You can’t say they don’t warn you. Returning to the franchise after nearly 20 years, Steven Spielberg opens Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull with a visual joke: he makes a molehill out of a mountain. All that anticipation and hype lead up to just another summer movie. Not as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark or even The Last Crusade, not as bad as The Temple of Doom, simply a pastiche of those and virtually every other Spielberg movie. When this film dumps its hero in the middle of the warehouse where the Lost Ark was crated 20 years ago, it discloses its dominant motif: a dusty stockpile of shtick, clichés, and MacGuffins tossed together over a tiring two hours.
VIDEO: The trailer for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
That doesn’t apply to the first 20 minutes or so, when Skull exploits its actual setting, Nevada 1957, bringing back those good old days of Elvis, Brando, McCarthyism, James Bond novels, scary sci-fi movies, nuclear tests in the desert, and Howdy Doody — the last two combining for one of the best action sequences in the series. Even Roswell from the previous decade gets a run-through as KGB colonel Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett midway between Louise Brooks and Lotte Lenya) sparks off the first (or is it the only? the rest of the film rattles on like an endless Road Runner cartoon) chase sequence, which ends satisfyingly enough on a rocket sled and in a refrigerator.
But it’s all just a tease, because what follows has little to do with government conspiracies or the Red Scare or whatever connection an idle mind can make with our present-day political reality. It leaves the desert behind and heads for the jungle, for Peru and pre-Mayan ruins and mumbo-jumbo that would embarrass the Discovery Channel. In short, it rehashes the Indy formula: a quest for a potent but otherwise meaningless artifact (the unexciting skull of the title) that is also sought by some power of evil (the Soviets), a scavenger hunt complicated by bumbling sidekicks (every British actor idle until the next Harry Potter movie, and please don’t tell me that Shia LaBeouf will star in Indiana Jones V), a clumsy romance (a third-act appearance by Karen Allen, her jack-o’-lantern grin still annoying 27 years later), bugs, cobwebby sliding doors, mummified remains, snakes (though this might be the best herpetophobia gag of them all), and a hundred million dollars or so of monumental stunts.
True to his vow not to cheat on the action with post-production, Spielberg lets it operate in plain view, as he’s done before. But is the result worth the trouble? After the relatively exuberant opening sequences, I felt I was being beaten with pipes.
Maybe Spielberg did too, and maybe that’s why he regards the rest of the film as an opportunity to go through his own personal warehouse of movie memories. Not just from previous episodes in the series but from his whole repertoire, from the raucous teenagers in the beginning evoking Jaws to the regressions to E.T. and Close Encounters that make the climax incoherent and tedious. Archæology as practiced by researchers like Indiana Jones fascinates when it retrieves the past and illuminates the present. When it sifts through a filmmaker’s greatest hits, it’s just ancient history