No mainstream filmmaker since Orson Welles can touch Steven Spielberg when it comes to camera movement and composition — or, more precisely, to composition that gets more vivid as the camera moves. We see that in an early shot in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones is held at gunpoint by murderous Soviet soldiers led by an icy Cate Blanchett as a paranormal-research scientist named Irina Spalko. They’re in a top-secret warehouse near a nuclear test range, and Spalko orders Indy to locate a crate containing something strange and precious and highly magnetic. The shot is of Indy climbing crates: He’s in the foreground as the camera tracks back and up, and as it does the space opens up behind him and becomes more layered; we see Spalko and the soldiers gazing up while the warehouse — with its built-in obstacle course of boxes — spreads out in the background.
That’s it: nothing flashy, nothing to make film students cry, “Great shot!” But it tells you, simply and elegantly, everything you need to know about the height and depth of the setting, the threat, the sundry variables in play. It’s the work of a man with film storytelling in his blood. What a bummer when the story he has to tell is such a cosmic nothing.
Spielberg has evolved as an artist since the late eighties, when he collaborated with producer George Lucas (who has, if anything, devolved) on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In between have come, among other films, Schindler’s List, A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, Munich, and War of the Worlds. Not all of them worked, but each posed a radically different kind of challenge. The child-man protagonist of early Spielberg became the father to the child or, in Munich, the man-child ordered to kill in a moral (i.e., fatherless) vacuum. Even War of the Worlds was a leap forward, an anguished reimagining of 9/11 from the perspective of a father who wants only to restore his family, its sci-fi spectacle suffused with primal dread.
Even though he has moved on, Spielberg can still bring off Saturday-matinee cliffhangers, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a lot more energized than the limp Last Crusade — which was his attempt to atone (as if he needed to) for making Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom too intense, too scary, too good. (Temple of Doom brought outcries from bluestocking critics and helped give birth to the PG-13 rating.) But the new film is impersonal and rather frantic — the act of an old circus performer doing kiddie tricks, only semi-engaged.
Too bad: The setup is resonant. It’s the fifties, and Professor Jones is getting old. The nuclear age and the Cold War have arrived, and McCarthyism has hit academia. Indy has no family. His father is dead. There’s no wife or child — or so he thinks. Then into his life comes a motorcycle-riding greaser called Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) who calls out, “Old man!” Mutt says he has been sent by his mother, one Mary, held captive in the Amazon along with Indy’s old friend, Professor Oxley (John Hurt). The kid is a dropout, which would bother Indy if it were his kid. Hold on, it is his kid: Mary turns out to be Marion — Karen Allen — from Raiders of the Lost Ark! Mutt is Henry Jones the Third!
But oh what lackluster tasks await the aging adventurer and his spawn, a quest that makes the film of The Da Vinci Code look like a model of plot construction. In the warehouse scene, Indy gets the drop on Spalko and her men but then they get the drop on him. But then he gets away. But then the Commies have him trapped. But then he gets away but then gets captured again but then escapes but then Irina shows up, just when he thinks he has lost her. “We meet again, Dr. Jones.” She can say that again.
The action is the movie’s reason for being, of course, but the setups are wittier than the payoffs. Indy finds himself on a nuclear test site amid life-size dummies of Mom, Dad, and kids — the fifties nuclear family, ha-ha — and the way he escapes the ensuing H-blast is a howl. But the sequence has no punch line. A bit in which Indy sinks into a dry sand pit and in lieu of a vine his son throws him a snake (Indy’s phobia) has too many extra beats — it’s laborious. A Jeep chase through the jungle features Indy and his son leaping between vehicles as the eponymous skull flies back and forth: so many variables, so many stunts, so little snap. The good guys escape on a raft that plunges over three progressively more epic waterfalls: riotously scary in prospect but there’s nothing at the bottom but splashing. Only a bit involving ravenous, circling army of ants has the requisite punch, and that’s because it’s full-scale gross-out horror. A bad guy’s head getting swiftly eaten down to the skull has a way of picking things up. (The FX fall short, though, when it comes to the elongated crystal skull: In design, it cannibalizes H.R. Giger; in execution it looks like Lucite filled with bubble wrap.)
Harrison Ford always knew how to lighten his clenched, pissed-off persona with goofy shrugs that said, “I can only go so far with this hero stuff.” But the years have dried him out, and I don’t mean physically. The breeziness is gone; he now seems like a peevish movie star who’s too self-centered to interact. When he’s supposed to realize that Marion is the lost love of his life, the moment has no emotional force — he looks as if he’s gritting his teeth just to kiss her. Allen, back from retirement, has a good, foul-mouthed entrance, then turns mushy and peripheral. And Blanchett — a great art object, her satin skin taut over those Asiatic cheekbones, a slash of black hair across her forehead — hits the same note with diminishing returns. How many variations of “We meet again, Dr. Jones” can there be?
Thematically, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is still a Spielberg film. The relationship between an absent father and a son is still central, but David Koepp’s script is stubbornly shallow — it even misses opportunities to show the father and son extending their conflict into the fight scenes. There’s another reason the movie has no urgency. All the computer-generated imagery muffles something vital in Spielberg’s technique: It removes the intangible element of gravity and depth of field that’s in that early warehouse sequence; it blands out his staging. And the state-of-the-art effects have a way of making the ages of the actors more, not less apparent. As this elderly crew (only LaBeouf is under the age of 56) rushes down a long stone staircase to escape a CGI rock slide, you can almost hear their joints creak. Or is that Spielberg, impatiently drumming his fingers?