In spite of an over reliance on CG, and one too many obvious moments of George Lucas-involved over-the-top tomfoolery, the latest "Indiana Jones" is a solid piece of major studio-produced escapist entertainment. Unfortunately that may not be enough.
Like it or not, the 'Jones' franchise is like the original "Star Wars" trilogy - to a whole generation of now grown-up adults, they are a sacred cow from their childhood that cannot be beaten or even objectively criticized. With these films they want another dark adventure masterpiece like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" every time. What they get is very entertaining and exciting, but ultimately inferior sequels like 'Temple of Doom' and 'The Last Crusade'. For many of those people only something of 'Raiders' level would be good enough, and anyone with that mindset going in will only be disappointed by this.
Like the "Star Wars" prequels, real location filming has been often replaced by green screen sound stage work. Moments of truly suspenseful action have been exchanged with CG-enhanced stunts that remove the last vestiges of remote believability. The narrative and the central macguffin aren't interesting enough to justify a sequel let alone one that took so long to develop. Finally the tone is far more comical, light and wacky than even 'The Last Crusade'.
Unlike the "Star Wars" prequels however, this is far from an abject failure and sits quite comfortably alongside the quality of the other sequels. Performances are solid all round, character dynamics are interesting, the pacing almost never falters, the action is often gripping, the comedy generally works, the FX are well done, and no-one can edit and co-ordinate good old-fashioned set pieces like Spielberg.
New characters like Shia LaBeouf's greaser 'Mutt' and especially Cate Blanchett's Ukrainian General are a great sidekick and foil respectively. She is a less sadistic version of Bond villainess Rosa Klebb in "From Russia with Love", he's a weedier version of Brando in "The Wild One" but quickly becomes one of the few young pretty boy sidekicks that you actually find yourself liking. Less successful are Ray Winstone and John Hurt, good actors stuck with the underwritten roles of a treacherous old colleague and a babbling genius respectively, whilst Karen Allen's return as Marion adds little short of some fun moments of family bickering.
The change from 1930's-inspired Christian mythology to a more 50's like science-fiction tale fits the mold far more comfortably than expected thanks to rooting the mystery in archaeological trappings and giving away the 'Chariots of the Gods' inspired angle right from the very start. Similarly the problem of Indy's age doesn't really factor in as the pace is so fast and fun that you really do just go with it and forget about quite a few real world concerns.
Unfortunately there are moments where the filmmakers themselves seem to have forgotten any sense of reality as well and push past the sublimely silly into the utterly ridiculous. I won't give away the details but elements like 'the fridge', 'the vine swinging/monkeys', 'the waterfalls', 'the prairie dogs' and a scene in which Mutt straddling two cars racing through the Amazon (which surprisingly has convenient two-lane roads) gets repeatedly hit in the groin will be considered trite moments by some and unforgivable blasphemes by others.
The pre-coda ending also pushes into the utterly preposterous, but then again ghost-filled arks, glowing stones, and cups of immortaily are just as much pure fantasy. They've pretty much run Judeo-Christian mythology into the ground already with this franchise, doing another like the Spear of Longinus would've been redundant. That still leaves plenty of mythological treasures or civilizations to discover - from The Golden Fleece and Excalibur to Atlantis to name just a few.
Despite those few cringe-inducing bits, and the odd perfunctory action scene (the dry sand escape is utterly useless), there's some great action as well. The aforementioned jungle scene is an excellent extended chase sequence, the fire ants are too CG but the whole scene is just brilliantly executed, the Connecticut motorbike chase is deliciously old school, and the opening Area 51 fight and escape provide a strong kickoff in spite of Indiana's many hip-breaking falls. Even the attack by skull-faced natives in the graveyard of the otherwise unexciting Nazca scenes is effectively creepy and their first glimpse is my favorite single shot of the film.
David Koepp's script does an admirable, if not always successful, job of blending the best bits of several previous scripts and marrying the demands of the three principles (Ford, Lucas, Spielberg) into a straightforward narrative. Combined with Spielberg's attempts to film the movie like his older works, this truly does feel like an "Indiana Jones" movie for most of the time - certainly far more effectively than last year's fourth "Die Hard" which never felt like a part of that series (although admittedly was a better crafted and more satisfying action blockbuster than this).
Time will sadly not look so kindly on Skull's abundance of computer animation or lack of a really good new story to get us hooked, but the standard is still far higher than many of the franchises imitators have given us over the years (even weak Indy sits well above the "National Treasure" and "Tomb Raider" franchises, not to mention the first "The Mummy" sequel). The good stuff easily outweighs the bad here, and most importantly its a hell of a lot of fun and certainly well made where it needs to be.