Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull  
Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Shia LaBeouf, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent and Igor Jijikine. Directed by Steven Spielberg. 124 min. Rated PG-13.
 
I don’t know if you’ve heard — after all, a few of you may have spent the last several weeks in a sensory deprivation chamber — but Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford have made a new Indiana Jones film.
Cue the John Williams fanfare.

Twenty-seven years after Indy’s debut in Raiders of the Lost Ark and 19 years after his adieu in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, America’s favorite whip-wielding hero returns in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Let’s get the thumb-orientation, star-quantity business out of the way first: thumbs up firmly but unenthusiastically; two and a half stars out of four. That is to say, it’s pretty good.

Of course, it has to go up against a very high standard: our collective memories of Raiders. And even Raiders itself doesn’t seem to match up to that standard any more. If KotCS never reaches such heights, it also never comes close to the embarrassing depths of George Lucas’ other series resurrection.

This time around, it’s 1957 — which means Ford has aged exactly the right amount to match up with his age in Last Crusade. (Viewed together, the chronology of all four films doesn’t quite jibe, but big deal.) Indy is kidnapped by a band of Soviet military thugs, led by dragon lady Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). (“Stalin’s fair-haired girl,” we are told, although her hair is black and Stalin had been dead for three years.)

They drag him and sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone) into a warehouse to locate a mysterious, immensely valuable collectible, before things turn into a pretty neat fight/chase/escape sequence. Indy ends up in an absolutely fatal situation but saves himself through a bit of shtick that is very clever, if totally implausible. Of course, plausibility has never exactly been an issue in this series: Didn’t Raiders have our hero hanging onto the outside of a submarine as it crossed an ocean?

During these opening scenes, Spielberg et al. introduce a stronger, mildly more controversial dollop of social context than in the earlier Nazis vs. Good Guys episodes. Despite having just evaded a group of Communist operatives, Indy is accused by a pair of FBI crewcuts of having Red sympathies. In no time flat, he is forced out of his university job.

By coincidence, he is then approached by rebellious 18-year-old Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), the son of some former acquaintance named Marion (Karen Allen).

Most of the film involves Indy and Mutt — eventually joined by Marion and a temporarily deranged old friend (John Hurt, in mutter mode) — running around foreign landscapes, competing with Spalko and her Red Army second-in-command (Igor Jijikine, looking more than a little like Vladimir Putin) to decipher a bunch of riddles and locate the titular kingdom. In short, it’s a series of chases, fights and ridiculously narrow escapes. The action sequences may be largely retreads of ancient ideas, but they are still exciting and well-handled.

So, if the movie is mostly action stuff, and the action stuff is well-done, what’s my beef?

First of all, the law of diminishing returns: Even after a nearly two-decade hiatus, there is still a sense of been-there-done-that. The series is a victim of its own success. It became so ingrained in the culture and so influential on popular filmmaking that it can’t possibly feel as fresh. (I suspect this is why Raiders has lost some of zing with time, as well.)

But there is also the gimmickry of the plot, which depends too heavily on verbal riddles, as though this were Da Vinci Code 2: Peruvian Posers. The details here are simply pointless plot hinges; and the actors don’t really seem any more interested than we are.

This is in contrast to the brilliantly clever shtick in Raiders — the betraying monkey, the burnt image on Toh’s hand, all the little explanatory devices that made us go, “Whoa! Cool!” — the things that we might have been able to figure out ourselves. Instead, we get a lot of archaeological/mystical mumbo jumbo, whose significance is suddenly revealed by Indy’s exclaiming, “Aha! This must refer to the burial fetishes of the ancient Biftec Indians and their development of Veeblefetzer Runes!” (Or something like that.)

Like: Huh? And: Who cares?

There is not much one can do about the problems with extending a series (though every 15 years or so, the Bond producers seem to figure out a way to energize things). But the plot-device problem is simply a matter of the quality of the shtick the filmmakers come up with — and, after the early sequences, it feels uninspired.