Fan anticipation for the new Indiana Jones film is mocked in the first shot of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I cant claim immunity: The series and character factored so greatly into my childhood fascination with movies that I could barely sleep on the night before this ones release. When the Paramount mountain fades into a molehill, Steven Spielberg has a laugh at how geeks set themselves up for disappointment. This is an older, dustier Indiana Jones.
Theres even a visual motif of things turning to dust---an atomic blast, flying gunpowder, a dead mans corroding face, fountains of sand, decimating ruins. Having the iconic archaeologist contending with mortality (after dealing with immortality in The Last Crusade) has promise. And for its first half, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull delivers the excitement and inquiry (if not the edge) of 2005s masterful War of the Worlds and Munich.
Spielberg establishes the highpoint in an early scene in a town set for nuclear testing. Indy runs for security through a house full of nuclear family mannequins, watching Howdy Doody on TV. Its the mileage-worn Indiana Jones who is himself the artifact against 1950s homemaking and Cold War technology. The scenes brilliant final image of Indy facing an enormous mushroom cloud blends a pop icon with an eras Zeitgeist.
It depends on who your god is, Indy, at one point, retorts. This makes clear that despite the search for Christian relics in the first and third installments, this is a polytheistic series. If you can believe in gods, you can believe in aliens. Moving Indiana Jones from 30s style adventure serials to the atomic age sci-fi that dominated B-movies in the 1950s is an inspired move.
Cate Blanchett, as head villain Irina Spalko, and Shia LaBeouf, as Indys new protege Mutt Williams, make a solid ensemble. But the story, which pits Jones against evil Commies who want to use a crystal skull to obtain ultimate power and a quest for El Dorado, never quite takes shape. Like too much in the movie, the character-based circle of life aspect of Indys aging isnt organically woven to the narrative. The film becomes as unwieldy and unsatisfying as the title.
Spielberg allows such polarity between greatness and banality that when things get cosmic, the movie hasnt the momentum to go further. The different feel of things is fair game. Its the screenplays inability to focus on tone and theme that leaves it as a bunch of interesting elements that arent concretely about anything. Because Spielberg does this stuff with a level of artistry above anyone, theres spirit to the most miscalculated scenes.
Though Spielberg has grown exponentially as a technical filmmaker since the early 80s, his need to prove himself with this material is gone. Indys colleague (Jim Broadbent) has a nice line about life taking things away in old age, but then Spielberg, George Lucas and writer David Koepp dont let their hero face any loss. Theres no nail-biting threat (a plunge over three waterfalls is Temple of Doom-redux without a punchline), and the violence is too Looney Tunes to live up to how the first two movies opened a world of horrors for kids in the 80s. Though its best parts are better than Last Crusades, its Spielbergs most inconsistent movie since Hook. More accomplished than every action flick out there now, it remains a minor work from one of historys most important pop artists.