Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Cult-Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)


Although it remains a perennial source of ridicule and scorn for many disenchanted fans, the fourth, much-delayed installment in the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) franchise is, overall, a charming throwback to the other entries in the long-lived adventure series.

In fact, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull serves up  -- in almost identical proportions -- the same mix of dedicated swashbuckling and tongue-in-cheek adventure that made Raiders, Temple of Doom (1984) and The Last Crusade (1989) such pleasurable and memorable cinematic rides. 

Beyond carrying on established franchise tradition, however, this 2008 Indiana Jones adventure also bristles with originality because the filmmakers have moved from the 1930s (and the influence of 1930s movie serials) to the “new” atomic age of the 1950s.

This shift in creative background or “inspiration” permits for a fresh series of visual and thematic influences, and helps to foster a sense of surprise about many of the proceedings.  In short, this is the movie that takes Indiana Jones into the “new” era of 1950s adventure tropes, including flying saucers (or “saucer men”), Tarzan movies, rampaging army ants, and nuclear mushroom clouds.

I appreciate that this Indiana Jones movie takes place in that “new” space, and furthermore, has something positive to say about the process of growing old.  Old age doesn’t have to be about losing people and things…it can be about gaining “knowledge” of one’s self, and one’s family too.

Whatever misgivings I have about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I would not give up the chance to see Indiana Jones, twenty years later, and see what the adventurer has made of his life.


In 1957, a caravan of vehicles heads to Hangar 51, the predecessor to legendary Area 51. This caravan is made of up not of U.S. military men, but rather of Russian soldiers, and led by the diabolical Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). These foreign soldiers are on a quest for a specific artifact…one that could grant Stalin the power to control the minds of all Americans: a crystal skull.

To help them locate this artifact in the vast Hangar 51, the Russkies have captured archaeologist and war hero Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford).
In 1947, he was part of the team that investigated the UFO crash at Roswell, where the alien skull was first tagged, and Spalko believes he can locate the corpse.

After being betrayed by a colleague, Mac (Ray Winston), Indy escapes Russian custody in an experimental rocket sled, but ends up on the grounds of a nuclear bomb testing site.  Again, he barely escapes death when a test bomb is detonated.
Sometime later, Indy teams up with Mutt Williams (Shea LeBeouf) a young, rebellious man who reports that Indy’s old colleague, Harold Oxley (John Hurt) has disappeared somewhere in Peru.  On suspension at his college, Indy agrees to help the lad find “Ox.”
 Locating the missing archaeologist however, will not be easy, and the journey involves solving the riddle of the legend of the crystal skulls, and locating a lost city of gold called Akatar.
When Indy and Mutt are captured on this quest by Spalko, they find Oxley and also Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Mutt’s mother.
Indy realizes that Mutt is actually his son, but has little time to contemplate the revelation, for he must keep the secret of the Crystal Skulls and Akatar out of avaricious Soviet hands.

Okay…so why is there so much enduring, vehement, non-stop hate for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

In part, some fans don’t wish to welcome “aliens” into this particular movie universe. For those fans the inclusion of extra-terrestrials in an Indiana Jones film feels like a creative misstep, perhaps even desperation.  Is this an adventure franchise, or a sci-fi franchise? 

(The answer: it’s both.  Raiders of the Lost Ark opened up, just a crack, the idea of non-human intelligence in the notion of the Ark of the Covenant as a “radio transmitter” to beings not of this Earth.)

Others, it must be said, simply cannot get past Harrison Ford’s advanced age here, though many fans -- this one included --  will be lucky indeed to be in such good physical shape at age seventy. 

I still remember reading a series of posts at Ain’t It Cool in which sarcastic talk-bakers devised geriatric-sounding titles for the next Indiana Jones adventures.  The titles were funny, but the tone was disrespectful and unnecessarily harsh.  It’s strange, isn’t it, how fans can demand that William Shatner return to the role of James T. Kirk at his advanced age, while complaining when Harrison Ford gets the opportunity to play Indiana Jones one more time?

Even more fans tend to find Kingdom’s action scenes -- like the trademark “nuke the fridge” moment -- preposterous and even a bit campy.  (And this criticism fits in with a popular narrative about George Lucas “losing it” vis-à-vis his blockbuster movie-making instincts).

The real underlying issue with all those complaints, however, stems from just one problem. 

