It does of course get held up to a higher standard than any other movie because it is an Indiana Jones film. This is perhaps somewhat unfair to it as a movie in the general sense, but I think entirely fair given that it's part of a franchise. We hold second and third seasons of television shows up to standard based on how much we liked the previous season. The Phantom Menace led to disappointment in part due to it's unattainable expectations but also simply because it was not as enjoyable as the previous films. Star Wars wasn't perfect, and neither was Indiana Jones. What the Indiana Jones films did have going for them, however, was excitement, good action, and characters who usually evoked some sort of emotion in the viewer, many times the emotion intended by the writer.
The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, while for the most part technically impressive and competant, fell slightly short as an adventure movie but pretty much failed as an Indiana Jones movie. Actually, let me rephrase that slightly. It failed as a good Indiana Jones movie. It did have all the components to make it an Indiana Jones movie, it just failed to use them in an engaging way.
Since I'm in the mood to write entirely too much text, the rest is a click away. Many spoilers lie ahead! Indiana Jones movies have never been particularly deep. Indiana Jones is told about some ancient artifact or legend, and he decides it'd be pretty sweet for him to go get it. What follows are a series of events leading up to him finding the thing and usually escaping the hands of certain doom. It was never overly realistic and a lot of the (non-mystical) stuff that happens is more or less the definition of movie magic.
The most outward problem that Crystal Skull had was Jones' absent lack of motive. In Raiders or Last Crusade his motivation and desire for the Ark or Grail were pretty apparent. Jones was a treasure hunter, and these were his treasures. Almost everything he did in those movies was in order to obtain those items. At the end of Last Crusade he is literally hanging on for his life and must make the decision between the Grail or being killed, and he actually considers trying to get the Grail. In Raiders he spends a long time getting the Ark only to have Nazis steal it. What does he do in response? He chases down the truck with the Ark inside and steals it back while it is still being driven. If that's not a man motivated, I don't know what is.
Even Temple of Doom, which was the long-time holder of the 'Worst Indiana Jones Movie' award had motivation in saving all the enslaved kids and getting everything back in order. Temple of Doom is sort of the odd man out as far as the four films go since the majority of the film is spent at a single location rather than the globe trotting which occurs in the other three. However while it's perhaps the weakest of the original three films, it's by no means bad. Indy's love interest is annoying as hell for the majority of the movie, but I feel that Short Round cancels her out. Any movie with an amazing opening sequence and climax (the bridge scene is easily one of the best action sequences in all four movies), as well as an iconic dinner scene can't be all that bad. But I digress; I'm not here to defend Temple.
My point was that in the previous three movies Indiana Jones has a reason for doing what he does. He has motivation. He wants something and he goes and gets it. This is untrue in Crystal Skull. After a strong opening (I even enjoyed the atomic explosion sequence and I was willing to overlook the inexplicable gophers) Indy meets up with his surprise (but highly obvious) estranged son, though at the time neither of them know this fact. Mutt (or Henry Jones III) presents Indy with a letter from his mother (only known as 'Mary') advising him to seek out Jones.
Indy takes the letter and translates it and we're given some vague backstory about a colleague of Jones' and teacher of Mutt's. That's pretty much it. Jones doesn't want the skull, Mutt doesn't want the skull. Neither of them has any real reason to obtain the artifact mentioned in the title of the movie. They want to get their friend back, but Jones admits to not having spoken to him in a while, so clearly they were not amazingly close. So essentially what it comes down to is Jones hauling ass across the planet to help out a kid who he just met.
Interestingly enough, if Mutt had just said "My mother is Marion Ravenwood and I'm your son" then Jones would have had some viable motivation. However instead we're left wondering why exactly he is doing all this in exchange for the sand pit scene which was some sort of attempt at a humorous surprise. I say attempt because pretty much anyone could see the obvious train coming down egregious junction.
Later in the movie Jones actually finds the skull, but there's something lost in the moment. First off the obvious is that the temple it's contained in isn't very dangerous. Aside from the weird guys apparently waiting for someone to attack (were they mystical or real dudes? I guess that doesn't matter) there was little stopping them. However aside from that, Oxley had already found the skull and returned it. Someone else had already been to that tomb, raided it, and then essentially raided it a second time. Furthermore someone almost entirely out of his mind was able to thwart the guards and then figure out what to do in order to get the skull. Twice. While I would mostly consider this nitpicking, it still feels wrong. Remember the opening scene in Raiders where Jones encounters various failed attempts to do what he hopes to do? It's that sort of thing that makes it seem like he's really good at what he does. The best. In this movie he was just as good as some crazy guy.
Where the movie really took a downturn was when they entered Peru. I had heard all the rumors of overused CG, and up until they entered the jungle I wondered what everyone was talking about. There had been some minor CG used to augment some scenes, but for the most part everything had been real. In Peru we are faced with the first massive fest of CG. First the jungle chase, followed by the army ant section, followed by the waterfall scene, followed by the alien temple.
The jungle chase was probably the worst offender as far as green screening goes. The great thing about the Indiana Jones films was that, while a lot of scenes were sort of ridiculous in concept (for instance the truck chase in Raiders), they never looked bad because they were done with real moving set pieces and real stunt men (or the actual actors). The series suffers from a large number of bad composite shots (mainly due to lack of technology at the time), but they were generally kept to a minimum amount of screen time because I'm sure Speilberg knew they looked bad.
