It’s never really a good idea to have a character, late in your movie, say, “I don’t understand,” and then have that followed by a lengthy recap explanation of what’s just happened. It rather needlessly and obviously opens one up for all sorts of exasperated cracks about shoddy, tangled storytelling. And yet that’s just what happens at the end of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the hotly anticipated latest installment in the whip-cracking, period piece adventure trilogy.
When we last saw Harrison Ford’s globe-trotting archeologist Indiana Jones nearly two decades ago, the year on screen was 1938, and the world stood on the brink of war as Dr. Jones chased down evildoers to find the Holy Grail. Nineteen years later, he’s cracking his whip again, and many things have changed but some have remained the same. Again the world is at a precipice, this time caused by the specter of nuclear annihilation, and Indy’s struggle is to once more ensure that a precious, mysterious object remains safe from those bent on destroying humanity.
The early scenes find a captured Indiana Jones grappling with “Stalin’s fair-haired gal” Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, exercising a severe accent and an even more severe hairstyle), a brilliant and ruthless Russian scientist intent on scooping up items of paranormal interest, with an eye toward their potential military application. So when the movie opens, we’re back in the same massive government warehouse glimpsed at the end of 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the spoils of unearthed civilizations and all sorts of other secret artifacts are kept.
With both his father and good friend and colleague Dr. Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) having passed away, Indiana is now a bit more isolated and alone in the world, even though new dean Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent) has his back, and is a trusted friend. Pal George “Mac” Michale (Ray Winstone) is a bit more suspicious, though; he sells Indy out, then much later claims it was a game of play-acted double agent, which seems curious given all the very real bullets flying around in the opening act.
After escaping both Spalko’s grasp and a nuclear test blast (more on this in a moment), Indiana is approached by Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf, above right), a young, headstrong biker kid who apparently took all his clothing and grooming cues from Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Mutt pitches a tale of woe related to an old mutual friend, Professor Oxley (John Hurt), and after escaping some more Ruskies, he and Indiana set out for the jungle in search of the title’s crystal skull, eventually reconnecting with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), spitfire leading lady of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
All the proper details of nostalgia are pretty much spot on, and Ford’s well-worn embodiment of the timeless adventure hero is equally enjoyable, particularly for boomer audiences who may have long ago dragged their kids to see the original trilogy. Part of the problem here, though, lies in the updating of the character and the passage of time. Director Steven Spielberg and his cohorts wisely acknowledge Indiana’s advanced age, in both word and deed, and yet also cling strongly to the same B-movie logic that allows for cartoonish set pieces and escapes. These sequences are technically of a piece with the rest of the series (after all, who can forget Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom‘s airplane dive on an inflatable raft, down a snowy mountainside, and then into a river?), but come off as cheats in a sense, because what’s the point of exposing Indiana’s fallibility if it doesn’t translate to some degree to his feats of derring-do? This credibility gap is exposed early on when Indiana Jones ducks into a lead-lined refrigerator to protect himself from a nuclear test. The lesson: if you don’t accept this, here, as a sort of live-action Looney Tunes cartoon, you’re going to have issues with how things unfold. (On the other hand, now we have a good idea of how Indy will die — from cancer from radiation poisoning.)
Spielberg, of course, is a technical maestro on many levels, so the movie more or less quickens pulses when it should — you can easily envision the theme park ride, complete with wild jungle chase and CGI ants — and there’s some pithy, whip-crack enjoyableness to some of the dialogue (“You fight like a young man — eager to begin, quick to finish!” says Spalko to Mutt at one point, during a sword fight set on speeding jeeps). But if anything, the script here — credited to David Koepp, from a story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson — seems a bit bored with its own labyrinthine back story. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull introduces the tantalizing possibility of aliens, or “inter-dimensional beings,” which would seem an interesting way to bridge the E.T./Close Encounters of the Third Kind/A.I. branch of Spielberg’s canon with his swashbuckling instincts, but gets too bogged down with Hurt’s catatonic Professor Oxley, a yawning connective plot element.
Indiana Jones is at his best as a character when grappling with or confronted by something parallel to his own nature — be it amoral plunderer/shadow self Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman) from the first film, or the complicated nature of his bickering relationship with his father (Sean Connery) in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Marion and Mutt are meant to provide that here, but — while offering some fitful fun — that strand doesn’t sing as a legitimate throughline. That fact, combined with the aforementioned criticisms, creates somewhat of a strange generational gap — and probably still the first wholly nostalgic action adventure blockbuster. (Paramount, PG-13, 124 minutes)