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TIFF ‘Crystal Skull’ delivers, but just barely

Thrill-seekers won’t feel cheated by the latest installment in the “Indiana Jones” series, but “The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” ultimately rings hollow.
Image: Scene from \"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull\"
Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and Marion (Karen Allen) get that sinking feeling, as Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) looks on in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."Paramount Pictures

You know how watching a sub-standard James Bond movie can make you feel like you’re watching a 007 rip-off? “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” has that same kind of hollowness, as if you were watching an action-adventure from someone who had borrowed all of Steven Spielberg’s script beats and pyrotechnics and none of the joy. Unfortunately, it’s Spielberg himself who’s the guilty party here.

This time around, the action begins in 1957, 19 years after the events of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” which, appropriately, came out 19 years ago. A convoy of Russian spies disguised as American soldiers arrive at the infamous Hangar 51, where the U.S. government hides everything from UFOs to a certain Ark of the Covenant, and the slightly craggier for wear Dr. Jones (Harrison Ford) is forced out of a car trunk at gunpoint. Leading this exposition is Soviet officer Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, camping it up in full “Ilsa, She-Wolf of the CCCP” mode), who wants Jones to help her find a mysterious object with magnetic powers.

Firmly planting us in the 1950s, Spielberg manages to squeeze in Russkies, the Red scare, the A-bomb, “Howdy Doody,” drag-racing juvenile delinquents, and two references to “I Like Ike” in the first 20 minutes or so. Oh, and also “The Wild One,” as Shia LaBeouf makes his entrance riding a motorcycle and looking exactly like Marlon Brando in that biker epic.

And from there we get into spoilers, which I will not reveal, but suffice it to say that Jones once again gets involved in a complicated plot that will involve globe-trotting, grave-spelunking, angry natives, high-speed vehicle chases, creepy-crawlies, double-crosses and an artifact that will give its owner unspeakable power.

Been there, done that, alas, and in a way that once felt fresh and exciting. The original “Raiders of the Lost Ark” took the old serial formula, added a post-Watergate tongue-in-cheek spin and turned the pyrotechnics up to 11. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” threw all logic out the window in favor of pure, exhilarating thrills. Even the problematic “Last Crusade” featured the tongue-in-cheek stunt casting of Sean Connery. “Crystal Skull,” however, just feels rote and by the numbers, despite the addition of LaBeouf and the more than welcome return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood.

At the press screening I attended, you could feel the audience wanting to clap at the end of each big action sequence, but then there was a collective inhalation where, ultimately, no one felt strongly enough to actually start applauding. And that’s the feeling you’re left with — a simulacrum of a great action movie without enough heart and brains and adrenaline. The big set pieces leave you feeling jostled, but never elated.

It’s not that “Crystal Skull” doesn’t deliver the laughs and the thrills; it’s just that they all feel incredibly calculated, and it’s quite possible that you won’t remember them after a day or two. And when you think of how well “Raiders” remains etched into the public consciousness after almost 30 years, that’s a sad state of affairs.