To put this bluntly: our pop culture had clearly moved on in 2008 in terms of what it demanded from films, vis-à-vis “realism.”

To wit,  in 1984, Indiana Jones jumped out of a plane on an inflatable rubber raft, survived the fall, raced down a snowy mountain, and then successfully navigated a waterfall…all without getting a scratch, or even losing his hat. 

The “nuke the fridge” moment in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is absolutely no more ludicrous than that inflatable raft scene in Temple of Doom.   Yet audience tastes have changed dramatically, and modern audiences don’t buy the “nuke the fridge” set-piece in the way that viewers in 1984 accepted the raft cliffhanger.  Nor do they buy “aliens” in an adventure film, or a geriatric hero defeating bad guys.  “Realism” is not served by these creative choices, and so these choices are, widely in some cases, derided.

To some extent, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s most serious genre competitor at the box office in the summer of 2008 bears out my theory. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight re-imagines Batman as a “realistic” superhero to an extent never seen before in film history.  In this vision, Gotham City is a real metropolis, not one created with CGI effects or matte paintings and the Batmobile is an experimental military vehicle, built in war-time. Even the sense of movie romance is gone: Batman doesn’t save the film’s damsel in-distress…she gets blown up!  This is another reflection of 21st century “realism.”  Gazing at the film objectively, it’s fair to state that virtually every imaginative and fantasy element has been shunted from the Batman format so as to make it feel “real” (and very unlike the “camp” 1960s TV series, or the Schumacher movie entries).

I’m not saying that this development is bad, per se, or that The Dark Knight’s interpretation of the Batman myth is invalid.  Rather, I’m pointing out that the great sweep of film history is away from theatricality and artifice and towards naturalism and realism.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is -- in broad terms -- a movie that achieves the same things in the same ways as the previous movies of the Indiana Jones cycle.   Yet this time -- and largely for the first time – some audiences weren’t with the filmmakers for the ride.  Movie-goers had moved on to a new and more “realistic” movie paradigm, the very paradigm expressed by The Dark Knight and in the new, grounded interpretation of James Bond we saw in Casino Royale (2006).

In short, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull arrived when old movie franchises were being re-booted and updated to appeal to modern sensibilities, and even at the same time that the horror film genre was moving in an identical direction: towards ever-more realism with found footage movies. 

But the creative approach of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull didn’t take any of this into account. The film is made in the exact same style as the earlier pictures, and with the same creative conceits in place.  Instead of being lauded for consistency, however, the film is despised for failing to “live up” to modern expectations.

When people complain that this fourth Indiana Jones film boasts the wrong tone or is somehow campy, they are both right and wrong in the assertion. 

Yes, the film is campier than The Dark Knight or Casino Royale, if by the term “campy” one means that the film knowingly “stretches” reality for purposes of fantasy and humor.  

But at the same time, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull carries on with the very approach that made Raiders of the Lost Ark so popular in its day.  It is canny and clever about how it deploys movie influences, and how it operates as a pastiche of those influences.

One way to gain a better appreciation of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and its relative value within the Indiana Jones franchise is to watch all four Indy films over a period of days.  In that regard, Crystal Skull hardly stands out as being of a lesser or even different quality.  In fact, it’s remarkably of a piece with the other three films. 

It’s just -- plainly -- not in step with the kind of films being made now.  I leave it up to you, individually, to judge which approach you prefer.  I’m not trying to champion one film or one approach over the other, only illuminate why Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not a betrayal of the Indian Jones series, only, perhaps, out-of-step with “modern” Hollywood filmmaking.

I will go out on this limb, however. Personally, I enjoy Kingdom of the Crystal Skull more than I do The Last Crusade (1989) because of the new and different 1950s context.  Spielberg and Lucas had already shown us the 1930s movie serials universe ably in the first trilogy and by the last film in the original cycle, I felt ready to move on.

Well, this film does move on, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull benefits from a whole universe of new influences.  Just as Raiders of the Lost Ark did, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull contains visual allusions to our communal past -- and to our beloved movie traditions and history -- in a very deliberate and specific way. In short, the movie pulls visual “quotations” from popular films of the 1950s, and weaves them into the narrative so that audiences realize they are seeing not a “real” story of 1957, but rather a story set in the universe of silver screen adventures from that span, or that decade.

