It's not necessarily a good sign when you can only describe the latest entry in one summer franchise, Indiana Jones, by reference to another franchise, X-Files. that is also pumping out a summer movie. And yet the whole time I was watching Steven Spielberg's serviceable little action flick, full of Harrison Ford's trademark lopsided smile (still cute) and jungle chases (still pulptastic), all I could think about was how this was the movie X-Files: I Want to Believe should be. It had exotic locales, new agey aliens, marvelously bad pseudo-science, and a plucky male-female team at its heart. I mean, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is X-Files with monkey jokes instead of paraphilias. But is that a good thing? Weirdly, yes.
There's a lot to love in this movie if you've been missing the nerd swagger of Indiana Jones, the archeology professor with fists of steel and a lust for treasure. Roughly two decades have passed in real time and movie time, so director Steven Spielberg has fun with period scene-setting just to let us know we've moved from fighting the Nazis in 1938 to fighting the Russkies in 1957. Yes, you'll get to see Indy tangle with a Soviet ninja dominatrix (Cate Blanchette), paranoid government agents, and even a goddamn atomic bomb blast — and it's all perfectly good fun. Nothing brilliant, but nothing boring either. The main plot arc, which involves a crazy search across South America for the remains of classic big-headed aliens, is an homage to 1950s pop culture the way earlier Indy movies were to 1930s and 40s adventure tales.
And here's where you can see some serious X-Files stuff bubbling up, because the aliens in Crystal Skull aren't just your typical 50s invaders. They're more like X-Files creatures, connected with ancient native mythology and coveted by secret government agents. Their crystalline skeletons give people visions, and have strange unscientific magnetic powers. Supposedly if the "crystal skull" of the film's title is reunited with its crystal skeleton in some secret place that requires lots of puzzle-solving to reach, there will be some sort of singularity. I kept wanting Scully to pop up at some point and whack everyone upside the head with a rationality stick. Or a dick joke.
What I'm trying to say is that while the Crystal Skull is in many ways a successful reimagining of the franchise, it also lacks punch. Sure, there are totally cool killer ant swarms and zooming over giant waterfalls and lots of gesturing at ancient maps. But are no crap-that's-amazing moments, and certainly nothing that will make you hoot with admiration over an artfully-executed genre satire. The satire, such as it is, is just a sad imitation of the X-Files, which is even more sad because the X-Files movie will probably be less imaginative than Crystal Skull.
The only edge to the film is a clumsy, knee-jerk liberal subplot about how the evil U.S. government suspects everyone of being part of the Red Menace — even Indy! Sounds just like the evil, suspicious U.S. government today! Wow, thanks for the commentary, but honestly if there had just been cooler aliens or a weirder plot I would have been a lot happier.
Don't get me wrong: the flick is definitely worth seeing, and you won't be disappointed unless you are expecting Raiders of the Lost Ark. Star Ford can still lay on the charm, even though the film keeps tiresomely reminding us that he's REALLY OLD, and Karen Allen returns as his still-tough-as-nails and seriously cute ex-girlfriend Marion (she who could drink Siberians under the table in Raiders). Even the ordinarily-heinous Shia LaBoeuf is tolerable here, partly because he's dressed as Marlon Brando from 50s juvenile delinquent classic The Wild One, and partly because there's a long jungle chase sequence where his crotch is repeatedly and resoundingly slapped by tree branches.
There's nothing better on a weekend afternoon than being stalked through the deep jungle by a hot Ukrainian spy while you quest for the lost city of El Dorado and a bunch of crystal alien skeletons. But you might not really want to do it again. And that's exactly the thing about the new Indiana Jones flick: good for one afternoon of diversion, but not much more than that.