Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a trip down memory lane so twisty that one could easily get lost. The movie is a throwback, of course, to the Indy trilogy of the 1980s, which was itself a throwback to the pulp serials of the 1930s and ’40s. But, with the action now set in 1957 (19 years after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, itself released 19 years ago), it also carries a whiff of writer George Lucas’s 1973 breakthrough American Graffiti and its TV cousin “Happy Days,” themselves sentimental reminiscences of the ’50s and early ’60s. (The opening scene, in fact, features an impromptu drag race whose only discernable purpose is remind us that Harrison Ford got his movie-star start hot-rodding in Graffiti.) If that weren’t enough, the movie hearkens back to director Steven Spielberg’s ’70s oeuvre as well, specifically--well, I’m not going to say. But when a film starts off in Area 51, you pretty much know where it’s going to end up.
Even as the movie occasionally trips over its nostalgias, it’s still a likable, if unremarkable, entertainment, a pleasant echo of past delights. Credit Ford, who for the first time in a good while shows that he can still carry a big film. (We should all be so spry at 65.) And, most of all credit Spielberg, whose sheer technical expertise guides the movie over numerous rough patches. (Not so much Lucas, who reportedly insisted on the goofy sci-fi storyline and wanted to push it still further. His dream version no doubt concluded with Indy & Co. battling the Hutts on Tatooine.)
Befitting the period, Nazi antagonists have been replaced by Soviet ones (though apart from chief baddie Cate Blanchett’s accent, it’s hard to tell the difference), and our hero gets a rather rough introduction to the atomic age. But the comforting tropes of the franchise are all still there: the dark crypts and dense jungles; the creepy crawlers (scorpions, a snake, and some exceptionally irritable ants); the blowdart- and bola-wielding natives; the fisticuffs conducted across several vehicles in the midst of a high-speed pursuit; and, of course, cinema’s most immediately recognizable musical couplet: bum-pa-dum-dum, bum-pa-dum.
The movie does sag a bit in places. It’s nice to see Karen Allen again as Indy’s lost love, Marion Ravenwood, but their romantic sparring is not nearly as sharp as it was 27 years ago. And while partnering Indy with Marion’s twentysomething son “Mutt”--an inside joke for those who remember where the nickname “Indiana” came from--is hardly the disaster it might have been, when it comes to intergenerational accomplices, Shia LaBeouf is no Sean Connery. (Though here, too, credit Spielberg and LaBeouf for rescuing the character from what I assume to be Lucas’s over-the-top, Fonzish parody: the leather jacket, the motorcycle, the hair-trigger combing of his pomaded ducktail--all that’s missing is the mystical dominion over jukeboxes.) John Hurt also shows up as an old archeological colleague whose brain has been fried by the titular skull, and Ray Winstone tags along as an on-again, off-again frenemy, earning perhaps the movie’s best exchange. (Indy: “So you’re a triple agent?” Him: “No, I just lied about being a double agent.”)
The plot is hastily cobbled, serving mostly as a means of getting Indy from Point A (Nevada) to Point B (a mythical lost city in the Amazon) with as many action sequences along the way as possible. These set pieces benefit from Spielberg’s playful choreography--a fight that goes from motorcycle to car and out the other side to motorcycle again is particularly clever--though they’re at their best when they forego CGI in favor of human stunts. (Like Tarantino’s Death Proof last year, the film is a powerful reminder of the virtues of flesh over pixels.)
Equally crucial, Spielberg had the sense to hold his movie to a reasonable length: If ever there seemed a likely candidate for cinematic bloat, it was this film, with its two-decade gestation and over-syllabled title, but it wraps things up in just under two hours. Said wrap-up is, regrettably, the weakest part of the film, with a finale both too familiar and too far-fetched, and an epilogue much limper than necessary. Still, despite its many shortcomings, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull leaves in its wake the contented glow of an evening out with a friend you’d forgotten how much you missed. As Indy chides Marion at one point, “Same old, same old.” Thank goodness.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.