Notre Dame on fire ...
It's been 19 years since Indiana Jones last donned his weather-beaten fedora. That's quite a long time for a character to lie dormant, and the worst thing Steven Spielberg and George Lucas could have done was pick up the dashing archaeologist right where they left him, giving him yet another girl to seduce and the same life to live.
Thankfully, they do the opposite in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Rather than ask 60-something Harrison Ford to continue playing Indy as the dusty playboy he always was, they use the actor's aging visage to their advantage. By the time we catch up with him in 1957, Indy has grown more contemplative and become less of a committed bachelor.
So while he's dodging the KGB and chasing the mysterious Crystal Skull, Spielberg and Lucas also provide him a chance to find a solution for his solitary, lonely life with the return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood
Unlike Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ford and Allen in this adventure share no love scenes, no passionate embraces, and no innuendo-laced word play. Yet their chaste reuniting gives us the most romantic Indiana yet. This time he not only gets the girl, he keeps the girl. And she, along with a young greaser (Shia LaBeouf) he hooks up with along the way, give Indy the one treasure he's never had: a family.
Perhaps as a nod to the family man that Indy is becoming, this sequel is considerably less bloody than its predecessors. It still deserves a PG-13 rating for language, and the most frightening image-a swarm of oversized, man-eating ants-is still too much for younger kids. But it's not nearly as disturbing as the melting faces or beating hearts ripped from chests we saw in the franchise's first two entries.
As if to fill the void for his hallmark gross-out scenes, Spielberg increases the cuteness factor. His lighthearted films have always displayed a bit of fondness for cliché, with characters tossing off lines that would cause groans under the direction of anyone else. But when Indy replies to Marion's accusation that "there must have been other women" with, "There were. But they all had the same problem, honey. They weren't you," we giggle delightedly rather than roll our eyes. Same goes with Shia LaBeouf's rebel-without-a-cause persona. Spielberg displays so much unabashed affection for '50s stereotypes (and LaBeouf plays the part so well), you can't help but embrace it.
And yet, for all the jokes that land, the effects that dazzle, and the nostalgia that we feel for the characters, Crystal Skull still lacks the energy of the original. Without giving too much away, it's fair to say the fault for this lies mostly with the item Indy is pursuing. Within the first few scenes we understand that this adventure is going to have something to do with aliens. What that something is grows into a confusing mish-mash of myths as the plot progresses.
The legends that generate the most excitement are those that feel the most probable. Eighty-five percent of Americans believe in the Bible as the Word of God. So the idea that a whip-cracking archaeologist might be able to locate an ark that plays a prominent role in that Word is going to fire our imagination. Something that few of us believe in-that extraterrestrials have visited Earth-doesn't have the same impact. Even worse is the visual effect the item has once Indy finds it (as we know he must). Its futuristic appearance feels wrong-the joy of Indiana Jones is that he unearths the power of old civilizations, not new ones.
So while there's no denying that Crystal Skull succeeds as a summer popcorn flick, it won't follow in Raiders' footsteps by becoming a classic audiences will want to watch again and again for years to come.