Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

(Sight & Sound, BFI)

The new Indiana Jones film starts in a veritable museum to modern myth. It’s a military warehouse in Area 51, hallowed ground for UFOlogists and conspiracy nuts. The set is a reconstruction of one in the closing shots of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), which was itself an homage to the Xanadu mansion in Citizen Kane (1941). In this cavernous space, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) runs along the tops of crates, uses his whip to snag a hanging light, and swings toward a jeep passing below. He’s about to reach it… then finds himself carried backward, landing in the windscreen of a jeep following behind. “Damn, I thought that was closer!” he growls, punching out the two Russian agents looking at him in amazement.

It’s a funny moment, deflating our scepticism about reviving the Indiana Jones series after 19 years. (Sure, this may be an older Indy, but he still has the right stuff.) Unfortunately, the joke cuts both ways in Steven Spielberg’s film, which starts as a worthy revival, then sags and falls away from the yardsticks set by Spielberg’s Raiders (the best of the series), its prequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and sequel Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).

The problems aren’t anything to do with the sexagenarian Ford, who proves more than able to don the fedora hat again. There’s no attempt to deny time’s passing; when Ford is first revealed, unusually as a captive of the film’s Commie bad guys, he has a weathered, wasp-chewing scowl, as if he’s lived through too much of this crap in the intervening decades. Later, when he confronts a truculent leather-jacketed “greaser” biker (Shia LaBeouf) in a ‘50s bar, the scene has a reversed Back to the Future (1985) vibe, with Indy overtly placed out of time.

The character is even accused of Red sympathies, though it’s hard to say if the film is for or against McCarthyism when the Stalinist villainess (Cate Blanchett with a pageboy wig and a cartoon accent) has a pod-people speech straight from 1956’s Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (“We will change you… from the inside”). But politics are less important than the film’s appeals to old-school fantasy cinema; the extended relish-the-action shots, the prominent miniature work (with one almost trompe l’oeil model shot of a conquistador tomb overlooking Peru’s Nazca lines) and an abundance of elaborate soundstage sets, which become sadly obvious in later scenes.

Yet some of the best set-pieces see Indy in unfamiliar situations and contexts. There’s a splendid motorbike chase round the campus that was the launchpad for Indy’s past adventures, while he also stumbles into a town of smiling dummies at Ground Zero of an A-bomb test. The scene tantalises us with the seemingly impossible “How can he get out of that?” predicament, with a solution to make Roger Moore’s James Bond blush. (The scene, incidentally, is from Jeb Stuart’s “Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars,” one of several interim scripts written during the character’s hiatus.)

And when Indy escapes, battered but intact, it’s our cue for laughter and cheers, before he’s moved forward the same way Ray Galton and Alan Simpson planned to progress Harold Steptoe in Steptoe and Son. Indy is bereaved of his father, the Sean Connery character in The Last Crusade, then starts turning into him when he meets the LaBeouf character. (In the bike chase, Indy even adopts his father’s glare at the teen.) LaBeouf himself is fine as a foil, with a neurotic obsession with combing and one-liners like an innocent question to Indy, “What are you, like eighty or something?”

It’s when the film set foot on Indy’s home turf – untamed jungles, teeming with ancient artefacts – that things sag. The middle scenes are sluggish, working through an overelaborate backstory that no-one cares about. When the action revs back up, it loses the balance between “real” stunts and special effects. LaBeouf has a swordfight straddling two amphibious vehicles at high speed, which is great fun for a few moments. Then the awareness that it isn’t “real” leaves one pining for stuntman Terry Leonard hanging under a truck in Raiders of the Last Ark.

The film got away with the refrigerator scene by fooling us into thinking Indy was in real danger. In a similar way, the earlier films had shocks where likable characters were seemingly killed, though the punches were usually pulled. But it becomes harder to believe there’s any peril here, as Indy’s group go over bottomless waterfalls without batting a hair, and the actors feel almost irrelevant when CGI spectacle takes over for the finale. The comeuppance for Blanchett’s villainess is especially lame, as the film cried out for a face-off between her and Karen Allen, who returns as Indy’s love-interest from Raiders.

As it is, the feisty women feel hollow; Ray Winstone’s tag-along traitor is mostly pointless; and John Hurt has little to do except rave on cue. Perhaps they’re meant to be ciphers for us, the audience, all along for the thrill-ride. The downfall of Crystal Skull, though, is that it indeed ends up feeling like an Indiana Jones theme park ride, not a real Indiana Jones film.