Steven Spielberg had his 11th birthday in 1957. His mind must have been a whirlwind of current cultural references: Communism and Elvis, flying saucers and the FBI, atomic bomb tests and greasers on motorcycles, Tarzan movies and research into psychic phenomena. He has crammed every one of these ideas into “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” darting from one to another like a hummingbird sampling gaudy flowers, and the result is a movie that drops from grandeur to inanity and rises close to grandeur again.
“Skull” is set in 1957, and it both caps and recapitulates the entire series: It has the thoughtful set-up of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” re-establishing Henry Jones Jr. (Harrison Ford) as a bookworm with biceps. It stoops to the ludicrous stunts of “Temple of Doom” – a jeep goes over three waterfalls without scratching the inhabitants, who fall out and plummet hundreds of feet – and the good vs. evil politics of “Last Crusade,” plus its pairing of the shrewd old veteran (now Indy) and the intemperate but brave guy a generation younger, now Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf, unconvincing as a motorcycle-riding toughie but an agreeable presence).
The latest installment also has the most interesting villain: Irina Spalko, a hypnotic-eyed hottie in leather boots, who sounds like Natasha from the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons. (She must have lurked in some VERY dark corner of little Stevie's mind.) Agent Spalko (Cate Blanchett) wants to use the skull's powers for mind control, turning U.S. citizens into cheerful slaves of the Soviet master. And if you expect any more spoilers than that, I'm going to disappoint you.
David Koepp gets sole credit for a script that passed through many hands, including George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson (who are credited with the story). Yet the movie belongs mainly to Spielberg. Writing “Mutt fights Irina with swords atop adjacent jeeps” doesn't mean much: The director has to set the scene's pace and length, giving us an adrenal rush or (in this case) a tension headache.
At the same time, most of the movie's strengths are in the quieter, tenser moments, from the FBI's menacing comments to presumed traitor Indy (absurd, we know) to the rueful reflection of Indy's dean (Jim Broadbent) that they “have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away.” The film opens with Indy face-down on a tarmac after being dumped from the trunk of a car; we're made aware at once of his fallibility, of the possibility he can't control what happens to him. “Skull” seems like an autumnal movie, one made by a director in his 60s who's beginning to wonder when his powers will slip away.
They haven't yet, and the first hour is a marvelously tense, funny set-up. (Even the first lines of dialogue stunningly reverse our expectations.) We enjoy Indy's resourcefulness, Mutt's pluck, Irina's grudging admiration for her enemy, and we can follow the complicated account of the skull, which has been stolen from a tomb by a professor (John Hurt) whom it has driven mad. Their quest for it leads indirectly to feisty Marion (Karen Allen), who's still smarting from their interrupted “Raiders” love affair.
Once all the good guys team up, the movie loses much of its mind and turns into a stew of chases, menaces from various camps – South Americans with poison darts, monstrous ants, collapsing sand pits – and the kinds of mayhem so well-done in “Raiders” and so overdone here. No one can say “no” any longer to Spielberg, and an endless pursuit in the Amazon jungle becomes laughably silly when Mutt takes to the trees like an ape-man.
Koepp and Spielberg make no effort to explain anything: Blue-painted natives who have apparently waited motionless for months leap out at Indy and crew when they disturb a crypt, then vanish. Luckily, the filmmakers pull off a climax that's huge and hugely entertaining.
Some of the special effects will have you grinning on the edge of your chair like a pleased child yourself. Some will make you wonder how Industrial Light and Magic could so clumsily fail to disguise its green screen in 2008.
But both the good and bad remind us that the most special thing about “Skull” is the man wearing the fedora and the rakish grin. He has never worn out his welcome, and this valedictory – it can be nothing else – is a fitting one.