It’s been 19 years since we last saw Indiana Jones, the famed ark-finding, sacred-stone-returning, Hitler’s-autograph-collecting archeologist played by Harrison Ford in three 1980s films. A commensurate amount of time has passed in the new adventure, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” but Indy hasn’t lost his touch. Nor, it would seem, has Steven Spielberg, who directs “Crystal Skull” with the same boyish enthusiasm and love of a good story that he brought to the previous trilogy.
“Crystal Skull” follows the same beloved pattern as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Last Crusade” (and, to a lesser extent, “Temple of Doom”). There are several spectacular action sequences, including a three-car chase through a jungle. Indy swings from ropes, gets punched a lot, and remains insouciant in the face of peril. The story revolves around an old mentor going missing while searching for an artifact, and it ends with bad guys being destroyed by their own greed and their insistence on meddling with powers they do not understand. There are snakes. There are also millions of something else creepy. This is every inch an Indiana Jones Movie.
The temptation would have been to cobble together a story full of weak imitations of the previous films and call it a day, but almost every familiar element here feels like it belongs, not like it was forced in out of obligation. Were it not for the 19-year gap and the noticeably grayer and craggier Dr. Jones, you’d assume “Crystal Skull” was made a few years after the last one, right on schedule, the next logical chapter in the saga.
But time has passed, of course. It’s 1957 now, and Cold War paranoia is at its peak. Indy’s enemies now are the Communists, for whom he holds nearly as much contempt as he did the Nazis. And the Soviets, for their part, are as interested in obtaining priceless artifacts for their own evil purposes as the Third Reich was.
The items in question this time are a collection of crystal skulls with unusual magnetic properties, believed to hold the key to yada-yada if you something-something. (I don’t want to spoil anything, and it doesn’t matter anyway.) The Russians want them, and whatever they plan to do with them, it can’t be good for America or Decency or Justice. The Soviets’ efforts are led by top Commie scientist Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), a severe-looking villainess whose dominatrix demeanor and over-the-top Russian accent practically guarantee her status as a new kitsch icon.
Indy gets involved thanks to Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a motorcycle-riding greaser punk whose father figure and actual mother have been kidnapped by the Commies and are being forced to help find the skulls. This surrogate father is Professor Oxley (John Hurt), a former mentor of Indy’s; Mutt’s mother is named Marion, and Mutt says she used to know Indy. Indy says he knew a lot of Marions. I suspect he’s not thinking very hard. His surprise upon discovering that it’s Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” is his alone. The rest of us figured it out the minute Mutt said “Marion” (or, for that matter, the minute we saw Karen Allen’s name in the opening credits).
And so it’s off to the Amazonian jungles for Indy and Mutt. The interaction between Ford and LaBeouf is breezy and comical and nicely played; Ford doesn’t seem outpaced by the kid 42 years his junior, and LaBeouf doesn’t freeze in the presence of a legendary actor the way some newbies would. Over the course of the film, Indy’s relationship with Mutt goes from wary adult supervisor to older brother to friendly uncle to father figure — and that’s a lot more progression than we’ve ever seen with any of Indy’s other relationships.
Later, when Marion Ravenwood appears, the interpersonal dynamics become even more fiery. I admire the way the screenplay — credited to David Koepp (“Jurassic Park,” “Spider-Man”), with elements from prior drafts by Jeff Nathanson and input from George Lucas — mixes the relationship bickering with the mechanics of the plot, so that the action never needs to stop just so people can talk about their feelings. In the world of Indiana Jones, ex-lovers can argue over who wronged whom 20 years ago even as both are sinking in quicksand.
Indy seems to have been born around the turn of the last century (he was about 14 in the 1912-set prologue in “Last Crusade”), which means he’s pushing 60 in “Crystal Skull.” The film wisely addresses his advancing age, deploys some humor to the situation — and then gleefully quits worrying about it. Indiana’s bones may be getting a little creakier, and he is slowly turning into his father (even using the elder Jones’ favorite exclamation — “Intolerable!” — to describe a predicament that Mutt has gotten them into), but he’s still the same Indy. He can perform impossible feats of derring-do one minute, then wince over his injuries the next. He’s always been that way, even when he was young. It’s part of what makes us like him so much: His adventures are the stuff of fantasy, his smart-aleck one-liners are clever, but his human fallibility makes him seem like a Regular Guy. And as a wise man once said, it’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.
I re-watched the other three Indy films a few days before seeing this one, and having them fresh in my mind helped me notice subtle elements of “Crystal Skull” that make it feel like part of the same collection. Some have to do with the story structure, as when we see a bow-tied Dr. Jones teaching at his university, just as we did in “Raiders” and “Last Crusade.” Other familiar elements are in the dialogue: Indy urging a group of archeology students to get out of the library can only be a response to his line in “Last Crusade” about how “70 percent of archeology is done in the library.”
More important, though, are the film’s intangibles. The look, the feel, the attitude, the mix of humor and adventure, it all lines up with the “Indiana Jones” aesthetic. George Lucas’ philosophy has been to move forward with technology — hence, his “Star Wars” prequels were mostly CGI and looked vastly different from the first trilogy. Steven Spielberg has embraced technology too (his “Jurassic Park” dinosaurs represented a giant leap forward), but he doesn’t do it just for the sake of doing it. He remembers that these films were conceived as a tribute to the cliffhanger serials of the 1940s, and that a slick, digitized film would be stylistically inappropriate. So CGI is kept to a minimum (less than you’d expect for a movie made in 2008, anyway) in favor of good old-fashioned rear-projection, stuntmen, and enormously constructed sets, just as in the other three films.
Going in, I was prepared to defend the finale’s supernatural elements by pointing out that the finales of this series have always ultimately relied on the paranormal (God melting the Nazis’ faces; rocks that light up when you collect them; the Holy Grail’s healing powers). And then I saw this film’s finale and thought: Yeah, that’s too much.
Another minor complaint: Things get a little crowded at times, what with Indy, Mutt, Marion, Oxley, and Indy’s old pal Mac (Ray Winstone) all dashing through the Peruvian jungles together. It feels more natural for Indy to have one or two companions on these excursions, not four, and the film can’t always find something useful for all of them to do.
Oh, but everything else makes me forgive the film’s slight defects. Those who say Spielberg is sleep-walking through this one are taking for granted how good a director he is. Even a halfhearted Spielberg effort will have more complicated shots, more mirthful sight gags, and more elaborate stunts than the best effort from nearly any other director currently working. And I don’t think this is a halfhearted effort anyway. To me, it feels as lively and buoyant, as effortlessly entertaining, as you could realistically want in an Indiana Jones flick.
Movie geeks who worship the original Indy films and are demanding that this one be a life-changing, soul-magnifying movie to surpass all other cinematic experiences will, of course, be disappointed, as they generally are in these situations. The rest of us can just sit back and enjoy.
B+ (2 hrs., 4 min.; )