It’s been 19 years since the daredevil archaeologist Indiana Jones let the Holy Grail slip through his fingers at the close of 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But it’s the new Indiana Jones adventure that presents the more curious case study in the pursuit of immortality — and not just where its sexagenarian leading man is concerned. A proudly analog artifact exhumed and dusted off for our digital age, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is no less of a search for lost time on the part of its primary creators, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, but likely for much of the audience too. So what if the source for all of this willful nostalgia was never quite what it’s been made out to be?
Now a pop-culture totem, 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark was — and remains — of considerably less interest for its labored reconstruction of Saturday-morning serial cliffhangers than for the anti-Nazi blood lust that courses through the film (and zaps it of its intended levity), as if Spielberg were ramping up for Schindler’s List a dozen years before he got around to making it. A considerably more rambunctious piece of showmanship, the subsequent prequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, upped the ante on the series’ Rube Goldberg inventiveness, providing, in its memorable runaway-mine-cart finale, a prescient omen of the Hollywood movie as theme-park ride (and vice versa). Meanwhile, preteen children were only slightly less traumatized by the movie’s chest-ripping gore (perpetrated by an army of ooga-booga savages straight out of Skull Island central casting) than Asian-Americans were by Jones’ unfortunately named pidgin-Chinese sidekick, Short Round. (The filmmakers avoided any such accusations in the two subsequent Jones features by simply making all of the main characters white.)
As one who considers Spielberg among the most immensely gifted moviemakers of his generation, I’ve never been convinced that the Indiana Jones movies find him working at (or anywhere near) his personal best. Still, they are not without their fleeting pleasures. In Raiders, those came chiefly in the form of a diminutive brunette powerhouse named Karen Allen, whose Marion Ravenwood gave the movie a much-needed shot of Hawksian tough-girl humor. Allen’s much-publicized return — to Indiana Jones and to films in general — is one of the attractive selling points of Crystal Skull. But by the time she finally shows up, halfway into the running time, it’s just another in a long string of anticlimaxes that begins with some sub–X Files monkeyshines at Area 51 and culminates, somewhere deep in the Amazon jungle, in a less-than-captivating encounter of the third kind. In between, there is much to appease the series faithful: cobwebbed caves, double agents, secret passages, unfriendly creepy crawlies (including some admittedly nifty man-eating fire ants), all the while composer John Williams’ fanfare once again works overtime to convince you of how much fun you’re having.
Can this really be the script that Lucas fussed and fretted over for the better part of two decades, allegedly rejecting draft upon draft by the likes of Frank Darabont, M. Night Shyamalan and Tom Stoppard? (The final credit goes to War of the Worlds writer David Koepp.) For lack of Nazis — the year is 1957, after all — we get the next best thing: Russian Commies, under the direction of a Ukrainian mentalist played by Cate Blanchett (who here channels Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS star Dyanne Thorne as eerily as she did Bob Dylan in I’m Not There). For lack of a return appearance by Short Round, there’s Shia LaBeouf as a juvenile delinquent called Mutt, whose overdetermined greaser aesthetic is decidedly more Scorpio Rising than The Wild One. Everybody, for one reason or another, wants to get his mitts on the titular crystalline cranium — an extraterrestrial antiquity that may be the key to the gilded city of El Dorado. (Which, for what it’s worth, makes this the first Indiana Jones movie in which the supernatural powers at hand merely come from above rather than from Above.)
At 65, Ford is six years older than Sean Connery was when he played Jones Sr. in Last Crusade, and the willingness with which he hurls his body into the movie’s punishing stunt routines is undeniably impressive, and certainly an encouragement to the Social Security set. Jones remains a snug fit for Ford, who plays the role more or less as he always did — a bit weary, with a wry half-smile on his lips and a cynical smirk in his voice. But for all the winks and nods to the character’s (and the actor’s) age that have been worked into the script, the movie seems intent on making Jones seem more (not less) invincible than ever, including one outlandish (even by these standards) scene in which Indy survives a nuclear detonation in the Nevada desert by packing himself inside a lead-lined refrigerator. After that, no wonder going toe-to-toe with resident aliens and alien residents seems like child’s play.
Things could be worse. At the end of the day, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is nothing if not consistent —taking care of business solidly, professionally and without a lick of the genuine wonderment or inspiration that you can find in surplus in Jon Favreau’s Spielberg-influenced Iron Man. But we’re also (relievedly) a long way away here from the strenuous self-importance of the Bruckheimer-era blockbuster, and one should never look even such modest gift horses in the mouth. For the time being, that endangered species known as movie-theater owners can breathe a sigh of relief and step back from the ledge. Perhaps most significantly, children of the 1980s, who have become parents of the 2000s, will see, in the resurrection of Indiana Jones, a valuable pop-culture bonding opportunity for them and their iKids — and far be it from me to rain on their parade. Hence, the outcome of this particular tale is inevitable: Lost city of gold or no, Ford, Lucas and Spielberg will once again ride off into the sunset, laughing all the way to the bank.
INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL | Directed by STEVEN SPIELBERG | Written by DAVID KOEPP, based on a story by GEORGE LUCAS and JEFF NATHANSON, based on characters created by LUCAS and PHILIP KAUFMAN | Produced by FRANK MARSHALL | Released by Paramount Pictures | Citywide