Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

To borrow a tagline from another long-in-the-making sequel coming to a theater near you soon:  I wanted to believe.  I wanted to believe that this would turn out to be the ending of the Indy saga that we all looked forward to.  I wanted to believe that they would be able to recapture the spirit and feel of the original.  I wanted to believe that this wouldn't be a repeat of the mis-steps that Lucas took with the Star Wars prequels.  
I really wanted to believe.
But, in the end, I was disappointed.  It's true, perhaps my expectations were too high.  Perhaps one should realize that after 19 years, the magic was gone.  It's not impossible to catch that lightning in a bottle again, but instead we get fireflies.
That's not to say the movie is bad.  It's definitely a fun way to spend two hours, and it has all the trappings of an Indiana Jones film.  To say that it's not as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Last Crusade is like saying that a painting isn't as good as the Mona Lisa.  And it's definitely not nearly as bad as Temple of Doom, though it suffers from many of the same problems that Temple did.
First, there's very little archaeology involved in Kingdom.  There's a little bit of grave-diving (a la Crusade), but none of the feeling of wonder or excitement that you get as you watch Indy put the pieces of the puzzle together (the series of desert scenes in Raiders is better than the entire movie of Kingdom).  The whole point of Indiana Jones is that he's an archaeologist first, an adventurer second.  When Mutt stammers out "You're a teacher!?", it's no wonder he doesn't believe it - aside from a couple meager scenes, we don't see Indy the archaeologist hardly at all.
The supernatural takes way too big a part in Kingdom, as it did in Temple.  If you pay attention to the first movie, the supernatural nature of the Ark is hinted at, glimpsed only in part until the very end.  Kingdom instead starts off with a demonstration of the supernatural, and continues to break it out (where convenient, mind you) throughout the film.
And lastly, there are just scenes that utterly destroy any suspension of disbelief that you've managed to come up with.  That, I think, is the ultimate disappointment with this movie - what made Raiders and Last Crusade so enjoyable is that they were, for the most part, pretty realistic.  Very little happens in either Raiders or Last Crusade that's at least not plausible (perhaps with the exception of the endings of each, but that's to be expected).  There's a lot, on the other hand, in both Temple and Kingdom that stretches the boundaries of reason until they break.  It's hard to mention these scenes without spoiling some parts of the film, but suffice to say the scenes with the refrigerator, the monkeys, and the rocket sled - while entertaining - had no place in a "true" Indiana Jones film. 
Some of this must have to do with Lucas' thoughts about trying to make Kingdom more of a "B-movie" than an homage to the Republic serials that he grew up with.  And, quite frankly, that makes it not an Indy movie from the get-go.  Indy is a serial hero, finding himself in cliffhanger after cliffhanger and always squeaking out by a nose.  He's not a B-movie scientist or researcher or football-player-cum-hero.  That's just not who Indy is, and by taking him out of his element and trying to force him into a genre that he's not meant for...well, can you imagine trying to take Luke Skywalker and put him in a family sit-com?  The Skywalkers!  Not really - it's just a basic misunderstanding of what made the Indiana Jones movies so successful.
Again, the movie isn't "bad" - it's just disappointingly not true to the original.  Harrison Ford does a great job hopping right back into the old fedora.  He's convincing as an aging, yet still completely capable, Indiana Jones.  Bringing Karen Allen back provides a great deal of closure to one of the outstanding questions in the series, and the repartee between Marian and Indy is just as good in this film as it was in the first.  Shia LaBeouf is...well, passable as Mutt the brash, young, mouthy sidekick (a good turn better than Short Round, at least).  But you definitely feel the loss of the late Denholm Elliott, though Marcus makes an appearance even posthumously that is true to the character.  Also missing is Sallah, and there's not even so much of a mention (particularly odd, considering how much he seemed enamoured with Marian during Raiders) - could they really not convince/afford John Rys-Davies?
As for the other supporting characters, Cate Blanchett is decent, though not nearly menacing enough, as the Russian scientist seeking the Crystal Skulls.  Ray Winstone is okay, but his character seems alternately a replacement for Sallah or just another annoying sidekick.  John Hurt has very little to do as Oxley, but what he does is performed with his usual attention to character detail.
Overall, it's not a bad movie, and it's perhaps one of the better adventure movies that's been released in recent years.  What's unfortunate is that it winds up trodding on some of the same ground that we've already seen in last year's National Treasure 2, which I'm sorry to say did a much better job of providing a pay-off in the lost city of gold.
There's talk of another sequel...with rumors of Shia LaBoeuf taking over the reigns and Harrison Ford taking a role more akin to Sean Connery's in Last Crusade.  And given the numbers that it posted ($300m+ worldwide), it's probably inevitable that Lucas and Spielberg will once again break out the whip and fedora.  And I wish them luck with that - I'll have more fun re-watching Raiders and Last Crusade than seeing anything they're likely to come up with.  Of course, perhaps there's a corollary to the "odd-numbered Trek's suck" rule - perhaps "even numbered Indy's suck" just as badly.  Either way, I'll see whatever they come up with, but it will be with severely lowered expectations the next time around.  While I want to believe, I just can't anymore - Lucas has finally broken me.