This a cheap film without cheap thrills; and when I say cheap film, I mean poor on every level except the business level (budget: ~$185 mil). Indiana Jones 4 is churned out by people who pride themselves on high production values, yet is ridden with poor cinematography, poor VFX, poor acting, and above all, poor writing.
For a project years in development, the story is bafflingly wafer-thin. Indiana Jones is taken by his bastard son to find a crystal skull and return it to its "final resting place" somewhere in the Amazon. They are racing against the Soviets, who plan to use the skull in evil ways. They want to bombard the USA with false and misleading images! Of course the media of the Free World could never allow that to happen. Not until they get their cut, anyway.
What a god-awful piece of work this is. The Steven Spielberg from the 70s and 80s has absented himself, save for a few scenes of nostalgic Americana where we sense a flicker of interest. That drive and passion which infused Raiders with its holy fury are gone. Godless communism lacks the special pizazz of Nazi idolatry which has been so important for Spielberg's career. Nor for that matter is there any trace of the consummate professional who made Kate Capshaw sing "Anything Goes" in Shanghainese, that guy who could do snappy choreography and evoke wonder. Here it's all phoned in. As for Lucas, we should all know what he wants by now: to flog to death every last horse in his stable of franchises.
Yet despite it being all about the money, with its immense budget and the benefit of the best VFX expertise in town, it just looks cheap. The shots in South America, making up over half the running time, were so obviously filmed on someone's backlot, so obviously palmed off to junior compositors or people working to misanthropic deadlines. With matte edges routinely smothered in all-purpose Glow, nothing gels visually and viewers, increasingly savvy about this stuff, are never transported. In a film that promises escapism, it's a fatal flaw. Doesn't anyone want to make things look more real than they did 25 years ago? Do they even know how? Those poor drones at ILM are forced to confect elements of escalating ludicrousness: vexed gophers, characters swinging on vines Tarzan-style, rubber snakes, and finally a giant UFO that will have some portion of the audience demanding their money back on the spot. I'd hate to tell these guys that the VFX being done in Russia these days (viz. Ночной дозор) is as good as anything they've done lately.
Pity too the actors, working with such thin material. Only Cate Blanchett manages to transcend her underwritten part and exude the pulpy charm that the other films in the series attained. Watching Cate's Spalko is almost fun, at least up to the moment where her character is vaporized by a Space Alien for "wanting to know". Disappointing as it has been up to this point, the whole exercise is now revealed as a sham, a house of cards where nothing stands up. There are no cinematic just desserts. What exactly is wrong with wanting to know things? Is that a problem?
What if, say, we end up learning that those higher forces we're told to trust in aren't on our side? Or aren't there at all? Who knows what will happen to you if you go to that dark place? For one thing, you might just stop handing money to the Hollywood schmaltz factory, and buying into worthless junk like this film.