The ants of The Naked Jungle (1954)
The ants of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
In brief, Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull features a deliberate homage to Charlton Heston’s The Naked Jungle (1954) in its march of man-eating ants. In the film's central premise, and in a cool bit of production design, one will detect resonances of Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957) and Earth versus the Flying Saucers (1956). 
The saucers of Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956).

The saucer of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Additionally, in Mutt's "juvenile delinquent" world, and Indy's reaction to it, there are traces of teen or “juvenile delinquent” films of the day such as Rebel without a Cause (1955), and motorcycle films like The Wild One (1953).

Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953)

Mutt Williams in Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Even the detonation of an atomic bomb and Indy's survival of a nuclear blast with no deleterious side-effects from fall-out also alludes, tongue in cheek-style to such "educational" films as 1952's Duck and Cover, which implored "You must learn to find shelter!" (like a refrigerator?) during a nuclear attack. Thus, one way to enjoy this film is simply as a time capsule of 1950s influences.  And again, one must note that the film is not meant to be “real” but a fantasy set in the world of Hollywood 1950s movies.
The “nuke the fridge” moment has been widely ridiculed by fans, and even become an Internet meme, but again, one must consider the world of 1950s film that Crystal Skull emulates.  Those movies were constantly -- as in the case of Duck and Cover -- undercutting the danger of atomic warfare.  In this “movie” universe, that blasé approach to nuclear attack and the dangers of fall-out represents reality, itself, and that fact helps to explain why Jones survives in the movie.  He is not defying the laws of science.  He survives according to (1950) movie laws of science.

Nuked Refrigerator
Despite all the criticism of the “nuke the fridge” sequence in the film, I find it powerful and worthwhile within the context of the Indiana Jones films.  In Raiders of the Lost Ark (1936) we saw man humbled before God’s wrath in the finale, and a kind of “storm of death” sweep away the remnants of Belloq and the Nazis. 
In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull we get a book-end visual: Indiana Jones facing a tempest of a different sort; a man made “storm of fire” in that nuclear mushroom. 

Man’s technology has reached a dangerous place in Jones’ life-time and now man is “playing God” with Earth and the environment.  In other words, Indiana Jones goes from living in a pre-nuclear world of relative innocence and “faith,” to the “apocalypse mentality,” technological world, post-Hiroshima.

The Age of God, and Indiana Jones is there.

The Age of Man, and Indiana Jones is there.

Man’s irresponsible use of the atom bomb is directly compared in the film with the power of the alien beings.  They created a city where their “treasure” is “knowledge.”  Yet mankind does not see “knowledge” as a treasure for its own sake.  Spalko seeks another weapon of mass destruction -- like the atom bomb -- that can bring the Western powers to their knees. Spalko (and by extension the Russians) see knowledge as the opportunity to create terror, not as an end itself.

Outside all the visual allusions to films of the 1950s, I appreciate that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t attempt to pretend that no time has passed. 

This Indiana Jones is a very different man than the one we last met in 1938.  He has lost his father and Brody, and he broods that he’s gotten to the point where life doesn’t give him things.  It only “takes them away.” 

Then, throughout the course of the film, Indy’s observation is proven determinedly wrong-headed as life gives him a wife…and a son.  Those things he thought were lost forever are not lost at all, but within his grasp.  The film acknowledges the melancholy nature of growing older.  You know more than you once did, and are perhaps wiser, but your channels of opportunity are also narrower.  Here, Jones swings across that chasm, and finds a happy ending.  Who wouldn’t want that for him, and what’s so wrong with him finding that happiness?  Not dark and angsty enough?


When I watched this film again recently, I came to the (surprising...) conclusion that Crystal Skull features the same weaknesses and the same strengths as other series entries. If you liked those films, there's no particularly compelling reason not to like this one too. All the Indiana Jones films are essentially non-stop roller coaster rides and pastiches that hop with cinematic dexterity from jaunty dialogue scenes to exaggerated, over-the-top action sequences.

That pretty much describes Kingdom of the Crystal Skull too.

You know, I've even heard people complain about the two-dimensional nature of the Russian villains in this film. 

Like the Nazis were really handled with three-dimensional maturity in Raiders and Last Crusade?  They, like the Russians here, are treated in Hollywood fashion as pure movie villains.

