The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Back to the Future movies all made it work—filmmakers established the “improbable” framework early and we responded by accepting the bearded wizards, warp speeds, and flux capacitors.
The Indiana Jones series made it work too.
In The Temple of Doom, we travel to India and we’re introduced to the legend of the Sankara Stones. It’s fantastical but it’s only a backdrop to the real story–the kidnapped children and Jones’ effort to rescue them, doing so with all of his well-established gun-totting, balls-to-the-wall skill.
Then in The Lost Crusade, we’re looking for a true historical artifact–the Holy Grail. And when Indiana reaches the grail (protected inside the Cannon of the Crescent Moon), Indiana is forced to pass through booby traps. Not fantastical booby traps, mind you. But mechanically creative, ingeniously plausible, booby traps. Even the invisible bridge is buyable–it’s visible, just not from his angle.
Sure, there are sci-fi elements in the Indiana Jones trilogy but they’re always plausible in the fantastical framework of the movie–in other words, we don’t get curve balls in Act III because the filmmakers got stoned and said “hey, this would be cool”.
The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is another story.
First, there’s the refrigerator death-ride that Indiana somehow falls out of unharmed. Fun ride, but no coma?
Then there’s the army of meat-eating CGI red ants, who are intelligent enough and strong enough to follow and carry a full grown adult male into an ant hole.
There’s little things too.
For instance, “Mutt” Williams, the drop-out bastard child of Indiana, throws off his 50’s leather jacket and turns into Chuck Norris halfway through the movie. The kid’s 16 and from the Midwest. The closest he’s come to a sword fight is popping open his switch blade on jocks in a diner. Yet, in one action sequence, he straddles two cars at high speed and, with perfect balance, wields a sword competently enough to out-duel a sword fighting expert. (Seriously, no bumps on the road?)
Then later, inspired by swinging tree monkeys, Mutt catches up to the 40 mile-an-hour car chase by what? Flying through the air (a la Tarzan) some 4,000 feet above ground on Amazonian-sized vines in symphonic harmony with CGI monkeys yapping at his heels.
Then, the final scene inside the church…
What do you know–a gust of wind blows open the chapel door, catches Jones’ iconic fedora and floats it lovingly to feet of Mutt Jones, all with some cheesy melt-your-heart music playing shamelessly in the background. It was a kind of “passing of the torch” Disney moment that really just solidified how badly the runner dropped it and why his feet are burning.
The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull asked the audience to suspend too much disbelief. To buy everything, whatever the fancy. Instead it became the perfect example of disjointed fantasy. And just bad writing.