It’s hard to believe, but 19 years have gone by since the last Indiana Jones adventure, the misleadingly titled Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Acknowledging the passage of time, the long-gestating Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull takes place 19 years after the third film in the blockbuster series left off. The difference in time frames—1938 vs. 1957—is striking, which leads to the question: How different is today’s movie audience, weaned on increasingly dazzling and frenetic CG effects in all media, from the ’80s crowds who so eagerly embraced the globetrotting quests of the plucky archaeologist in the brown fedora?

The good news is that Crystal Skull feels of a piece with its predecessors: Despite the time leap and a new cinematographer, Steven Spielberg stalwart Janusz Kaminski, the film retains an appealing retro look, and star Harrison Ford, despite the advancing years often baldly addressed here, is an awfully fit 65-year-old and game for whatever action challenges get thrown his way. It’s also a pleasure to witness the return of Karen Allen, the heroine of the first film, 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, who’s as feisty and charming as ever. Allen’s presence heightens the nostalgia factor, and fans who are old enough to have first encountered Dr. Jones in theatres will likely welcome the new chapter as they would a cherished old friend.

The less good news is that David Koepp’s script, from a story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson, isn’t as consistently satisfying as the best episodes in the series, the original Raiders and Last Crusade. Crystal Skull is essentially a string of narrow escapes and chases, with nary a plot twist that isn’t entirely expected. It’s also the most Spielbergian of the series, with all the assets and deficits that implies, mixing in some new family dynamics and some close encounters of the alien kind. After more than 30 years of Spielberg tropes, that may seem like “old fedora” to a 2008 audience.

The first moments of Crystal Skull make clear it’s the ’50s, as a group of joyriding teens races an army convoy in the southwestern desert while Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” blasts on the soundtrack. The soldiers, it turns out, are actually disguised Russian agents who’ve taken our Indy hostage in their pursuit of a mystical object, led by the ruthless Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, doing her best Natasha Fatale impression). Professor Jones escapes, naturally, but not before riding a rocket and surviving an atomic bomb blast. And that’s just the opener.

Back on his home turf of Marshall College, Indy meets a leather-jacketed young man named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), who enlists his help in rescuing their mutual friend, Professor Oxley (John Hurt), who’s being held hostage in Peru and may hold the secret to the legendary, psychically powered Crystal Skull of Akator. Indy and Mutt’s journey leads to a reunion with Oxley, Spalko, and Indy’s long-ago love Marion Ravenwood (Allen), who happens to be Mutt’s mother. The discovery of the magical skull ultimately culminates in an otherworldly climax that all but begs for a cameo by E.T.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull careens from set-piece to set-piece, some stronger than others. The early sequence which finds Indy in a wholesome ’50s tract community populated by dummies about to be decimated by an A-bomb test makes an eerie rejoinder to the idealized suburban portraits of past Spielberg films, and the central jungle jeep chase involving all the principals is an action tour de force. The army of man-eating ants that swallows up one bad guy is also a memorable audience-pleaser. The climax showing the full power of the Crystal Skull, however, is so excessively CGI-driven, you never feel our heroes are in any real danger of not emerging safe and sound. All this might have cohered better if supporting characters like Blanchett’s Soviet menace or Ray Winstone’s money-hungry double agent had been given more than one note to play.

Still, Spielberg proves he still knows how to generate high-style thrills, and Ford affirms that he can yet deliver both a punch and a wry punchline. This will likely be the real last crusade, but never bet against a man and his bullwhip.