As someone who, as a boy, spent countless hours whipping invisible Nazis in the backyard, and clinging to the family station wagon in an imaginary dash to Cairo, it pains me to announce that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a dud. A long time in coming, the movie has turned out to be an uneven and, at times, outright silly blast of fan service, and little more. And though it tries hard to play on your nostalgia for the original trilogy—especially the still-unsurpassed Raiders of the Lost Ark—no amount of fond memories can make up for a terminally weak story, especially one that reeks of being patched together out of desperation from several abandoned drafts before it.
The warning flares fire immediately: The series' familiar dissolve from the Paramount logo is played for laughs, a wink-wink to the herd of fanboys braying for Indy's return. The year is 1957. Commies have replaced Nazis, the war has turned cold, and Indy (Harrison Ford), his posture a little less rigid than we remember, is trying to beat a group of Russians, led by a sexy scientist (Cate Blanchett), to a mysterious artifact known as the Crystal Skull. It's a race that eventually takes him from the Nevada desert to the jungles of Peru, an army of sidekicks—from old war buddies to old flames—in tow. Chief among these is a young punk named "Mutt" (Shia LaBeouf), whose greased pompadour and ever-present switchblade have been pillaged straight from The Wild One. Cocky but green, Mutt is searching for his kidnapped mother, whose name just happens to be Mary. Hmm...
Given Ford's age (not to mention the age of fans of the original trilogy) it's not hard to understand why Steven Spielberg and George Lucas brought the young buck onboard. But Mutt, for all of LaBeouf's charms, turns out to be a mistake, his presence only amplifying what they hoped to diminish. While David Koepp's script gives brief service to Indy's advancing years, every time the man springs into action the movie tries to have it both ways. The result is a movie that never quite jells—one foot in the past, the other trying desperately hard to keep up with the present.
Nowhere is this rift more apparent than during Crystal Skull's major set piece, a multivehicle scramble through the jungle that cuts between Ford's old-school punch trading and LaBeouf's much more agile, and completely out of place, stunt work. Indiana Jones is a hero in the classic mold—able to take a punch, his feet firmly planted on the ground. Mutt, in contrast, is of the green-screen generation, and the need to energize the action leads to one of the poorest directing moments of Spielberg's career.
At its best, Crystal Skull captures at least some of the excitement you remember from the first three films. (An early motorcycle chase is especially sharp.) But as the movie lumbered along, its story eventually disintegrating into sci-fi nonsense, I couldn't help but regret I was watching it. When we'd last seen Indiana Jones he was riding off into the sunset after having discovered the Holy Grail. It was the perfect ending to the series: simple, iconic, and lasting. I'd have preferred to remember him that way.