When a film takes in over $100 million in its first weekend, no one much cares what reviewers say about it. The corporate verdict is in. Negative reactions can be dismissed as “elitist,” a word that has become pivotal in presidential campaign rhetoric. Positive comments can be lamented as surrender to the mindless entertainment and crass commercialism of Hollywood. What can one add to the predictable reactions to Steven Spielberg’s latest installment of his decades-old saga: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Actually, once the receipts are counted and its popularity is assured, one can say a great deal, or at least think a great deal about it.
First of all, “Crystal Skull” provides no surprises. This may or may not be a bad thing. It’s like attending a garage sale. Some people delight in spending their Saturday afternoons rummaging through odd bits of worn-out furniture, whether or not they ever discover a million-dollar rocking chair they can take to “Antiques Roadshow.” They feel at home among objects that countless unknown owners have enjoyed for years. In this case, familiarity trumps innovation. Pardon the sudden switch in metaphor: “Crystal Skull” provides comfort food for the imagination. Meatloaf is meatloaf, and anyone who likes it will not be convinced sirloin has anything more to offer.
In the 19 years since Indy’s last adventure, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989), Prof. Henry Jones Jr. (Harrison Ford), the tweedy archeologist at Marshall College, may have grown a bit more jowly above his bowtie and a trifle grouchier with his less-than-enthusiastic undergrads, but give him a whip and a fedora, and off he goes. The character lives in a time warp. He hasn’t been allowed to mellow. The sly grin, less of a smirk than Bruce Willis’s, is still there, and as he jumps across canyons and fights several men half his age, he has that same comic-book resiliency he had on his last crusade. Can audiences accept Indiana Jones with arthritic knees and bifocals? Or does the character have to live up to his mythic reputation? These formula films always raise vexing questions. When does the repetition of familiar devices satisfy legitimate expectations? When is it a witty allusion to past films? When is it simply a failure of imagination? The answer does not come easily.
As a concession to the passage of time since the last film, the villains are no longer recycled Nazis in search of some mystical device to give them control of the world. Even though Indy still wears his 1940s fedora and leather jacket, “Crystal Skull” is set in 1957. The Soviet Union is the enemy; the risk of nuclear war hangs over the landscape. Although the worst days of McCarthyism, the Rosenberg trial and the House Un-American Activities Committee were fading away, in those days Americans still feared Communist infiltration. We believed that Soviet agents were everywhere—and they may have been. Indy’s students still dress with pre-grunge hints of civilization, but they have begun to listen to Elvis Presley and drive hot rods. Can the Beatles and disco be far away? When the well-scrubbed students hold an anti-Red rally on campus, the Soviet spies disrupt their leafy world by running motorcycles through their parade; the Communists have disrupted their cozy little world. For those looking for symbols, the chase leads through the library reading room, where they disrupt Western civilization as well.
The script, written by David Koepp and coproducer George Lucas, is a mishmash of incoherence, but when did genre films ever make narrative sense? The only function of the story line is to lead from one set piece to the next. Think of those wildly implausible romantic plots that gave Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers the chance to strut their spats and sequins on the dance floor. In the 1930s, Depression audiences wanted costumes and dancing, not The Iliad. This screenplay energetically propels Indiana from one chase or last-minute rescue to the next, exactly as Steven Spielberg wants it. Giving audiences time to think would interrupt the momentum of the movie and thus compromise its entertainment value.
One would think that the action sequences and special effects might justify the price of a ticket, as surely they had in George Lucas’s “Star Wars” series or the earlier Indiana Jones films. But sadly in 2008, they no longer pack the same wallop. When in “Return of the Jedi” (1983) Mr. Lucas staged his magnificent chase scene in the forest with everyone riding rocket-powered sleds and missing trees by inches, most of us clutched our armrests in white-knuckled excitement. In “Crystal Skull,” a deliberately similar chase through a rain forest in war-surplus military vehicles goes on too long for its own good. The only thing I clutched was my watch. Is the different reaction the audience’s fault? Perhaps. Yet after years of video games and movies inflated with computer-generated imaging and Dolby sound effects, audiences may be excused for losing interest in one more sequence of noisy, manic action. There may be another explanation. Perhaps the Spielberg-Lucas team has become tired of innovation and is content to repeat past triumphs.
The Soviets believe the crystal skull contains a power that will give them world domination. Professor Jones can decipher the codes and lead them to it. By a series of implausible plot twists, Indy tries to leave town but is brought back into the conflict by Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf), a teenage biker dressed in cap and leather jacket just like Marlon Brando’s in “The Wild One” (1953). Mutt will be his sidekick for the rest of the film. The spies kidnap Indy and bring him to a nuclear testing site in the desert. After locating a key clue in a top-secret warehouse, he escapes to a village whose central building is labeled “Atomic Café,” the title of a documentary on nuclear war made in 1982. All the people in town are dummies—how fitting! “Howdy Doody,” the series for children that lasted from 1947 to 1960, drones from the television in the living room of a cottage. When Indy hears a countdown over a public address system, he fears he may have wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time, but an atomic bomb can’t slow Indy down. It just makes him mad.
The race to the crystal skull is on. Indy and Mutt hop a cargo plane to South America, where they track down Indy’s old mentor, Professor Oxley (John Hurt), who seems completely bonkers, but can still read a map and natter away in lost Indian languages. Indy’s former fiancée, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), runs into them (don’t ask) and joins the team. For a brief time, I thought this improbable reunion of old buddies would lead to some delicious comedy, but Oxley just rolls his eyes and mutters a lot, and Marion, after a few funny exchanges with her ex, simply fades into the background. She pilots an armored duck through the jungle, off a cliff and over a waterfall, but I thought Katharine Hepburn had more fun running the rapids in “The African Queen” (1951). All the while Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, looking emaciated in her drab gulag coveralls and Louise Brooks wig) chases them with her own band of merry but incompetent warriors. She puts the evil in evil empire, and in the process appears to be having more fun than the other actors. A few hostile Indians appear in the rain forest, looking as though they’d lost their way to a reunion of “Apocalypto” extras. Indy’s crowd eludes them, but the dastardly Russians take more definitive action. Of course. They are the villains.
The action ends in the cave of the crystal skull. The gimmicks and gadgets are fine in their own way, but we’ve heard enough multi-ton doors slamming by this time. Irina finally has her epiphany about the meaning of the crystal skull in a scene that borrows heavily not only from Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), but also from his “E.T.” (1982) and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). All these clever references, allusions and borrowings from past films are surely highly entertaining for Spielberg fans. I for one found them a bit too slick and obvious. There is no difference of opinion at all on one point, however. The Spielberg-Lucas team has mastered the art of selling tickets to their fans.