The fourth film in the "Indiana Jones" franchise does just about everything for which fans of the series could hope. While George Lucas's attempt to extend his first trilogy met with mixed results - not outright failure but mediocrity with moments of greatness - his and Steven Spielberg's new Indy film manages to stand at the same level as its predecessors.
One of the picture's numerous minor miracles was its ability to keep its plot a secret - a nice gift from Lucas, Spielberg, and Paramount. I'll just say it explicitly: if you liked the previous Indy films, know little or nothing about this one's story, and need no convincing about whether to see it then just stop reading and go watch it. The less one knows the better. For those who don't fit those three categories, read on and I'll do my best to manage the spoilers.
The new picture, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is set in 1957, causing the film to line up with "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," the bulk of which takes place in 1939. "Crystal Skull" came out in 2008 and "Last Crusade" emerged in 1989. See how nicely that works? Thus Harrison Ford's aging ceases to be an issue.
For "Last Crusade" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the first film in the series, the time in which the stories were set made the villains obvious: the Nazis. "Crystal Skull" is no different in its obvious choice of antagonists. Take the character and set the story in 1957 and it only makes sense for the bad guys to be Soviets.
And so the film begins with a group of Russian soldiers arriving at Area 51 and seizing it with a captured Indiana Jones (Ford.) The communists, led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett,) lead Indy to a warehouse filled with secret objects buried away in hundreds, maybe thousands of crates of different sizes. They instruct our hero to help them locate an item he helped unearth in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. A gun pointed to his head, Indy complies, biding his time until he can make his daring, action-packed, trademark escape.
Indy's life might survive this initial adventure but his career does not. The FBI suspects Indy of aiding the Soviets in the opening sequence and this misunderstanding casts doubt on decorated war hero Colonel Jones. Indy is forced to take a leave of absence from his teaching position in the paranoid anti-communist political climate. As he's leaving he encounters young greaser Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf, much better here than in "Transformers,") whose surrogate father Harold "Ox" Oxley (John Hurt,) an old colleague of Indy's, has disappeared in South America while investigating folklore surrounding El Dorado and the crystal skull artifacts. Still pursued by communist agents, Indy and Mutt head south to search for Ox and follow the trail of his discoveries. It's there that Indy will reunite with the one that got away, make new discoveries about his past, and make the connection between the Area 51 artifact and the crystal skulls.
The film is as much fun as the first three, filled with surprises, engrossing action, a few scares, and humor. It's only marred by occasional stumbles into silliness, a minor problem of the original Indy films that seems to come out more in this new installment. One of the strengths of the predecessors to "Crystal Skull" is that despite the over-the-top action and fantastical, supernatural elements, it was still moderately believable in a cinematic sense. Rarely does one's suspension of disbelief falter. A few scenes tend to stick out a bit in "Crystal Skull," though, as having broken the spell. The first is Indy's ridiculous survival of a hydrogen bomb test. Sorry, just way too dumb. The second is a sequence during one of the jungle fights in which Mutt starts swinging through the trees like Tarzan before unleashing a group of monkeys on Irina. The third is more forgivable since it's so entertaining. During this same action sequence the heroes and villains stumble into a colony of man-eating jungle ants. I'll let that one in particular slide since it's done so well - the other two would have made great deleted scenes.
"Crystal Skull" points clearly toward the series' future. Indiana Jones is basically the American James Bond. While that series managed to transition fairly well from actor-to-actor, in this role most people would probably agree that it wouldn't work so well with anyone other than Ford as an adult Indy. There's also the problem of the time period. Indiana Jones is so clearly tied to his era. It absolutely wouldn't work having him be in his late 30s fighting against Al Qaeda in the 2000s as they try to find some magical relic. So the answer is simple: the next step is to be taken in the character of Mutt Williams, an idea I was intensely skeptical of until actually seeing "Crystal Skull." Yet LaBeouf really pulls it off, managing to create a character who could probably sustain his own film. Hopefully such future installments will learn from the minor errors of "Crystal Skull" and rein in the silliness.