The first couple of scenes in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are good. I mean, really good. I was never more shocked than when I was sitting there in the theater having to revise all my expectations at a moment’s notice: “Oh my gosh, Spielberg might’ve actually made a good film again! It’s happening, right here, right now, after all these years…!”
It was too wonderful to be true, of course, and the movie soon turned into just what you’d expect, a big-budget, corny, by-the-numbers sequel designed to please legions of nostalgic fans. But those first scenes, I’m telling you, presuming I wasn’t having some sort of fantastic dream, were reminiscent of those long-ago Steven Spielberg genre films that made him famous in the first place.
This fourth Indiana Jones film, let’s call it Indy IV, opens with a flat-out exhilarating drag-race scene in the harsh American desert between a carload of 1950s teenagers and the lead vehicle in a long, formidable US Army caravan. So beautifully and unerringly shot, lit, cast, and edited, that it looks like a collective American fever dream of our insane post-World War II past, this bizarre race makes your heart thump with uncertainty. Is it going to end in comedy or tragedy, or split the difference? Will the soldiers and teenagers have one of those populist joyrides together and then amicably go their separate ways, or will the speeding teens wind up dead in a ditch, or will the soldiers open fire for sinister reasons yet to be revealed, or…? Spielberg plays so many complicated chords you can’t be sure. David Lynch himself wouldn’t be ashamed to claim a few of those chords.
But wait, there’s more. Soon after that, there’s a sequence I won’t ruin for you that involves Area 51 and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) surviving a nuclear blast, mushroom cloud and all. Hot damn, here we go, I thought. I’ve had the basic training in American film noir, and when the post-war hero survives a version of his own death, look out. You’re in for something. For one brief shining moment I really believed that Spielberg had finally decided to damn all commercial certainties to hell and realize his vast talents in one risky late-career enterprise.
What happens instead is that Indiana Jones gets embroiled in the whipsawing global forces of the Cold War 1950s and winds up having a typical Indiana Jones adventure as a result. He leaves his teaching job (booted out by anti-Communist witch-hunters), and goes questing for a treasure (the ancient crystal skull, one of thirteen that supposedly have supernatural powers), while chased by bad guys (humorless Boris-and-Natasha type Russian Reds led by Cate Blanchett, who’s very fetching in her blue uniform and evil-woman black bob). Along the way he interacts with cronies who may or not be on his side, all played by the best actors money can buy (Jim Broadbent, John Hurt, Ray Winstone). The young sidekick, considered a necessity now that Ford is an old actor, is motorcycle-riding ‘50s greaser Mutt Williams, played by Shia LeBeoef. LeBeoef is in loads of movies lately (Disturbia, Transformers) and is some sort of star, I’m told. You’d never know it to look at him. Every mall in America could disgorge a hundred guys just as unexciting as he is. But then, the boring star—an oxymoron, but a flourishing species nevertheless—is something of a Hollywood specialty these days.
The nostalgic capper of Indy IV is the return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood. Not seen in the franchise since the first and best Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Allen still has the knack of looking like a real human being. It’s a testimony to her refreshing qualities that Indy’s replacement love interest in the sequel, Indy II: The Temple of Doom (1984), was bound to be regarded as a hated interloper, even if she’d been a lot better than the highly untalented Kate Capshaw (now Mrs. Spielberg). Dumping Karen Allen amounted to an early warning sign that Spielberg was losing it. Because Allen, idiosyncratically lovely and oddly tough for such a slender, big-eyed girl, was proof of Spielberg’s sure hand in those early years when it came to casting. Back then he could really pick ‘em. Unknown or obscure actors were given their first important film roles (Karen Allen, Roy Scheider, Drew Barrymore); well-known actors were given some of their greatest roles (Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Dennis Weaver); and small or bit-part actors, or even extras, did the most consistently memorable work since Frank Capra used to direct crowd scenes like a maestro.