The opening sequence of the long-awaited, very-long-titled Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is pure Spielberg magic: the camera swooping to follow a race between an Army truck and a car, catching reflections off gleaming steel hubcaps to a rocknroll soundtrack.
Its proof if proof were needed of Spielbergs eye for detail, for speed, and for riding the fun and the serious neck-and-neck, never quite letting on which will win. But that scene, sadly, is all hes got. From the moment Ford gets up, dons his hat and says his first line, its as though the director gave up in despair.
Its been a long time, of course, since the characters glorious Last Crusade, and the lead man has aged. Action-stunts are less plausible and less possible now, requiring the need for judicious framing and less running around. But the failure of this film and it is a failure, in every respect is not Fords fault. Its no understatement to say that, in terms of craftsmanship, this is the worst film Spielberg has ever put together.
The script makes a concerted effort to update us to the Fifties, with Communists and the A-bomb alongside other turns more surprising but still in keeping with the era. But from this interesting premise things nose-dive: crystal skulls, conquistadors and El Dorado: not only does the plot bear a striking similarity to that of National Treasure 2, in a direct comparison it comes off rather worse.
Despite the dead-cert of the box office return Indy 4 has been cheaply made and it shows, with as few extras, exteriors and vistas as possible. The epic, MGM-style touches of the originals are entirely absent. Instead, we have over-generous lighting and thinly-dressed sets. Even the editing is bad: props and actors leap around the frame from cut to cut, as though they shot each scene only once and that was all.
In previous instalments (and, more recently, in the Bourne trilogy), the extensive use of location work leant an air of robustness and other-worldliness to proceedings. By contrast, the crystals skull kingdom exists purely in an ILM server, presumably in the same directory as the flying city and flame-world of the dreadful Star Wars prequels.
CG-critters swing through the trees. Cartoonish escapes and a very silly McGuffin indeed hobble Indianas world to something sanitised and ultimately harmless. It seems the pre-publicity about visceral action stunts done the old-fashioned way was orchestrated untruth. Most of the action exists only in close-up under neutral lighting against the kind of flat backgrounds that green-screen renders with such mediocrity.
Its still a pleasure to see Ford on screen, its true, and there are flashes of the dry wit that made the earlier films such a joy. Unfortunately, there are plenty of misses there too. Unlike Bruce Willis curmudgeonly turn in Die Hard 4.0 the film-makers didnt quite dare to make Jones age into a source of amusement and so, inexorably, it starts to become an embarrassment.
The remaining cast do their best with chunky material, mostly exposition of an unexpected but ultimately uninteresting archaeological backstory. Cate Blanchett slices through some appalling lines, Karen Allen appears to have woken up from a long sleep, and only the ever-excellent Shia LaBeouf manages to inject genuine energy and enthusiasm into his role as a Fifties grease-comber, trying – just as he did in Transformers – to save the whole damn film singlehanded.
Overall, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a forgettable time-filler, and only welcome as a reminder of how great The Last Crusade really was. And although its nice to see Fords wry smile its difficult to muster one from this side of the camera.