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Indiana Jones Returns on Hunt for Crystal Skulls

(SOUNDBITE OF "INDIANA JONES" THEME MUSIC)

DAVID BIANCULLI, Host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.

Nearly three decades ago, Steven Spielberg collaborated with producer George Lucas and actor Harrison Ford on "Raiders of the Lost Ark," a film that paid homage to the cliffhanger action serials of the 1930s. Then came "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and, 19 years ago, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." Now the three men have teamed up once again for "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: A shot early in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" reminds you why no mainstream filmmaker since Orson Welles can touch Steven Spielberg when it comes to camera movement and composition. Or, more precisely, to composition that gets more vivid as the camera moves. Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones is held at gunpoint by murderous Soviet soldiers, led by an icy Cate Blanchett as a scientist called Irina Spalko. They're in a giant warehouse, and Spalko orders Indy to hunt down a crate with precious contents. Indy climbs some crates. He's in the foreground. The camera holds on him, tracking back and up, and the space opens up behind him. We see Spalko and the soldiers gazing up, and the warehouse, with its built-in obstacle course of boxes, spreading out in the background. That's it. Nothing flashy, nothing to make film students cry, `Great shot!' But it tells you, simply and elegantly, everything you need to know about the setting, the threat, the variables in play. It's the work of a man with film storytelling in his blood. What a bummer when the story is such a big, noisy nothing.

The setup is certainly smart. It's the '50s, and Professor Jones is getting old. The nuclear age and the Cold War have come, and McCarthyism has hit academia. He has no family. His father is dead. There's no wife or child, or so he thinks. Into this comes motorcycle-riding greaser Mutt, played by Shia LaBeouf. He says he's been sent by his mother, one Mary, held captive in the Amazon, along with Indy's old friend Professor Oxley. Mutt is a dropout, which would bother Indy if he were the kid's father. Hold on, he is the kid's father! Mary turns out to be Marion, Karen Allen from "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Mutt is Henry Jones III.

Oh, but what lackluster tasks await the aging adventurer and his spawn as they embark on a quest that makes "The DaVinci Code" look like a model of plot construction. Indy and Mutt open tombs, dodge poison darts, get captured, break out, get captured again, break out, get chased and get captured again. The action is the movie's reason for being, of course, but the setups are wittier than the payoffs. Indy finds himself on a nuclear test site amid life-size dummies of mom, dad and kids--the nuclear family, ha ha. And the way he escapes the H-blast is a howl. But the sequence has no punchline. A Jeep chase through the jungle features Indy and son leaping between vehicles as the eponymous skull flies back and forth. So many variables, so many stunts, so little snap.

Harrison Ford never brought much to the show, but he knew how to lighten his clenched persona with goofy shrugs that said, `I can only go so far with this hero stuff.' But the breeziness is gone. He now seems like a peevish movie star who's too self-centered to interact. When he's supposed to realize that Marion is the lost love of his life, it looks as if he's gritting his teeth to kiss her.

Blanchett is a great photographic object, her satin skin taught over those high cheekbones, her black hair cut sharply across her forehead. But how many variations of `Ve meet again, Professor Jones' can you do?

Spielberg has evolved as an artist since the last "Indiana Jones" picture. He's grown beyond this. And even with his pet theme, absent fathers and sons, "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" has no urgency. It's not just the shallow script. All the computer-generated imagery in the action scenes muffle something vital in his technique. It removes the intangible element of gravity and blands out his staging. The state-of-the-art effects have a way of making the actors' advanced ages more, not less, pronounced. As they run from CGI explosions, you can almost hear their joints creak. Or is that Spielberg, wheezing?

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.