Indiana Jones and the Way-Too-Long Title is supposed to be a big welcome back to the kind of on-screen adventure we’ve all been craving since, well, since the last Indiana Jones movie nearly 20 years ago.
If you’ve never seen an Indiana Jones movie, the globe-trekking, part-time archeology professor (played by Harrison Ford) of the title is the ultimate adventurer who often finds his down-to-Earth beliefs challenged in many of his journeys. And, usually, there’s a leading lady involved in the mess. He’s James Bond of the dig sites.
This “Jones” film has an aging Indy being drawn into adventure when a 1950s greaser dressed like Marlon Brando and named Mutt (played by Shia Lebieu…uh…Shia Labeou…um…Lisa Bonet. Yeah.) delivers a letter from an old friend who needs, A, Indy’s archaeological know-how to dig up a “mythical crystal skull,” and, B, Indy’s adventurous side to save the old friend and Mutt’s mom who joined this friend on his journey.
Soon, Indy and Mutt are running from the ’50s Russkies, Peruvian natives, and, um, actually, that’s about all they’re running from.
In case you missed it in the above, the Russians are the bad guys here. And, in case you don’t catch on when Indy refers to them as “Reds” or when he sneers “Russians!” or when the FBI discusses the evil Red Menace, or the 15 other references to the Russians being evil, not to worry, director Spielberg literally hits the cameraman, and thus the viewer, over the head with it, when Indiana Jones crashes through an anti-Russia protest on his school’s campus, with signs and banners slamming right into the lens.
Not only does the first half-hour of the movie treat its audience like a group of mentally challenged six-year-olds, but screenwriter David Koepp — generally one of the industry’s more-reliable popcorn movie writers (Spider-Man 1 for instance) — peppers the first third of the movie with enough references to past Indy films that it seemed abundantly clear: without them, the first 30+ minutes would’ve dragged tremendously.
By the time we’re past the first third, we’re off on an adventure. Where Indy’s past movies take us around the world and back again, this one brings us to Peru, where Indy and friends get mired down in what might as well be quicksand.
None of the danger Indy and Mutt are in feels dangerous anymore — there’s no peril. While we always know Indy will survive, there’s never a moment where you ask yourself, How will he survive?
In the first film we had things like a giant stone ball chasing him, a Nazi tossed him over the hood of a speeding truck, snakes surrounded him in a pit where there seemed to be no way out. In the second film, Indy was captured and nearly killed by a bizarre high Priest of a cult (granted, this was ultimately the scene most people find to be the weakest, but at least there was peril), he was trapped in a shrinking room with spikes coming out of the floor, and he had to listen to Kate Capshaw. In the third film it was burning buildings, impervious tanks, and — aw, you get the idea. The biggest excitement we get is a teeter-tottering rock that reveals an ancient room of artifacts.
And that was this movie’s biggest weakness. Save for the exciting set-piece of the film’s climax, there was nothing new, exciting, or creative here. Even Mutt has nothing going for him — his big weapon is a pocket knife. When Indiana Jones was first introduced back in 1981, the idea of a whip as his weapon of choice was interesting and exciting. Why not give the kid something more intriguing like a bow & arrow, a bola, or have him wield a screaming Kate Capshaw.
The film had other weaknesses, aside from Spielberg’s lazy direction (although, I give him [or his Director of Photography] kudos for a few gorgeous shots of Kate Blanchett as the head Russkie, and there was finally some creativity in the map scenes, where a red line traverses the globe to show us where Indy’s headed [although, again, this could’ve been an editor’s idea, not Spielberg’s]). The main issue for me was that there was nothing at stake for Indiana Jones.
In the first film, “Raiders,” Indy’s life, and the world itself, were at stake. And, if that weren’t enough, he also had to save the love of his life, Marion (whose death he, for a short time, had thought he caused). In “Temple of Doom,” Indy’s very belief-system and an entire village’s children — and thus future — were at stake. In the third “Last Crusade” film it was the very life of Indy’s dad. While Indy is out to save Mutt’s mom, Indy states from the beginning that he has no idea who that is — it’s the other “old friend” he’s going to save. So, if she has any importance in Indy’s life, Indy himself is left completely in the dark to that fact.
There is also nothing new here in terms of the beliefs we’re dealing with. Yes, Indy does not believe this Crystal Skull is anything but a myth, but this again has no real bearing on his character, on his make-up. And, once Indy, Mutt, Mutt’s mom, and the “old friend” are brought together, you never really feel like they’re about to get got — whether the danger be Russians, waterfalls, or natives.
Apropos to their time-period, past Indiana Jones adventures, which took place in the 1930s or ’40s, felt like old chapter serials of the day. With this picture taking place in the 1950s, and sci-fi being the order of those days, a B-movie with crystal skulls or hungry ants could have been a lot of fun. But with an aging Indy relegated to little more than a tour guide and daddy figure to wanderlustful Mutt, and an extreme lack of vision by all involved, George Lucas needs to learn to leave his old franchises out to pasture.
There are some laughs and enough action to keep most of the younger set satiated throughout this Disney-like adventure, but the title might as well have been Indiana Jones and the Phantom Menace. Because much like that much-maligned film, the only real menace here is the threat of another one.