My friend Gretchen in California had very simple tastes. Whenever we were browsing in a video store she'd say, “What I really want is to see 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' for the first time again.”

Gretchen wasn't much of a fan of the next two Indy movies; she thought they were just noisy and derivative, and I tended to agree with her, although the derivative part is pretty much a given when you're re-creating a popular art form (?) such as the Saturday Afternoon Adventure Serial.

Alas, Gretchen is no longer around, but I think she'd enjoy “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” as much as I did, and after all, who's reviewing this movie, Gretchen or me?

Some of you know that I'm not a big fan of Steven Spielberg, except when he's not taking himself seriously. (I still think “Jaws” is his best movie.) And in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” -- a jawcracker of a title -- believe thou me, he's not taking himself seriously.

This has been a problem for some of my younger friends, who hate this movie because they find the whole thing totally unbelievable. Heck, I could have told them that about the first three, but some of them weren't even born when “The Last Crusade” came out. This may make some of the period references in “Skull,” such as the opening sequence of clean-cut teen-agers on a hot-rod joy-ride to the sound of “You Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog” less accessible, but I'm perfectly comfortable with that.

The fun stuff in “Crystal Skull” bounces off that very fact: it's been 19 years since the last Indiana Jones movie, and it's been 19 years for Indy too. He's 65, and things aren't as easy for him as they used to be, but he's still up for extended action sequences. We're told that Harrison Ford did some of his own stunts. Frankly, I wouldn't have tried ANY of them, and I've got four years on this guy. But he's still got enough punch and stamina to impress Mutt, his young sidekick (Mutt?), a greaser on a bike who's a dead ringer for Marlon Brando in “The Wild One.” Yet another period reference, or perhaps an hommage.

Indy's readiness to jump back into peril is balanced by his sense of loss, and that's one of the things that makes this episode appealing.

“We've reached the age when life stops giving us things and starts taking them away,” says the college dean, easily played by Jim Broadbent. Indy's old pal. Marcus Brody, along with Indy's father, have both died in the past year. Denholm Elliot, who played Brody in the last three movies, did in fact die recently, and “Crystal Skull” contains three references to him, one a brief but touching mention, one an actual portrait on the wall, and one a piece of just dreadful slapstick. This fine actor couldn't have asked for a more fitting tribute from his peers.

Everything else is precisely in place, including the Saturday morning stupidities: Indy uses gunpowder to find a highly magnetic artifact, and exactly which of gunpowder's three ingredients are ferric? And exactly who, and why, are the Inca Graveyard Ninja Attackers of Nazca?

It seems silly to avoid spoilers now that the movie has opened, but there was so much secrecy surrounding the production (the credits actually list a Confidentiality Coordinator) that it would seem churlish of me to give things away, so here is only a vague idea:

In the mid-1950s Professor Jones loses his job during the Red Scare, even though he's a national hero. Young Mutt brings news that an old friend of Indy's has been kidnapped by Russians in South America because of a crystal skull that can confer Ultimate Knowledge. Indy, of course, hares off to rescue his old friend, because he's already run afoul of these Commies at a test sight at Area 51, where agent Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, having more fun with her Russian accent than the law allows) forces Indy to find the magnetic residue of the Roswell incident, looking for Paranormal Military Applications. Of course Indy escapes, only to run smack into an atomic bomb test. His survival, in a refrigerator, is one of the things my young friends didn't buy, and herewith today's sermon:

Statistically, most everybody in the audience these days is too young to remember the Saturday Afternoon Serials. I barely can (cough), and believe me, credibility was not thick on the ground. I have recollections of standing around on the sidewalk after the matinée, arguing vehemently that the Tonga Ray couldn't possibly penetrate a Daikon Shield, and that the Dumbo Leaf could protect you against the Vandergraff Ear Spell. Or something.

So what if your hero survives a nuclear blast by hiding in a fridge? He survives, doesn't he? And that gets you to the next episode. And that, essentially, is where you're going to have to meet “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” -- somewhere in the Realm of the Preposterous.

Another friend of mine absolutely HATED the “Mummy” movies with Brendan Fraser -- “They have NOTHING to do with ancient Egypt!” he fulminated, and I agree with him entirely. But the Mummy movies have a sense of self-awareness that's charming, because they don't mistake irony for affectionate parody, and that's just about where the latest Indiana Jones movie is poised. Preposterousness is something that is frequently undervalued in movies of this ilk, and the preposterosity of “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is something anyone can enjoy, no matter their age.

One more thing about the movie that's only a TINY spoiler, and then I'll shut up: Marion Ravenwood shows up, at last, finally, not seen since “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and it's what we've all been waiting for.

Kate Capshaw's rendition of Cole Porter's “Anything Goes” in Cantonese was a show-stopper in “Temple of Doom;” unfortunately it started the show, and it was all downhill from there. And I can't even remember the name of the poor blonde chippy from “The Last Crusade,” and neither can you.

When Karen Allen arrives (and I won't tell you where or why, though anybody could guess it), we audience members breathe a sigh of relief, and realize that It Will All Work Out.

She says, “I bet you had plenty of women!”

He says, “Yeah, but they all had a problem.”

She says, “What problem?”

He says, “They weren't you.”

And, gloriosky, that's the truth: Marion Ravenwood is back, and that's what makes the whole movie so satisfying. Sequel? Who cares?

The May/June issue of ARCHAEOLOGY magazine (you can find it at the library) has a major article that discusses all the current evidence about the actual crystal skulls from (maybe) Mesoamerica. They're fascinating artifacts, but
it seems they're mostly 19
th century fakes. Sorry.