Forget War of the Worlds—when Spielberg wants to be, he’s a master storyteller in that grand Hollywood tradition of efficient, effective populism. In the new Indiana Jones movie, which fans have both long anticipated and dreaded, the clunky Spielberg of recent years, from the absurd and pointless The Terminal through the interminably rambling Munich, has disappeared; in his place is the Spielberg of yore, the Spielberg of impossible dinosaur dreams made real. His dinosaur here is Jones, made real once again through a seeming cinematic miracle, equal in scale to that which resurrected the velociraptor. By revisiting his twenty-year-old franchise, Spielberg seems to have rediscovered that spark, the sense of pulpy excitement rooted in youthful fantasy, that made him into what he is today—the darling of commercial American cinema.
Shooting with Janusz Kaminski, his right-hand cameraman since Schindler’s List, Spielberg soaks the new Jones film’s visuals in a crisp, old-fashioned elegance; his form follows suit. The director revels in the sophistication of the slow reveal; nearly an entire reel goes by—including a bizarre opening credit sequence featuring groundhogs and drag racing—before we see Jones, who is in the custody of the Soviets and imprisoned in the trunk of a car, as anything but a distant crumple. We see his iconic hat tossed to the floor; we see his silhouetted shadow affixing it to his head with a careful cock; and then, only then, does Spielberg give us a full-on view of the reprising Harrison Ford, brandishing his trademark smirk.
Set about 20 years after The Last Crusade, in the late 1950’s—if the title card didn’t tell us the year, surely we could figure it out from the clumsy signifiers: the Howdy Doody clip, the shakin’, rattlin’ and rollin’ soundtrack, The Wild One costuming—Jones has been up to quite a bit, including a stint in the OSS. Jones is no longer a mere movie hero, champion of the archaeologists, but a conspicuously American hero; there’s a bit of propagandist flag-waving to Crystal Skull’s first reels. “Any last words?” the Commies ask Jones at gunpoint. “I like Ike!” Jones declares, wearing his flag on his sleeve.
But Spielberg goes on to upend, lightly, such shameless patriotism. Jones escapes the Soviets to find momentary refuge in an ersatz town designed for nuclear weapons testing; Jones, standing against the backdrop of a blood-red-and-black mushroom cloud that has just obliterated a microcosmically plasticized America, does not exactly inspire the spontaneous singing of the National Anthem. Furthermore, Jones is then taken into custody by the FBI, which has the cojones to question His patriotism. “I barely recognize this country anymore,” one character says, referring to the George W. Bush years…I mean, the charged climate of McCarthyism.
You can already hear the multiplexes emitting a collective yawn, and after such chest thumping the filmmakers never again address America or the 1950’s—by the end, we can only assume, Jones has been cleared of all suspicions. Spielberg has his sights set, instead, on South American jungle romping and car chases, lots of car chases. As cinema, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is unadulterated action-adventure, a stack of set-pieces with, once it gets going, little to no subtext to parse. (Unless you’re adventurous enough to try and make the case that its story about ancient extra terrestrial knowledge has something to do with the immigration debate.)
There is a story, of course, wrapped around the car chases, a rather convoluted one about El Dorado, Soviet perfidy, alien intelligence and legends of unfathomable power and yadda yadda yadda. It’s not what Crystal Skull is about but how it plays out and, like many a great storyteller before him, Spielberg deals heavily in cliché: driving too close to the edge of a cliff, getting hit in the crotch, a near-fatal run-in with quicksand. The new Jones movie is built on familiarity, from its characters to its forms. The entire story could be boiled down to The Lord of the Rings’ narrative archetype: an ancient artifact of great power must be returned whence it belongs. Spielberg takes the conventions, though, and tweaks them just enough to make them his own. As they travel down a river, his heroes go over a waterfall—one that they don’t notice until someone points it out at the last moment, of course. But they go over three waterfalls in a row and they do so while sitting in a car. Spielberg makes no effort to create suspense out of this—of course no one will be hurt—but rather: with the economy tanking outside, ain’t it fun to watch people topple over a waterfall inside the darkened safety of the movie theater?