“You ain’t nothing but a hound dog!” Under Elvis’ energetic, era-setting tune, the first moments of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull look almost cute. It’s 1957, daddio, and a jalopy full of kids in ponytails and jeans is roaring along a desert road, smiles wide and music loud. When they encounter a U.S. army convoy, all gunning engines and glowers, the class and gender tensions of the song’s lyrics — “Well, you ain’t never caught a rabbit, / And you ain’t no friend of mine!” — are redrawn along lines of age and occupation: the teens are rowdy and joyful, the soldiers are grim and focused.
Very grim and very focused. The jeep turns off the main road while the carefree youngsters ride away, unaware of the terrible danger embodied by this particular convoy. For they are not just any convoy, but a team of undercover Soviets, square-jawed and toting precious cargo. Bullying their inside a Nevada military base, the villains open the trunk and reveal that cargo — one Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), tied up and gagged and still wearing his fedora.
He’s in a tight fix, all right, which means just what you think it means: he finds ingenious, athletic, and incredibly convenient ways to get out of the jam, along the way introducing his chief adversary, the cartoonish Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), with jet-black pageboy and skintight leggings and boots. In search of a mystical, powerful skull, she solicits/forces Indy’s expertise. He resists, she insists, the first action set-piece begins.
This piece establishes high plot stakes and thematic focus. Escaping the Russians, Indy lands in what he guesses to be a small town but turns out to be populated with mannequins: living rooms and kitchens and sidewalks decorated with figures awaiting decimation by an atomic test. The catch is that the test has yet to occur, which lands Indy smack in the middle of a nuclear blast, an oddly appropriate catastrophe to beset the man who has survived all manner of natural disasters. Indy manages to survive the results of the American push for technological superiority ingenuity (“Now I have become death,” someone quotes Oppenheimer, who quoted Milton), while the screen lights up with bright orange devastation, followed by the mushroom cloud that heralds the new age into which Indy has steeped.
Not only is this era nuclear, it is roaringly capitalist, a point driven home when Indy learns an erstwhile colleague has been bought out by the Russians. “You think this is about flags, about uniforms, about lines on a map?” the traitor sneers. “It’s about money!”
Though Indy has never been much of a team player or a nationalist himself, he’s not much interested in cash either. He’s dedicated to the pursuit of stuff for the sake of the pursuit, the thrills and the antics, the occasions to display his whip expertise, to elude what seems certain destruction — again and again. Since his first outing 27 years ago, he has shown himself repeatedly to be up for the good fight, the good chase scene, the good stunt, but never much interested in loot per se (he’s an archeologist, not a profiteer). So, when Indy learns that Irina — also known as “Stalin’s fair-haired girl” — means to track down the Crystal Skull of Akator, he’s slightly interested, then even more inclined to agree when he learns that a much admired colleague, Professor Oxley (John Hurt), is involved (and also kidnapped). Still, Indy is quite aware of Irina’s nefarious purpose. As she puts it, the skull is a means to subjugate the world. “We’ll change you, Dr. Jones, all of you, from the inside. We will turn you into us and the best part is, you won’t even know.” the fact that she sees it as a matter of you and us, that she has identified sides and named hers the bad, all-conquering, body-snatching one, makes her a worthy enough opponent for the great Henry Indiana Jones.
His greatness is mentioned more than once during his latest and presumably last adventure. Sometimes rollicking, sometimes sluggish, the movie points repeatedly to the well-known previous exploits of its hero and director. From vehicular chases to old-timey stunts to Indy’s superbly scrunched-up face whenever he has even to think about snakes, the film delivers familiar Jonesian business, then loops in a few extra tricks and gizmos, drawn from Spielberg’s Close Encounters and A.I., Duel and War of the Worlds. In between the running and the jumping, Crystal Skull includes as well the now requisite entanglings of fathers and sons, aliens and ambitions. Lucky for Indy he has help this time, not from the dad he so misses (and showcases in a picture frame on his desk at the university where he teaches classrooms full of eager students), but from the son he didn’t know he had.
That would be Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), introduced as a mid-’50s icon, astride a motorcycle, adorned in black leather jacket and Marlon-Brando-style cocked cap. Brash and impatient, Mutt roars into Indy’s sphere with a story about El Dorado and a map, as well as a way to immerse himself further in Irina’s plot. Neither Indy nor Mutt knows they’re related when they first meet (though you’ve known since the film was conceived), and they spend their buddy time observing their similarities, impressing each other with skills revealed in response to serial crises. They’re linked through Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who remains spunky but mostly irrelevant in this film, except when needed to beam on her man or provide a quick getaway in an all-terrain vehicle she’s commandeered.
It’s disappointing to see Marion cast mostly by the wayside, but not exactly surprising. Neither is it surprising to see the stereotypical menace provided by a slew of tribal warriors (looking rather like extras from Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” video) or the obligatory vehicular chase/fight. It is a little surprising to see the silliness that leads to the film’s gargantuan climax, a series of antics simultaneously hyper and enervated. From the run-in with flesh-eating ants to Mutt’s Tarzanical tree-swinging (with monkeys) to the Roswell-cover-up-explained plot (by way of “interdimensional beings” and John Hurt speaking “Mayan”), the film is both flailing and petering out, looking for a way to end.
Indy’s indomitable, of course, charismatic and clever. But as he’s surrounded by worn-out emblems and gestures toward a new decade, the cold war and the rise of corporate conformity, he’s also caught up in the very capitalist machinery that he would reject. The future looks inevitable and all “about money!”