Flogging a dead franchise

The latest Indiana Jones shows little of Spielberg's usual pizzazz

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The Indiana Jones cycle, which began in 1981 with Raiders of the Lost Ark, is a homage to Saturday-morning serials in which the hero was left facing certain death at the end of each episode, dangling from a cliff by his big toe or some such - before miraculously surviving the following week. Steven Spielberg brought extravagant production values to this cheapskate format and rarely allowed irony or nostalgia to overshadow the films' entertainment value.

And what entertainment it was. Seeing Raiders at the age of ten, I witnessed my first outbreak of spontaneous applause at a cinema when the archaeologist-adventurer Indiana Jones decided not to grapple with that fancy-pants swordsman after all, and despatched him instead with one lazy bullet. I piled in with a gang of friends three years later to see the prequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and we found the experience so intoxicating that we trooped straight back into the cinema when it was over and, giddy with pleasure, watched the whole thing all over again.

It would be a stretch to imagine anyone having that reaction to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the fourth and most pedestrian instalment. Contrary to speculation, the problem isn't that its leading man, Harrison Ford, is too old at 65 to play a daredevil hero. Even in his prime, Ford seemed prematurely weary. As far back as American Graffiti (1973), he was playing worldly-wise; in Raiders he sighed memorably: "It's not the years that count, it's the mileage." He always made heroic deeds funny by appearing to do them grudgingly, as if he'd rather be trimming the hedge than battling Nazis. Unlike, say, Michael Douglas, Ford looks at ease with his wrinkles, and the new film turns this into both a fond joke ("What are you, like, 80?" someone asks) and a dramatic subject ("We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away," sighs a colleague).

Indy now has a youthful sidekick, Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), who blazes in on a motorbike wearing a leather jacket/peaked cap combo that makes him look like a 12-year-old rent boy. It's 1957, and the duo are searching for a crystal skull rumoured to have mysterious powers. Also on its trail is the Russian psychic research expert Irina Spalko, played by Cate Blanchett in a camp wig with her customary air of paralysing seriousness. She gets off lightly; the other actors who tag along don't have a funny hairdo, let alone a character to play - John Hurt turns up as a demented professor to parcel out little bits of the plot, while Ray Winstone appears as Mac, Indy's cockney mucker, whose job is to sweat visibly.

Spielberg and the screenwriter David Koepp throw countless other elements at the audience: Mayans, kung-fu assassins, killer Commies, extraterrestrials, mind control, giant ants. It's some kind of achievement that no single threat or action set piece alters the tempo one jot, or coaxes us any nearer to the edge of our seats. A protracted, multi-vehicle pursuit, with the skull being tossed between cars in a game of pass-the-parcel, seems to last for months; I swear that by the time it was over Shia LaBeouf was old enough to start shaving. But car chases and gunfights we can get anywhere. What happened to Spielberg's ingenuity and pizzazz? From Janusz Kaminski's leaden cinematography to the customary John Williams score that keeps trying to bully us into thinking we're having a blast, the film oozes complacency.

One sequence which unfolds in a Nevada town populated by mannequins that transpires to be a nuclear testing facility is terrifically eerie - I wish the whole film could have been set there. (At times it felt like it was: whenever the actors delivered another chunk of exposition about mysterious-this or lost-civilisation-that, they assumed the mannequins' glazed-over expression.) Admittedly, it's mildly revolutionary that the film bucks convention by pairing Indy with his Raiders partner Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), thereby placing a romance between two middle-aged sweethearts at the centre of a summer blockbuster. But that's a mere crumb of compensation in a film that takes its hero's trademark bullwhip and uses it to flog a dead franchise.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?