From the opening notes of its famous John Williams musical score, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull announces itself as a matinee serial cliffhanger-inspired sequel that’s built like a brick smokehouse where audiences will be spoon-fed with infectious exuberance. The movie is dotted with immediately recognizable nostalgic elements that play to the kid in everyone.
Teens drag race their convertible roadster with U.S. Army personnel on a Nevada rural route, circa 1957, before we discover that the military officers and soldiers are actually a team of wily Cold War Russians taking Jones and his intermittently double-crossing sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone) to the government’s notoriously secret Hangar 51 to find the contents of a certain crate. Cate Blanchett channels Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, as a black-bob-haired Ukrainian commandant named Irina Spalko who chews her vowels like licorice-coated borscht.
With a smirk and his whip, Indy turns the giant hangar into a carnival of set piece action before escaping the enclosure to its dubious outer limits. The mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb test explosion tests Indy’s survival skills inside a mannequin-populated suburban housing mock-up, and sets up the cartoon action sequences that escalate exponentially.
Back in the relatively safe confines of the college he teaches, Jones is fired as a result of an FBI investigation into his loyalty to homeland America. It’s not just the Cold War that’s breathing down Indy’s neck, but McCarthyism to boot. A malt shop meeting with a Wild One era motorcycle “greaser” named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) convinces Indy that a trip to Peru to look for an archeological object of desire, the Crystal Skull of Akator, is in order.
Once there, the newly-bonded duo of Indy and Mutt rescue one very insane Professor Oxley (well played in a squandered supporting role by John Hurt) and obtain the Crystal Skull, which resembles an elongated cranium of the creature from Alien. Irina and her troops catch scent of the skull and offer hot pursuit that fuels a long-running series of eye-popping slapstick chase sequences involving giant ants, a hoard of monkeys and the dramatic use of one very long snake for rescuing a certain snake-hating hero.
With Oxley and the Crystal Skull in tow, our daring trio become four when Mutt’s mother Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen from Raiders of the Lost Ark) is delivered into the story like a romantic reward for Jones, for whom it’s clear she is the only woman.
Spielberg’s mastery of the chase form layers elements of small and grand scale spectacle in an orchestrated way so that every uptick in speed and obstacle is matched with humor and foreshadowing of things to come. The slaps and tickles arrive with undeniably entertaining sword fights and jumping or falling stunts that delight in a magical way that adventure cinema should.
David Koepp’s script may not be a perfect example of balanced exposition and dramaturgy, but it doesn’t matter because the message is clear. We love to be taken with our surrogate family of heroes on pretend adventures to unbelievably beautiful and dangerous places where anything is possible, and where the surprises are beyond our wildest imaginations. We always want to go back. This is a movie you will want to revisit again and again. MTW