No...it seems clear that Lucas and Spielberg aren't in the realism business here.  Instead, they're playing the same stellar game they did in 1981, 1984 and 1989.  They’re creating an adventure within the context of a beloved movie past (in this case the cinema of the 1950s), and they’re doing it with a sense of robust, larger-than-life style.

In other words, sometimes, they do make 'em like they used to.

But some of us can’t appreciate this fact, because the new productions don’t have the warm glow of nostalgia upon them. 

17 comments:

  1. John,

    One of the things I respect most about you, and by extension this website, is your unbridled love for movies. My unbridled love for movies has taken a few hits after a couple of decades of endless sequels and reboots (though some reboots have been worth it such as Nolan's Batman and Casino Royale) and overwrought plots and way too much reliance on CGI (which just doesn't look good in most cases). Reading your excellent blog has helped me remember what I love about movies. And I appreciate and respect your epic defense of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

    This movie does get a lot of hate and I agree with you that most of it is unjustified, but it does have problems and the problems I have with the movie are not the problems that I think you (correctly) describe the internet posters have with the film.

    (Though I will say that I think that the "nuke the fridge" meme is hilarious but when I saw the movie it wasn't enough to ruin the movie for me).

    The problem with the movie is it's over reliance of CGI to stage completely fake looking and ill-conceived action scenes. The movie started out strong I thought with a good action scene in Hanger 51 and then later with a great motorcycle chance around Indy's school with Mutt. These were strong action scenes with very good practical effects.

    But the jungle chase scene is a complete embarrassment and it's so bad that it makes the movie completely unwatchable for me. (I rather just pop in Raiders or Last Crusade.) From Mutt swinging through the jungle on vines with a bunch of monkeys to his sword fight with the Russian Babe while straddling two jeeps, the entire jungle scene just looks horrible. And this is in the movie franchise that advanced, in many ways, practical effect based action scenes (EXCEPT for Temple of Doom, which I'll come back to in a moment). This is from the guys who made Raiders and Star Wars? This is from the team that made many of the greatest action scenes ever in movie history?

    The Raiders of the Lost Ark truck chase is still considered one of the best action scenes ever filmed. The tank chase/battle in Last Crusade is also amazing. And both of those movies are filled with other exciting action scenes that are filled with practical effects that have stood the test of time. The Raiders series is known for having an excellent protagonist, fun adventures and amazing stunt work.

    Now, of course, Temple of Doom also has some amazing action scenes but also has 2 major missteps. When I saw the movie in the theater during its original run everyone in the audience either laughed out loud (derisively) or booed during the raft falling out of the plane scene. In my experience, nobody ever liked that scene. (Anecdotal evidence I know). So in my humble opinion, everyone did think that was a ludicrous scene, we just didn’t have the internet to amplify that opinion. And don't get me started on that very silly mine car roller coaster ride at the end of The Temple of Doom. And that is why (in my humble opinion) that Temple of Doom was considered the weakest of the Indy movies (until Crystal Skull that is).

    So, I don't think Crystal Skull is hated (and for the record, I don't hate the movie, but I'm disappointed with it and rather watch something else) necessarily because of changes in pop culture or our sensibilities. I think the movie is hated because of it's over reliance on CGI in horribly thought out and ill-conceived action scenes that just end up looking hideous (or worse, stupid). It wasn't the aliens, it wasn't that Harrison Ford is old, it wasn't the Russians and it certainly wasn't the nuclear blast proof Frigidaire that mares this movie. It was fake, silly, stupid stuff like swinging from vine to vine like Spiderman/Tarzan. It's really hard to take a movie seriously (even one that is supposed to be a fun adventure) when throws stuff like that at you.

    Best regards,

    Bruce

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    1. Hi Bruce,

      Thank you for your comment. I'm sorry it has taken me a while to start responding, but I am STILL fighting a cold I picked up earlier in the week, and I am zonked on Mucinex!

      Your commentary is interesting because you invert (cleverly!) my argument. I note that the nuke the fridge moment is no more over the top than the raft moment in Temple, and you say -- heck -- they were both over the top. That is a valid viewpoint, I think, and a good rhetorical device for debate, as well. Crafty!

      I also can't argue with your sense that the truck chase in Raiders is one of the finest action sequences ever filmed -- bar none -- and that the over-reliance on CGI renders the jungle chase in Crystal Kingdom isn't even in the same league. I do agree there.

