"Oh my god...you are batshit crazy, Alcott! This movie didn't bother you?! I won't say it sucked--it's too competent for that, and the combination of Spielberg, Harrison Ford, a fedora, a whip, and John Williams' music will never fail to put at least a semi-smile on my face--but I dare you to find one genuine emotion in that movie. Or a single moment that had any gravity whatsoever. Even Last Crusade, which this is probably the closest to, tonally, had real chemistry between the characters, who would actually get sad or angry or upset or hurt or worried about each other from time to time. What the hell did the protagonist want, dude?!"
Leaving aside, for the moment, questions of my insanity, let's start with Mr. Publick's last question. What does Indiana Jones want in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?
He is born into the world of the movie from a car trunk, kidnapped by Russians led by Irina Spalko, and forced into helping them uncover an artifact from "Hangar 51." We are told that he was found "digging in the dirt" in Mexico -- that is, working as an archaeologist, gathering artifacts to put in a museum.
(What is Mac doing in the trunk? Is he also an archaeologist? What were they doing in Mexico together? It's unclear. What is clear is that Mac is a reflection of Indy -- Indy searches for artifacts to put them in museums, Mac searches for treasure to enrich himself. Indy is an academic -- "a teacher", as Mutt says, with varying degrees of credulity.)
Indy helps Spalko find the box she's looking for -- partly because she's forcing him to, partly because he is also curious about what's in the box. We are told that he participated in the retrieval of the thing in the box from "ten years ago," and yet he knows little more about it than Spalko does. Spalko seeks the artifact for its power, but Indy simply wants "to know."
Once he "knows" what's in the box, his intent becomes "to put it back where it belongs." This is a marked change for Indiana Jones, who up until now was content to trash temples, grab the idol, and put it in a museum (or hand it over to a gangster, as he does at the beginning of Temple of Doom). "To put it back where it belongs," which we can shorten to "to set things right" for our purposes, is Indy's motivation throughout Kingdom.
He seeks knowledge of the thing in the box (which is mummified remains) and soon finds himself confronted with the ultimate product of the 20th-century's thirst for knowledge -- the atomic bomb. (Later in the movie, Spalko quotes Oppenheimer quoting Shiva, but Spielberg surely remembers that Oppenheimer's [or somebody's] first words upon seeing the explosion of the atomic bomb was "Science has now known sin.") This all seems thrilling and chaotic in the context of a first viewing, but the pursuit of knowledge, and the danger of that pursuit, is the theme that ties together all the plot lines of Kingdom. (Hence the emphasis on Indy being a "teacher.")
After witnessing the terrible destructive power of the atomic bomb, the next thing that happens to Indy is he finds himself being interrogated by a couple of g-men about the thing in the box. (In a rare non-Spielberg reference, the scene directly recalls the interrogation of Richard Kimble in The Fugitive.) Indy, who fought the Nazis not once but twice to keep them from taking over the world, now finds his patriotism being questioned by a couple of Men in Black. The man who is pulled out of a car trunk after a 19-year absence finds himself in a world very different from the one he left at the end of Last Crusade. Things he once knew to be true are now called into question by the reigning authorities. The "intelligence" men, we would say, have acquired too much knowledge -- their wealth of knowledge has blinded them to what anyone could plainly see.
(Indy being rescued from his interrogation by "General Ross" hard upon surviving an atomic blast is another question -- what is Bruce Banner's antagonist doing in this movie?)
The "intelligence" men are so far gone in their pursuit of knowledge that they ransack Indy's office at his university (which I guess is Yale), force him out of his job and even force his boss out of his job. So the "intelligence" men, in their pursuit of knowledge, trash the traditional pinnacle of knowledge, the university. The American intelligence men are aided in their quest by Russian intelligence men, the "good guys" in unintended league with the "bad guys" against our protagonist.
(The corollary to "knowledge" in Kingdom is "experience." The intelligence men may "know" things, but Indy's "experience" proves things -- General Ross says as much to the g-men. Pure knowledge, the movie suggests, is destructive, while knowledge combined with experience can be a useful tool for achieving things -- like solving a puzzle, finding a lost friend or escaping a trap. The atomic bomb is a perfect example of knowledge minus experience.)
Enter Mutt. Mutt has lost his beloved Oxley (which, well, let's just accept for now that Oxley is important to Mutt -- we are told this rather than shown it, but let's go with it for now). Indy has his own emotional attachment to Oxley (which we will understand later) and agrees to help Mutt -- if he can keep them one step ahead of the Russians, who are after Indy for reasons that will eventually become clear.
(The "knowledge vs. experience" theme is underlined during the motorcycle chase scene, where Indy advises a student that a real archaeologist knows that he has to "get out of the library." This would come as a surprise to the younger Indy, who advised his students the exact opposite.)
Mutt has a coded note from Oxley which Indy decodes after a furrowing of his brow and the two of them head off to Peru in search of Oxley.
Now then: who is Mutt? Mutt is, of course, another reflection of Indy. We could say that he has neither Indy's knowledge nor his experience, but he does have his determination, his recklessness, his will. (There's a nice moment during the motorcycle chase where Mutt grins about some stunt he's just pulled and Indy frowns disapprovingly, an exact echo of a similar moment between Indy and his father in Last Crusade. This is how we know Mutt is Indy's son before Indy does.) Mutt feels things too much, does things on impulse, in general lacks direction -- lacks a father, one could say. It would seem that Oxley is a sort of father figure to Mutt, and nothing excites Spielberg's emotions more than a child separated from his father.
(Now that Spielberg is a father himself many times over, his movies, which were once full of father's abandoning their families, are now full of older, wiser fathers returning to their families, and Kingdom, we shall see, is not only a worthy addition to this new tradition, but a specific repudiation of Spielberg Past -- but don't let me get ahead of myself.)
Mr. Publick finds a lack of "genuine emotion" in the movie, but I find the opposite -- Indy gets put through more emotional changes more quickly than in any of the other movies. First he's tired and pissed at the Russians, then he's angry at Mac for betraying him, then he's terrified and awed by the atomic blast, then he's suspicious and angry at the g-men, then he's quickly hurt and then forgiving to his boss at the university, then he's concerned about Oxley, all in the first act. Maybe that's the problem -- if the movie doesn't stop and underline the changes, the sheer number of them starts to feel like glibness or superficiality.
Anyway, unless I'm mistaken, everything from Hangar 51 to Indy's departure for Peru with Mutt constitutes the first of four acts, which makes this a good place to stop for now. We could say that Act I is: Indy, thrust into a world he cannot recognize, where the use of knowledge has been perverted to cast doubt on experience, is given an opportunity to find another lost academic and seizes it.