‘We’ve reached the age where life stops giving things to us and starts taking them back.” That sentiment, expressed by one of the characters in the new Indiana Jones film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, captures the anxiety of many viewers concerning the first Indiana Jones film in nearly 20 years and nearly 30 years since the first installment was a huge hit. Three Indiana Jones films appeared in the 1980s: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the Temple of Doom (1984), and the Last Crusade (1989). The latest entry, once again directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Harrison Ford, is neither as good as the previous entries nor as bad as many feared it might be. The entertainment level remains high, even if the elements of discovery and surprise are muted in favor of high-tech chase scenes.
Crystal Skull is set in the 1950s, in the midst of the Cold War. In the opening, Indy finds himself kidnapped by Russians who are searching for an occult object, a crystal skull, believed to have remarkable powers. A spunky, menacing Irina Spalko (played with gusto by Cate Blanchett) leads the Russian team.
Alongside Indy is Mac (British actor Ray Winstone), an old colleague and friend, who soon reveals himself to be a double agent, now working for the Russians. So, in the opening scenes, Indy is forced to escape alone through the desert after having eluded a barrage of attacks from Russian soldiers.
Back at his college and in an allusion to McCarthyism, Indy comes under the suspicion of federal agents, and his university puts him on indefinite leave. But the film mostly steers clear of politics.
Indy’s unanticipated sabbatical from teaching does not leave him with nothing to do. A visit from the young Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) brings Indy into the competition for the crystal skull. So, all the pieces are in place: another villain, another ally, another quest.
I had three worries going into the film. The first had to do with whether Harrison Ford was still up to the task of playing Indiana Jones, whether he would still look the part and play it with the same charming combination of wit and seriousness, innocence and toughness. I’m happy to say that he pulls it off effortlessly.
The second worry was about Shia LaBeouf — whether the introduction of a young sidekick to Indiana Jones would harm or enhance the story. A motorcycle-driving tough kid, Mutt is equal parts James Dean and, well, Fonzie from Happy Days. From the very first scene in which he meets Indy — ending in a motorcycle chase with Indy riding on the back — the repartée and chemistry between Ford and LaBeouf is pitch-perfect. Filmed in New Haven on the Yale campus, the motorcycle chase is one of the most memorable scenes in the film.
Initially skeptical of what use a teacher could be in a dangerous quest for valuable antiquities, Mutt learns the hard way about Indy’s skills. Surrounded in the jungle by unfriendly natives, Indy saves Mutt’s life by reversing the path of a poison dart so that it kills the attacker. An astonished Mutt asks, “Are you really a teacher?” To which Indy responds with a wry smile, “Part-time.”