      So I think we don't see the movie too differently, in many ways, but the CGI wasn't a deal breaker for me (it's become so de rigeuer lately in movies that if I complain about it, I'm complaining all the time). I don't know that Crystal Skull should be singled out for having worse CGI than other movies, because, I agree, it still tends to ALL look phoney.

      All my best,
      John

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  2. Another spot on review. I couldn't understand the hostile reaction to this film, except that perhaps people who saw the first three films in their youth were disappointed that the new one could not give them the same tingle of excitement now that they were jaded adults. I really enjoyed moving past the 30s cliches and diving into the 50s cliches with equal gusty. I think aliens are far more believable than a centuries old knight sitting in a cave with the grail and no toilet in sight.

    I'm not entirely sold on your "realism" argument since most action movies I see today, while they are buried in the mire of grimness, still offer action sequences that are equally implausible thanks to the physics breaking magic of CGI. In fact, that was my one complain about Kingdom: the heavy use of CGI not available for the earlier films. I think the action sequences in the earlier films, while over the top, still had a veneer of realism because they still had to be recreated with real stunt men or models or camera trickery. A stunt man really had to climb all over that truck in Raiders. Shia LaBeouf could sword fight on the back of a jeep, but he was clearly working in a studio in front of a green screen. There's nothing to marvel at except for the skill of the animator and his powerful computer.

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    1. Hi Neal P,

      Thank you! I feel that the response was out of proportion to the film's actual qualities, and that the lack of nostalgia plays a role. This is a new chapter in a beloved franchise, and it doesn't have the romantic sheen that memory can pull over a movie.

      My argument about realism is more about tone than effects, if that makes sense. W hat you sense as a "mire of grimness." But no, the action sequences, with CGI, are not more realistic. There's just a shut-down of fantasy and humor elements so as to make those moments seem more plausable I think.

      This is the second comment to note the bad CGI, and I must confess, that is an area I didn't give too much attention to in the review, and maybe should have. In other words, there are some critics of the film who are taken out of the "experience" by the nature of the effects. That's a valid point, (and not the kind of nuke-the-fridge-Indy-is-too-old complaints) I've gotten tired of reading..

      Well said!

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  3. Hi JKM;

    Really enjoyed your Indiana Jones recap and actually agree with you on this movie; very underrated and I'd actually list the Yale scenes with Mutt as right up there with the best character/action scenes in the series, and thought the swordfight scene was classic and perfectly in keeping with the series' tone. I put Kingdom ahead of Temple and behind Crusade in my overall sequencing. Which brings me to a small critique: you're vehement about the inconsistency of how characters behave in Raiders and then in Crusade; I would submit that the fridge scene and the raft scene in Temple are deal-breakers in the same way - they ignore and in fact spit directly on one of the key elements that made Raiders so great - a sort of realism applied to a movie-serial aesthetic. When Indie gets punched, he bleeds; he seems, at times, exhausted, battered, even beaten. Never during Raiders do any of his exploits seem inconceivable (the sub-clinging only seems unlikely upon consideration); I submit that if a fan says "oh, come on" to one of Indy's escapes then the film is cheating, it's letting its audience down for no good reason. Crusade does not commit this sin.

    I'm still hoping for Indy VI!

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    1. Hi DLR:

      Great comment. I also would hope for another Indy movie, for certain. It will be interesting to see what approach is taken. I think the series probably should re-ground, a la Raiders....and aim for a more serious veneer.

      You make a strong point, like Bruce, about the raft and the nuked fridge, saying both are out of step with the "bleeding Indy" approach we saw in Raiders. It's funny to think about because movie history could have been different: the raft scene, I understand, was actually in the original screenplay for Raiders, but was cut out! It was later resurrected for Temple.

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  4. It's good to read a positive write-up on this film given the hate it gets, but I'd say that only about 80% of the film is succesful as an 'Indiana Jones' movie. There are a few key sequences where the criticisms are valid, because they cheapen the integrity of the film world.

