Ready for some true blasphemy? The best scene in Crystal Skull might be the most reviled: that roll in the fridge. There’s just too much eerie resonance in seeing Jones, a hero of yesterday’s America, stagger through a facsimile of the world his heroics helped secure—the perfectly unreal, plastic vision of the 1950s, blown to smithereens by the atom-splitting, history-dividing force of Oppenheimer’s bomb. The final, painterly image of Jones gaping upon a mushroom cloud is among the most striking of the entire series, like something off the cover of a dog-eared paperback. It’s in keeping with the feat Spielberg accomplished with Raiders of the Lost Ark: building a lighthearted adventure in the shadow of offscreen horrors, here Hiroshima instead of the Holocaust.
There’s no denying Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has blemishes that time hasn’t healed. For all the enthusiasm of Spielberg’s blocking, the movie can’t totally overcome the uncanny-valley unsightliness of its CGI imagery. Has a film shot by Janusz Kamiński ever boasted such a plastic luster? The temples and jungles of a vintage Indy story lose their grandeur without the texture of celluloid; they look chintzy in a way these movies never did in the pre-digital 1980s. Crystal Skull stumbles over the line separating nifty throwback artifice from blatant Hollywood fakery.
And the goofier plot contrivances, most widely attributed to Lucas, don’t look much better in retrospect than they looked in 2008. Silliness is instrumental to Indiana Jones, but not all silliness is created equal: Judeo-Christian hokum just fits Indiana Jones better than the sudden tilt towards sci-fi cliche, the extraterrestrials invading Spielberg’s world of holy chalices, staffs, and the like.
Even that change, though, calls for a mild defense. Set in Eisenhower’s America, under the shadow of growing UFO obsession, at the dawn of entwined space and atomic ages, Crystal Skull crystallizes the moment that science became a new American religion, and where science fiction began to compete with the Biblical epics that were big in Hollywood mid-century. In that respect, at least, Dial of Destiny picks up where Crystal Skull left off; the new film is set, after all, during the week we landed on the moon.
Throughout Crystal Skull, Spielberg keeps the tone breezy, even carefree. It may not always visually resemble the Indiana Jones movies of the ’80s, but it usually moves like them, bounding playfully from set piece to set piece. It remains true, in other words, to the original conception of the character as a living, breathing expression of cinema’s unpretentious pleasures; he’s as much a vehicle as the cars and bikes he commandeers. The destination is still throwback fun, even if the road there is bumpier. And the goofiest diversions have some precedent in the pulp to which Lucas and Spielberg have always been paying tribute. Crystal Skull is Buck Rogers meets Tarzan. It exists on a continuum of silliness.
Maybe Indy deserved one last chance to stick it to Hitler’s artifact-chasing minions. Those fans who share Ford’s wistful desire for closure may well appreciate the nostalgic victory lap Dial of Destiny arranges for the dashing adventurer. But there is something fitting, too, about the light-hearted, light-headed punctuation Crystal Skull put on the series a decade and a half ago; for all its considerable flaws, Spielberg’s final Indy movie felt faithful to the indomitable B-movie-on-an-A-budget nature of Indiana Jones. It wasn’t a classic, but it was classical in pulp sensibility. And you won’t find a lot of that in today’s blockbusters. As Mutt goes, so goes Hollywood.