Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

In theaters.

Seeing Indy again was fun, but I was most excited about the return of Marion, whom I adored as a little girl. As played by Karen Allen, Marion was nobody’s blushing damsel or flighty ditz. She was proud and smart and resourceful, a fitting match for Indiana Jones—and she still is in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Allen and Harrison Ford both are showing their years (and I mean that in the best way possible), but they still have a great, crackling chemistry, and the reunion of their characters is so charming that I didn’t even roll my eyes at the movie’s sappy coda. (Well, that’s a lie. But I didn’t roll them that hard.)

I can’t say everything else about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was as much fun as the reappearance of Marion Ravenwood, but the movie has its moments, I guess, and nobody embarrassed him- or herself. And when you’re talking about a series entry arriving nearly two decades after the previous installment, maybe that’s not bad.

Having aged past the World War II era, Indiana Jones is now pitted against Commies rather than Nazis. After he narrowly escapes the clutches of Soviet agent Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), he runs into Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), a young Wild One wannabe who informs him that Spalko has kidnapped Professor “Ox” Oxley (John Hurt), a colleague of Indy’s and a substitute father figure for the fatherless Mutt. Mutt’s mother has been abducted, too, and she, of course, turns out to be Marion, which immediately makes Mutt’s pedigree pretty obvious. In any case, Indy, Mutt, Ox, and Marion are soon tearing across the wilds of South America with the mysterious crystal skull that Ox discovered and that Spalko wants for herself.

Indiana Jones movies are always built around a MacGuffin, but the plot devise here seems particularly half-baked. I don’t have a problem with the providence of the crystal skull (though I know some people do), but as Sean pointed out, it too often leaves Indy strangely passive, reactionary, just trailing along after a skull-addled Ox rather than actively deciphering clues and tracking the treasure himself.

The character of Spalko is similarly undeveloped. Blanchett, beguiling as always, does what she can, but Steven Spielberg and company haven’t given her much to work with. Yes, Spalko wants to know—I’ve got that—but there are no hints of any conflict that might have caused for her in Soviet Russia, or any kinship she might feel with the scholarly Jones, or any sacrifices she might have made in her single-minded pursuit. Consider the similar character of Elsa Schneider in Last Crusade—her amoral but strongly delivered rationalizations, her choked-back tears at the Nazi book-burning—and Irina Spalko’s flatness becomes all too apparent.

I think Mutt might have some potential, though (which is good because LaBeouf is clearly being positioned as Ford’s heir). I admit I’m partial to the guy because I adore the movie Holes (honestly, check it out! it’s sweet and odd and clever and absolutely enchanting), but LaBeouf really does give Mutt an endearing awkwardness, the bearing of a boy who hasn’t yet figured out how to be a man, and it works for the character. You could imagine him growing into another Indy, but he’s not there yet, not by a long shot, and by not pushing too hard, LaBeouf makes the character palatable, even enjoyable, rather than a pretender to the throne. He has a light, snappy rapport with Ford, and the relationship works—nothing like Ford and Sean Connery in Last Crusade, but it has potential.

The action sequences are fun when the filmmakers don’t go overboard with the CGI. The motorcycle chase through the university campus is brisk and energetic, and the choreography of a jeep battle through the jungle is terrifically entertaining, at least until the silliness with Mutt straddling the chasm between the two vehicles and then swinging Tarzan-style through the trees. But the movie’s climax at the temple of the crystal skulls was, well, anticlimactic, and Spalko didn’t get a good villain send-off, which was disappointing.

I guess what I’m dancing around here is the admission that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is ultimately rather mediocre—not bad but not particularly memorable, nothing like the boundless thrills of Raiders or the jovial charm of Last Crusade. I’m not mentioning Temple of Doom, of course. The less said about that offensive, trashy, weirdly mawkish aberration, the better. But “better than Temple of Doom” is faint praise indeed, especially when you’re pulling my beloved Marion out of retirement. I enjoyed Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but it gets by less on its own merits and more on the fondness I already have for Indy and Marion and my eagerness to rejoin their adventures.