    I love the 50's setting - the Russian threat and alien treasure are all appropriate to that timeframe, and for the most part the film provides some real thrills (chief amongst them being the campus chase scene, a brilliant piece of filmmaking). However it's a film I can't get into, despite my best attempts, because of the moments that stretch my suspension of disbelief too far - the fridge scene at the start is too much to swallow, plain and simple, and that gets me off on the wrong foot in terms of how I engage with the rest of it. After that I enjoy the film as much as I can, but then it comes to the quicksand scene. I get it, Jones is scared of snakes and has to overcome his fear of commitment to reach out to his family and survive, but it's painful to watch. The Tarzan scene is nothing but campy superheroics, which are desperately out of place in the franchise - I understand your point about the 50's context, but this particular scene is ill-judged and ruins the excitement of the overall chase. At the end, just as I'm back into it, Jones says "I have a bad feeling about this", which takes me out of the world again due to it making me think of a completely different franchise. That line reminds me who has made the film, and that the line was delivered by Harrison Ford, not Indiana Jones. At that point why do I care? I may as well just watch the credits.

    The thing is, storywise the film is good. I like what it does with Indy's character. And the graveyard sequence, the chase through Akatar, the fire ants are all high points in the Indy mythos, as is the addition of Mac, who brings a new dynamic to the franchise. And it looks gorgeous. But unlike any of the other three films, I can't just put it on and get swept away for two hours, and that's a pretty big failing with any film.

    Sorry to ramble. Thanks again for the great read!

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  5. John very interesting review of this good Indy film. I was immediately won over by finally seeing Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) back. Like the Bond films, more should be made.

    SGB

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  6. 1

    "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is -- in broad terms -- a movie that achieves the same things in the same ways as the previous movies of the Indiana Jones cycle."

    True, though I think the "broad terms" of it should be emphasized. Raiders is the most irreverent and energetic while Temple of Doom proves its edge as the ghastliest and most insane. Last Crusade stakes itself in character and paternal values and, in that sense, is the most emotionally-dramatically rewarding. The 4th entry in question is none of these things. So, there it is. As a fan of the series, you can either dismiss the film on those grounds or move forward and engage it for its own merits. Of the four installments, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is:

    1. the most cerebral and downright weirdest.

    2. the most coolly reflective of its titular hero’s life.

    Altogether, I might even argue that this film is the most thematically interesting; at the very least, it champions the most thematically clever opening sequence. Within the first 15 minutes conceptual imagery abounds to such a degree that prefaces the remaining story with clear definition, but without spoiling the viewer’s interpretation. Off-camera during the opening credits, Indy remains unseen until we reach the Hangar 51 base, which is revealed to be the warehouse from Raiders. This connection with the first film achieves far more than mere fan service; it displays the brilliance of Lucas’pop-myth alchemy. Indy now seen exploring a place of 20th century American folklore doubles as the first of two "kingdoms", wherein lies hoarded treasures, and as a place rooted in the legend of his own life (i.e. the Ark of the Covenant). As such, the familiarity of the warehouse is analogous of Indy himself as a leftover from a past era, thereby allowing the film to segue from the previous three adventures to its current 1957 timeframe.

    Spielberg even visualizes this transition with the rocket-car sequence, which figuratively acts as a time machine that propels Indy into the future; notice that from this point he stumbles into an idyllic 1950s neighborhood setting appearing roughed-up, disheveled, confused and, above all, out of place. Indy is now an anachronism. This marks what is by far the most eerily surrealistic moment throughout the whole franchise: Indy -- still uniformly brown in his 1930s attire and typically at-home exploring exotic temples of the past -- now ironically lost amidst this strange modernity of suburban America; a world of pastel primaries and fake people frozen in both time and a bizarre state of happiness. After bursting into a house lifelessly inhabited by the then propagandized "nuclear family", Indy’s immediate reaction is to step away in bewilderment, for the very concept is new to him, something of which he has never been a part. Yet, by film’s end, he will have amassed a family of his own, albeit in a rather motley crew form. Aforesaid anachronism apexes with a series seminal image of Indy dwarfed by the mushroom cloud of a (not-so) distant atomic blast. It’s an image that speaks volumes.

