And it's good, really good, maybe even great. First, to let you know where I'm coming from. I love Indiana Jones--who doesn't. Just the first four notes of the theme music get my heart racing. And in my head, I knew I shouldn't be too excited for this. It can't possibly live up to the hype or the expectations. But for the past year my heart has stubbornly resisted my head and got excited anyway. I went in there wanting it to be the greatest thing ever, but expecting to be disappointed. I ended up with something in between, and something I can be very, very happy with.
The action literally had me gripping my seat more than anything I can remember. This is what Indy movies are known for, and I'll start by saying they knocked this out of the park. There's nothing in this movie quite as memorable as the boulder in "Raiders", but there hasn't been anything that good in any Indy movie since (or any movie, period). "Raiders of the Lost Ark" set a new standard in action, one that was copied and built upon in two more Indy movies and a score of imitators. Then a weird thing happened when Indiana Jones left the scene for 19 years--"action" came to mean shaking the camera like an epileptic monkey while something vaguely exciting happens on-screen. It was really, really cool to see an action scene--a live action action scene (the epileptic monkey rule doesn't quite apply to CGI yet)--where I can follow what's going on. And guess what, if you do it right, it's more exciting to know what's going on!
Okay, the action's good, what about the MacGuffin? The artifact, the "Crystal Skull" from the title? Well, like all the artifacts it's more and less than what it is. It's something that moves the action forward, bad guys and good guys want it, and it has some secret power that the bad guys think can be a weapon and the good guys want to keep from being a weapon. It's also a metaphor--usually for unbridled greed. In this case, the temptation to use it as a weapon overwhelms a desire to understand it, and as such it's a metaphor for knowledge. A knowledge so great that whoever looks it in the eyes goes mad (John Hurt was pretty awesome in his role). But really, it's just a MacGuffin. A who-cares-what-it-is, the important thing is both the bad guys and good guys want it.
The relationships are the big thing in this movie. Henry Jones Sr. is dead, so is Marcus Brody. Early in the movie, his old war buddy Mac betrays him. Indiana Jones has fewer and fewer people left. Even his relationship with his government is strained. After surviving a run-in with Russians breaking into Area 51 (where, yes, the Ark makes an ever-so-brief cameo), he's become "of interest" to the Red-Scare era FBI (bringing up the Red Scare sort of resonates with the current political climate). So when greaser Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf, doing his best impression of Marlon Brando from "The Wild One") tracks him down and tells him his old college buddy Oxley is in trouble, you can see the light in Indy's eyes. The world has passed him by, Indy hasn't changed but the world has, and it's changed into something that doesn't need or want him. So a reminder that there are still people who will call on him when they're in trouble is a second wind for him. And when Mutt's mother turns out to be Marion Ravenwood (now Williams) from "Raiders", well that's absolutely perfect. When he admits that all the other women he's had all had the same problem--"They weren't you, honey"--he's just echoing what all the fans feel. None of the romantic interests have been nearly as interesting as Karen Allen as Marion. And when it's revealed that Mutt is actually his son...well, it works, and they milk some of the best humor out of that.
So what of that changed world? Well, the bad guys are now Russkies instead of Nazis. They've defeated the Nazis (and Indiana is now war hero Colonel Jones). But the Russian soldiers never really feel like Russkies, they're just the army that's backing up Cate Blanchett's Irina Spalko, a KGB psychic warfare expert. But she feels more like a rival scientist than a Russian--more akin to Rene Belloq in "Raiders" than anyone else. She's a professional rival more than a political one. The Nazis in "Raiders" and "The Last Crusade" were always more like the Keystone Nazis than anything else. Even more so here, they aren't Cold War Russians as much as the same comically inept army that's always trying to kill Indy. And in that role, they're fine (as I said before, the action scenes were terrific).
So what of the big reveal at the end? The big secret of the Crystal Skull. Well, I don't want to give away spoilers but if you've been on the Internet at all, you'll know it's an alien skull. There's some reveal at the end about them being inter-dimensional beings who travel to the space between spaces. It's mumbo jumbo, and probably the weakest payoff of the 4 movies. But it's still passable. It's not like scientific plausibility was ever a strong point of the series.
All in all, it was pretty awesome. So why did I feel, in the end, that there was something missing, or something wrong? Was it just so much buildup, did I expect too much? Is it the pattern I noticed in the first three--that Indy is just better when he's battling Nazis and chasing Judeo-Christian artifacts? (and I say that with great love for "Temple of Doom", it's just not quite the same as the other two) Maybe, but I'm not sure. I just had this vague feeling about it not quite being right. I couldn't put my finger on it. Things that might've bothered me--older Indy, bringing back the old love interest, a son, aliens--were all handled very well, and didn't bother me. There's just something in the whole package that felt off. Not bad, not wrong, just "off".
So I slept on it before writing this, and when I woke up, I realized that Indiana Jones had Jumped the Shark. And I mean that in the original meaning of the term. "Jumping the Shark" is a term that is used in reference to TV shows, and it's a reference to the "Happy Days" episode where the Fonz jumped a shark. Afterwards, the show started going downhill, and the "Jumping the Shark" episode is seen as the point where the show peaked. Nowadays, it's too often incorrectly used to refer to when a show became bad. But that's not right--it's supposed to be the high-water mark, the moment that beat all (or most) moments before it, changed everything, and made it impossible for anything after it to be as good as what came before. "Jumping the Shark" is often the best--or at least most anticipated--moment of the series. Everything after is a letdown, but not the jumping of the shark itself. And that's what's happened. In fact, in retrospect this had many of the classic shark jumping cliches--a son, a marriage (yes, Indy and Marion survive and get married at the end), aliens. Even though they were all handled well, the fact remains that everything has changed, and nothing from here on can be as good as what happened before.
And so what it all means is that while "Crystal Skull" will find a treasured spot in the Indiana Jones story, when the inevitable rumors of "Indiana Jones V" start (I believe they've started already, but I haven't paid any attention) I won't get too excited. I simply can't get that excited anymore, because the whole Indy world has changed, and there's no going back.
Update: I wanted to say a little more about my "Jumping the Shark" argument. First, there's an obvious, gigantic hole in it. As I painstakingly explained, "Jumping the Shark" is an indication that all future entries will not be as good as the previous entries (more to the point, the universe of the series has changed so much that it practically becomes a different series). Of course, this means I can't actually declare that it has jumped the shark, I can only predict it (I.e., predict that any future movies won't be as good as the earlier ones). And it's a rather bold prediction, if I say so myself. It's entirely possible that any futures movies might be absolutely great, better than anything before. It's also entirely possible that there will be no more movies. If a series ends on the "jump the shark" episode, can it actually be said to jump the shark?
With that said, there are rumors of Indiana Jones V. I'm sticking with my prediction.