‘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.”
The third concern about the film was about how fresh it would seem, whether viewers would have a sense of discovery or novelty about the plot or the characters. Here the film comes up short. The first chase sequence, in the desert — which has Indy overcoming not just gunfire but a full-scale nuclear attack — is completely over-the-top. After that, the film settles down a bit, but its eagerness to get on to the next chase scene gives the entire plot an impatient feel.
The big surprises here are perfunctory. This is especially true of the reappearance of Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) who was Indy’s love interest in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg’s obsession with family surfaces here, but not to good effect. The perky Marion has little to do but alternate between arguing with and swooning over Indy. Indeed, the attempts at cultivating a sense of surprise often seem forced. The most telling illustration of the problem can be seen in the character of Mac, who starts as Indy’s ally, then turns against him and confesses to having been a double agent, then later claims he’s been on Indy’s side all along, and then — oh, who cares?
The final, extended chase, through the jungle, over waterfalls, and amid playful monkeys and deadly ants, is the best part of the film. The revelation of the secrets concerning the crystal skull might seem to anticipate a plot more at home in the upcoming X-Files film, but they provide an occasion for reiterating lessons we’ve already learned from previous Indiana Jones films. As was true in earlier films, the human quest for control of powers they do not fully understand is bound to backfire.
Here the lesson is delivered through the character of Spalko, who describes herself as “knowing things . . . before others know them.” What she does not know, she “finds out.” The result for her is what might have happened to Oedipus if his story had originated in the CG age. There is, if anything, less of a sense of awe in the face of ancient, supernatural powers than there was in previous films – but then, the religious elements in the Indiana Jones films have never been much more than plot devices.
The overall effect is that of a redo, welcome in certain respects, but decidedly worn in others.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.