Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a movie for boomers of all ages, though you can bet the bank that plenty of tots will be tagging along with Mom and Dad, Granny and Gramps. Like the 1981 blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first in a monster franchise that has spawned two previous movie sequels, a television series, comics, novels, video games and Disney theme-park attractions, this new one was directed by Steven Spielberg, cooked up and executive produced by George Lucas (with Kathleen Kennedy) and stars Harrison Ford as the archaeologist-adventurer-sexpot with the sardonic grin, rakish fedora and suggestive bullwhip.
This latest Indy escapade serves as a reunion for the principal creative team. Almost two decades have lapsed since the third installment in the series, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). In the years since, Lucas continued to build his special-effects empire and resurrected the Star Wars franchise while Spielberg has oscillated between serious-minded projects and financially instrumental entertainments.
For his part, Ford rode the ups and downs of high-concept stardom, oscillating between roles that called for him to flash his customary wry grin or his equally familiar grumpy frown. He wears both in The Crystal Skull, though the busy story makes enormous effort to keep the mood happy and snappy and decidedly PG-13 friendly — PC friendly, too, as in politically correct, with fewer dark-skinned people popping their eyeballs. Not that Indy has gone soft or the natives have gone hard, mind you, only that Spielberg no longer seems as eager to cut down extras for a laugh.
Thank goodness for the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Vladimir Putin, which have expedited the return of blond-haired, blue-eyed villainy to the screen. Set in 1957, this new Indy yarn, written by David Koepp from a story by Lucas and Jeff Nathanson, takes place far from the Middle East even if it opens in a desert. The bad guys this time are Cold War Reds first seen poking around an American military base and led by Irina Spalko. A caricature given crude, playful life by Cate Blanchett, Irina owes more than a little to Rosa Klebb, the pint-size Soviet operative played by Lotte Lenya, who took on James Bond in From Russia With Love.
Dressed in gray coveralls, her hair bobbed and Slavic accent slipping and sliding as far south as Australia, Blanchett takes to her role with brio, snapping her black gloves and all but clicking her black boots like one of those cartoon Nazis that traipse through earlier Indy films. She’s pretty much a hoot, the life of an otherwise drearily familiar party. Among the other invited guests are Ray Winstone, John Hurt and Shia LaBeouf, who plays Mutt, the young sidekick onboard to bring in those viewers whose parents were still in grade school when the first movie hit. Karen Allen, who played Indy’s love interest in Raiders, is here too, with a megawatt smile and a bit of the old spunk.
If only the filmmakers seemed as eager to see — and to please — the audience as Allen. There’s plenty of frantic energy here, lots of noise and money too, but what’s absent is any sense of rediscovery, the kind that’s necessary whenever a filmmaker dusts off an old formula or a genre standard. Raiders of the Lost Ark creaks with age now, but to look at it again is to see Spielberg actively engaging in an organic whole, taking a beloved template and repurposing it for the modern blockbuster age he helped create. By contrast, The Crystal Skull comes alive only in isolated segments, in a clever motorcycle chase that ends in a library and, best of all, in an eerie sequence at an atomic test site that wittily puts the nuclear in family.