For 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were famously inspired by the cheesy action serials from the 1930s. Had the Indiana Jones films followed the format of those serials, and come out with a new installment once or twice a year, Crystal Skull might have been a fairly decent entry in the series. But after keeping millions of fans hungry for years – this is the longest-awaited sequel in cinema history – amid scores of stories about Spielberg, Lucas, and/or star Harrison Ford being unhappy with previous drafts of the script, there's no way audience expectations could be kept low for this. So it's no surprise that so many people are disappointed with this middling trifle that has finally been given to them in 2008.
Raiders of the Lost Ark was lightning in a bottle. Sequels are bound to pale in comparison to an original, and frankly I thought little of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (though I find Temple of Doom to be underrated). Even keeping this in mind, I didn't expect to find so much pure indifference in the delivery of Crystal Skull.
Sure, Spielberg brings back all the Indy trademarks – the wry humor, the scares, the derring-do, the brutal deaths of bad guys – but there's something missing. Or, rather, some things, namely character development, an epic sweep, and a real sense of danger.
The many plot holes and script contrivances also do little to validate the long wait for this film. One only wonders how bad those earlier, rejected screenplays were. But more than that, the film feels like a college theater department taking on a Broadway classic: it seems like everybody is having a good time, but the cast is too small, the settings look too much like they were built on stages instead of shot on location, and there's a general lack of awe. Even the titular skulls look like cheap props.
While I admired the fleeting impressions of the Red Scare mentality of the era (the story is set in 1957) and I thought Cate Blanchett was pretty good as the sexily evil Soviet villain Irina Spalko, mostly I wanted to stop the film as it unreeled and say, "Yeah, okay, I got it. I don't need to see any more. Now let's just watch Raiders on the big screen again, since that's really what we want." Because Karen Allen's talents weren't wasted in Raiders. Character complexity wasn't given short shrift. We got a real sense of travel in that film. And even the smallest bit players left memorable impressions: the guy with the eyepatch and the monkey, the bald Nazi who beats the crap out of Indy in front of the plane, Jock with his pet snake Reggie, the sheik with the fancy sword who gets shot. There's none of that here.
So yeah, if I were told that this movie was made for just $25 million (which is what it looks like) and shot in a couple of months, I'd accept it as a fun little programmer. But as the über-blockbuster it was designed to be, it comes up drastically short. Raiders' glory days of rich characterizations, exciting plots, and timeless moviemaking are long behind us. It says something that ILM's expensive computer visuals in this film don't compare to the frightening analog effects in Raiders' Angel of Death scenes. Maybe it's time VFX crews abandoned their computers and started working with models and optical printers again. Not to mention screenwriters taking the time to develop their characters from the ground up instead of just plugging them in. Then perhaps some of that old Spielberg/Lucas magic would return.