break from the adventure-serial motif of the previous films. Set in 1957, it embraces the paranoia of that era -- evil Russians, scary feds, the Blacklist -- and its rebellions -- Elvis, Brando. And those ideas are in the context of an aging Indy; it's almost 20 years after "Last Crusade," seven years after the Harrison Ford vignette in "Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," and in the early going there are repeated references to Indy's age and his past.
But while it momentarily takes on the visual style of the '50s, its narrative approach is slow, and its willingness to stay with those ideas is very limited. Same thing with Indy's age. It's mentioned, then set aside. Soon enough, it becomes just another Indiana Jones movie.
Yes, there are some twists. (I don't call them surprises, because they won't surprise anyone who has paid even moderate attention.) There are elaborate, occasionally impressive chases and stunts. But they don't for the most part have the freshness of the earlier movies.
"Crystal Skull" is fighting movie history; not only are its three predecessors out there, saying this is how you do an adventure epic, there are countless successors and imitators. ("Crystal Skull" more than once made me think of "National Treasure 2.") And that doesn't even get into other adventure sagas where character counts as much as the stunts -- "Iron Man" comes to mind. Where "Last Crusade" gained depth from character, in "Crystal Skull," character is conveyed through gesture and attitude, all surface, no depth.
As I have said several times of late, I was ready for this movie. And I worked hard at keeping my expectations under control. Even so, "Crystal Skull" is a disappointment, unnecessary. It travels far, but doesn't take us anywhere.