It's been nearly two decades since the last time Indiana Jones donned a fedora, and in that time, several serial adventure franchises—Tomb Raider, The Mummy, and National Treasure among them—have served as de facto sequels, plundering the world's limitless booby-trapped archeological wonders. For Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, that's a mixed blessing: On one hand, there's nothing fresh about another wild goose chase slapped together from impenetrable hieroglyphs, secret passageways, and ancient extraterrestrial forces. On the other, nobody can orchestrate this robust silliness better than Steven Spielberg, who brings effortless visual panache to the proceedings, even when he can't entirely hide its mercenary nature. The biggest problem with Crystal Skull is one that's lately plagued Spielberg in otherwise excellent films like Munich and War Of The Worlds: He fails to stick the landing. And for an entertainment with nothing much on its mind, that hurts.
In his defense, the rollicking opening minutes set the bar awfully high, as one dazzling action setpiece snowballs into another and another and another. Cracking wise about his advanced age, Harrison Ford slips nimbly into the role of a wry archeological scholar and adventurer who gets ensnared in a plot involving the Red Scare, Area 51, the arms race, long-lost family connections, and treasures buried deep in an Amazonian rainforest. The elusive object of desire is the Crystal Skull Of Akator, a mythical find that holds the key to vast riches, as well as extraordinary psychic and extradimensional powers. Joined by a pompadoured Shia LaBeouf, a '50s-style rebel who's handy with a switchblade and a comb, Ford ventures to South America with an evil Ukrainian minx (Cate Blanchett) and her minions in hot pursuit.
Spielberg and producer George Lucas had been dragging their feet for years on a third Indiana Jones sequel, searching for the right script, and the one they've settled on feels like an overstuffed amalgam of rejected drafts. Though that's in keeping with the more-is-more spirit of the series, it also makes the film seem exhausted and labored in the middle section, as it adds on new developments in the form of Raiders Of The Lost Ark's Karen Allen and John Hurt as the half-mad Professor Oxley, but it buckles from the weight. Spielberg does his best to carry the franchise without breaking a sweat, but the fun dissipates markedly as the film goes along, leading to a finale that sinks into noisy supernatural hokum. The movie, like the series overall, goes from a bang to a whimper.