In an early scene in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," Indy remarks that trouncing the villains isn't going to be as easy as it used to be, an obvious poke at the prospect of 65-year-old Harrison Ford still slugging it out with the bad guys. But he may as well be speaking of the anxieties of his dual patriarchs, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. It's been 27 years since Indiana Jones first cracked his whip onscreen in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and nearly two decades since the last installment of the franchise, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." The first three Indiana Jones movies came out in a pre-"Spider Man," pre-"Pirates of the Caribbean," pre-"Iron Man" world. Today the serialized blockbuster rules the box office, with each entry outdoing the last in terms of hype, special effects and pure bombast. The stakes are much higher now, and audiences, whether new to the franchise or aglow with warm memories of the old films, will be expecting much more. Shrewdly, Lucas and Spielberg (Lucas executive-produced and Spielberg directed, but both filmmakers' consciousnesses are clearly at work) meet those expectations by strictly hewing to the established structure of the earlier movies and not attempting to outdo either their previous efforts or their contemporary competition. That there is an outer-space theme to "The Crystal Skull" seems fitting, as the movie confirms the idea that Indiana Jones exists in its own, alternate universe, impervious to the passage of time or box office trends, with its own unique logic and rules. Indy World is a place you can visit again and again, where nothing ever really changes, and, as this latest tour affirms, after two hours you'll be quite ready to go home.
All the familiar signposts are here: the retro, B-movie opening set piece; the old-timey graphic of a map charting Indy's travels; the winking references to past films. Ever since the second installment ("Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom") the movies have been doubly referential, harking both to the pulpy action-adventure, spy and horror films of the 1930s and '40s, and to their own source material. From our first glimpse of Indy (Harrison Ford) in "The Crystal Skull," seen as a larger-than-life shadow wearing that now-iconic hat, the filmmakers miss no opportunity to put us in an Indiana state of mind, hitting the familiar notes (the whip, a quip, even the snake phobia) early and hard. This time Lucas and Spielberg add additional tips of the fedoras to their own greatest hits. The opening sequence, with 1950s teenagers drag-racing in the Nevada desert, recalls Lucas's "American Graffiti." Later Indy says "I have a bad feeling about this," echoing the "Star Wars" series, and the film's denouement heavy-handedly mimics "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
Coherent plots have always been secondary to the action in the series. That said, this one feels particularly unnecessarily hokey and complex. As in past installments, the back story is explained by Jones in passages of leaden exposition that slow the action to a halt. In "The Crystal Skull" the characters stop, the good professor mouths some mystic mumbo jumbo about ancient civilizations and purloined antiquities, everyone nods, and then they're off again to battle Soviet bad guys or contend with a swarm of flesh-eating ants. The story line concerns Indy's attempts to locate the skull of the title, which allegedly contains supernatural powers, before a band of villainous cold war Soviets gets it, and return it to its rightful home deep in a South American jungle. (It's interesting to trace the films' treatment of the civic-minded archaeologist's handling of antiquities. In the earlier films he insisted the looted artifacts belong in museums, but here, perhaps in response to recent controversies about real-world museums' ill-gotten collections, the emphasis is on returning the pieces to their native lands.) A certain political correctness pervades this story on the whole; the xenophobia so rampant in the past movies (especially "Temple of Doom," with its monkey-brain-eating Indians) has been considerably toned down (though there are still too many grunting natives), and the anti-Orientalism of the first two films, in which almost every villain had a turban and a thick, generic Middle Eastern accent, has been completely jettisoned. But the West Is Best jingoism remains; Indiana taunts the Soviet evildoers by sneering "I like Ike."
Cate Blanchett, as icily evil villainess Irina Spalko, is largely wasted in a severe black bob and unflattering khaki jumpsuit, but the female roles in general are the biggest improvement over the previous films. Karen Allen, as Indy's long-ago love interest Marion Ravenswood, had a nicely tart tongue in "Raiders" but spent much of that film screaming for Indy to save her (as did her successors). Here she is actually competent, if rather subdued, expertly steering a tank through the jungle and keeping the shrieking to a minimum. Shia LaBeouf acquits himself, without making a huge impression, as Indy's son Mutt. (No young actor will measure up to River Phoenix as young Indy in "The Last Crusade.") Ford does nothing to embarrass himself (though an unfortunate scene where he bickers with Allen over what went wrong in their relationship is cringe-worthy). If all the participants seem at a slight ironic remove from the material, it's just another way the film stays true to the original. The serial has always been entirely straightforward about its slick shallowness and its reliance on archetype and cliché. Spielberg is an efficient, consummately competent director, and the action sequences deliver exactly what's promised, if nothing more. If there are no gasp-worthy moments of suspense or derring-do, there is an economy of bloodshed and gunfire that speaks to the filmmakers' inventiveness. In other words, the flesh-eating ants are just gross enough.
It's hard to say which audience will be better suited to this latest installment. Established Indy fans may find nostalgia clouding their ability to accurately judge "The Crystal Skull" in the context of the first films, but young viewers who are unfamiliar with the first three will miss a lot of the jokes and may wonder what the fuss is about, especially compared to more sophisticated fare. Like Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard," Indy is still big; it's just that, in the new world of movie franchises, "The Crystal Skull" feels smaller.