Now by contrast Crystal Skull had a scene where two or more vehicles were driving at top speed through the jungle and two people even had a sword fight across vehicles. While the concept of that idea is fine and works with the rest of the series, the execution of it failed miserably. It was an example of a bad composite taken to a massive extreme because it went on for many minutes. The tank driving over the cliff in Last Crusade looked terrible but it was only on screen for a few seconds. The sword fight lasted two or three minutes.
Also do I even need to mention Mutt's Tarzan moment? I feel like it's been brought up so many times that it's not even worth mentioning it. Sadly that sequence was so god awful that I can't help but devote at least this small paragraph to how absurd it was. I don't even know what to say about it. Not only was it poor in execution but it was poor in theory. Swinging from vines has never been a good idea in any movie ever unless it features either Tarzan or Pitfall Harry. It doesn't even work if your movie is a full blown comedy. It's never been funny, it has never looked good, and there's no amount of CG monkeys you can possibly add that will make it better. That's all I have to say about that.
After that we have the scene with all the fucking ants. I'm still not sure what I think about that scene. On one hand massive fuck-off ants that eat everything they touch is a cool and even viable idea since army ants do just that. However the ants ended up amounting to a river of lava since they never really did much to their ant-y abilities except for that time they stacked and tried to eat Cate Blanchett. Also the guy being eaten alive by them was probably one of the more disturbing deaths in the series. Kicking even when he is full of ants and being dragged to his doom. Kind of horrifying actually.
My main gripe however is how distracting all the CG here was. I'm sure Lucas and Speilberg had some awesome but un-doable ideas for the first three films, so they probably scrapped them and thought of something else cool that they were actually able to pull off. Some of the stuff in Crystal Skull feels like they should have utilized that philosophy here instead of "hey that's cool we can do it with CG!" It almost makes me wonder if the ants scene and the monkey scene and the driving through the jungle and sword fighting scenes would have even existed if this movie had been made in 1992 or something. Speilberg made a tremendous effort not to use too much CG in Jurassic Park and instead opt for full sized robots or clever shots where the CG would not be too noticeable. That's why Jurassic Park has managed to age fairly well in spite of it containing CG that is now around fifteen years old.
No such restraint was shown with this movie. I do give him credit for never once using CG in place of an actual stunt man (something that plagues series' like Spider-Man and even Lord of the Rings), but many instances there was something they could have done that they didn't. Case and point, the waterfall scene had a fairly blatant CG boat complete with CG passengers. The rest of the scene was real. The waterfall was not a CG waterfall, and the jungle around it was real. I realize me asking them to send an actual boat over the falls might not be feasible, but perhaps if something is not feasible to do in reality, you shouldn't instead do it virtually.
I also want to mention that I am not against CG. I think, overall, it's good for the special effects industry because it allows movies to flesh out their environments in ways not previously possible. I recently saw Iron Man for the second time, and aside from a few minor issues, it's the very definition of a movie that not only has good CG but also only uses it sparingly. Whenever Iron Man can be a real person, he is. Whenever they can put Robert Downey Jr. on strings and suspend him from the ceiling to make him fly they do that instead of green screening him. There are very few moments in that movie where the CG is blatant enough that it's distracting.
And now we come to that huge gorilla in the room. The aliens. Now my initial reaction to the aliens in this movie was mixed. Indiana Jones has always been about legends and mythical crap, so using the Incan legend involving alien dudes is not really something I have an issue with. All the legends in the Indy movies turn out to be entirely, 100% true, and I'm fine with that. Indiana Jones is not here to debunk religion or shut up conspiracy theorists. That said, I feel the way the alien storyline was carried out was poor and not keeping with the rest of the franchise.
While he has collected magical gold boxes and cups owned by Jesus, he never actually met any of the owners. The legends were true but there was nothing beyond that. Jesus didn't show up at the end of Last Crusade to get his cup back and then punch a Nazi and fly away on his magical (cross shaped) surf board (and yes, I realize how awesome that sounds). Likewise, putting the final skull in place not only caused a mystical merger of horribly generic aliens, but we see the blatant CG alien and then we fucking see his massive flying saucer take off. Usually at the end of an Indiana Jones movie a temple collapses, so I'm fine with that, and a bad guy dies, so I'm also cool with that, but never before has the mythological owner of Indy's trinket actually materialized and made an appearance. It was just entirely too much.
When the temple was falling apart I was mostly fine (though once again distracted by obvious CG), but when the saucer emerged I recall feelings of disdain, shock and I think I actually felt a little depressed. The movies have always been about the mystery and ancient. This movie had those two but then at the end they pretty much said "well fuck it, let's make a fucking UFO fly out of this bitch" and then they went and did it. I don't even like to think about it. I don't have any issue with the aliens themselves, but it was entirely unnecessary to present them in full as some way of completing the story. If the temple had just fallen into the ground that would have been more than sufficient.
I don't have much more to say since I've come to the end of the movie. Indiana Jones getting married is fine with me. The guy is old anyway, it's sadly a lot harder to take him seriously as an action star now that he looks like a grandfather. If it was the filmmakers' goal to fill me with rage and then relief as Shia LaBeouf was about to place Indy's hat on his head only to have it snatched away just before he did it then they were successful. If they wanted to make it a secret that they weren't setting up that guy to be the next Indiana, they failed, and so will their new movies. Mutt failed to have any of the charm of Indy, and he spent a lot of the movie being scared of things Indiana Jones is not supposed to be scared of. We'll see what comes of that I guess, but I don't have a lot of hope right now.
So yeah, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It wasn't that good. Too bad.