Title: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: David Koepp
Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Shia LaBeouf
It’s funny how irrelevant the plots of the Indiana Jones films inevitably turn out to be. It’s funny because — the marvelous Temple of Doom excepted — the plots are always so complicated, involving elaborate hunts for arcane artifacts, with clues piled upon clues and only the genius of our intrepid archeologist available to sort them out. And yet, no one ever cares. What matters isn’t story, but style: Indy’s fedora, his wisecracks, his miraculous escapes, his flair in dispatching the bad guys. People may not remember what the Ark of the Covenant looked like, but they sure haven’t forgotten “Snakes… Why did it have to be snakes?”
The plot of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the long-awaited fourth film in the 27-year old franchise, is particularly useless, bordering on arbitrary. Oh, there’s a nice hook at its core — all the reviews calling the film a sequel-of-sorts to Close Encounters of the Third Kind are too glib, but not far off — but the series of treasure hunts that ultimately leads them to it is basically random. There’s a deranged old scientist (John Hurt) with clues buried in his damaged psyche, ancient legends, complicated maps… And none of it really matters.
The reason the movie works anyway is the same reason that its predecessors all worked: the characters are so vivid, the action so exhilarating, that the details of the story fade into the background. Crystal Skull is deft, clever and fast-paced; it hits all the nostalgic touchstones and introduces memorable, worthwhile new players. Steven Spielberg brings the astonishing action set pieces and David Koepp, taking over screenwriting duties, provides a well-paced, expertly calibrated Indy experience. I can’t imagine fans being disappointed.
As to cleverness: Crystal Skull is brilliant in the way it adapts to the fact that it’s been 21 years since the last time Indiana Jones put in an appearance. True, there’s no mention of the fact that the guy should be (and his now-dead father should have been) immortal after drinking from the Holy Grail ad the end of Last Crusade. But the film, set in 1957, brilliantly recontextualizes the Indiana Jones mythos. We learn, for example, that Indiana (now known mostly as Henry) spent much of the last two decades spying on the Reds; the villains are now Russians, led by a vampy Soviet agent named Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), bent on getting her country the ultimate psychic superweapon. Part of the dizzying opening sequence traps our hero in the middle of a nuclear test detonation. With Harrison Ford looking a good percentage of his 65 years, Indy looks appropriately uncomfortable and of place in this new world. Koepp and Spielberg do a bang-up job shepherding the franchise into the Cold War era.
Aside from Spalko, who is played with heroic conviction by an ultra-hammy Blanchett, the new film also introduces Mutt Williams (Shia LaBoeuf), who, we soon learn, is the son of good ol’ Marion (Karen Allen); I’ll leave to you to guess the identity of the father. In its last scene, Crystal Skull halfheartedly suggests that Mutt may inherit the franchise, which is a little disturbing; I don’t think he has the personality to outlive Indy on the screen, though he makes an amiable addition to this installment. The interplay between Spalko, Mutt and Indy — who is mostly his familiar, mildly-pissed-off, wisecracking self — is in the best Indiana Jones tradition; certainly, Crystal Skull has the most effective villains since Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The action’s up to the franchise standard too; there’s a lot of CGI, as expected, but Spielberg doesn’t let it dull his instincts. The film’s full of nifty little touches — I love when Indy climbs from Mutt’s motorcycle into the bad guys’ sedan, throws a few punches, and climbs out the other side and back onto the bike — as well as the requisite long extravaganzas. A series of jungle-set fights and chases that kicks off the third act rivals the many climaxes of Temple of Doom for sheer attenuation, and also for fun and sense of play.
Crystal Skull pays homage to its predecessors; the references to the earlier films come fast and furious (my favorite is the way Mutt and Indy react to their latest daring escape, with Mutt wearing a smug, exhilirated smile and Indy glaring at him; it perfectly parallels the silent repartee of Indy and his father in Last Crusade), and Koepp and Spielberg have a lot of fun contrasting Indy’s new Cold War stomping ground with the old World War II setting. The “saucer men from Mars” storyline is totally bonkers, of course, and the movie knows it. But it’s fun in its own right, without doing violence to the rest of the franchise. And let’s face it: you haven’t come for the plot anyway. The stuff you have come for, Crystal Skull has, in spades.