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  7. 2

    Okay, so, all this film analysis mumbo-jumbo does not a good movie make, one might say. Well, in my opinion, Crystal Skull is something else as well: goddamn fun. Indy, in the grasp of Soviet infiltrators, trailing air born, magnetized gunpowder through a warehouse of secret wonders towards some alien artifact is but one of many venues throughout the film that perfectly channels the flights of fancy daydreamed by 12-yearolds of the 50s, those cultured in sci-fi matinee and popular sci-fi magazines of the time such as 'Astounding' and 'Galaxy'. Upon my first viewing of the film, during the scene where Indy realizes the full horror of his Doom Town predicament at the sound of an air-raid siren before scrambling like a madman back through the Cleaver’s household, I distinctly remember thinking to myself, "Are they really gonna do this?!" but not in a bad or cynical manner. Not at all. Curmudgeons can scoff away at the physics of it all they like, but nothing from, say, the dreary Dark Knight films or Man of Steel left me with a whippet-like high as did Indy’s last-ditch A-bomb escape inside a lead lined refrigerator.

    It was moment of genuine surprise that had me laughing giddily at both the sheer invention of it and the embrace of the absurd, not unlike giant boulders, air-rafts, mine-cart jumps or flaming fuselage blazing through a car tunnel. A later sequence featuring a malt shop brawl and motorcycle chase nicely counterbalances such mayhem with the filmmakers’ enduring love for humbler, old-timey romps. Either way, Spielberg’s prowess as an action director hold true, as does his passion for set piece contraptions displayed on a view-master scale. No lousy shaky-cam or fragment close-ups here. Physical stunts are allowed the full range of their trajectories and framed with master shot clarity, like when Indy leaps from a speeding vehicle before it collides with another or swings down on a chain and drop kicks Colonel Dovchenko through a control room window. Elsewhere, accelerated Technocrane tracking and agile editing enlivens a saber duel between Mutt and Spalko with a blurring sensation yet, again, without obfuscating the actual swordplay ...despite the sequence’s added goofy digital artifice.

    The middle act of the film does grow comparatively sleepy, but I find this apropos considering its upgraded influences, splicing together 30s Republic Serials with 50s B-movies. Crystal Skull indeed waivers a bit of the pulp supercharge of its predecessors for a notably spookier atmosphere and leisurely paced sci-fi narrative akin to It Came from Outer Space and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But it’s also through these sections of the film where a sense of mystery and fascination with its storied ideas take precedence. I appreciate the scenes with Indy and Mutt deciphering clues left by Oxley or rummaging through a crypt of conquistador mummies. There are no dramatic reveals here, as when Indy lasers the Well of Souls inside the map room or lustfully palms glowing Sankara stones from a Kali shrine; rather, the crystal skull is deceptively muted and regarded by its two finders with utter perplexity, in that its true nature is beyond any historical or academic comprehension–again, a weirded science fiction tone in place of 'fortune and glory'. The following segment of Spalko’s psychic interrogation really takes this genre conceit to its core, referencing implications of Oppenheimer, notions of multi-generational alien visitors and illustrating in full the Red Scare paranoia of Communist assimilation through mind control.

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  8. 3

    A lot of criticisms have been laid into the film’s third-act shenanigans, such as Mutt swinging on vines or Marion driving onto rubber trees and whatnot. I suppose it’s a question of one’s attitude going into it, and you make good points on how the film’s whimsical nature is decidedly lame by the current pop-culture zeitgeist; not even able to earn free pass acceptance as the Star Trek reboots and The Avengers franchise have done using TV-ish melodrama platitudes and hipster snark. I will say that, overall, I enjoy the jungle chase for its brightly colored, comic-strip effervescence. Rendered with bits of CGI elasticity and playing just as much from Mutt’s perspective as a cheery family adventure with "Mom and Dad" robs the sequence of that certain gutsiness seen in Raiders, but, it is what it is. I particularly dig the FX detail of the killer ants attack and the way Indy counts, "Three"... with comical dread during the triple waterfall gag, the latter of which seems most apparently the result of the filmmakers’ arguably sillier disposition going into this fourth installment. Let’s talk about that for a moment...

    Crystal Skull is perhaps Indiana Jones at his most self-aware. He’s still a badass in the thick of it but also seems more nonchalant than ever in the face of his enemies, with his demeanor of iconoclastic contempt from Raiders now mellowed out with age. This no doubt clashed with nostalgic fandom that desired the rogue Indy of those earlier films. Oh well. I for one find greater reward with the more organic approach taken by Spielberg, Lucas and Ford; the three of them collectively seizing the character/series to express through cinematic gesture their 'fine wine' sentiments on life in general. Forcing a 60-some-yearold Indy to behave the way he did 30 years prior would be far flimsier than any measure of nuked fridge implausibility. This time around he repeatedly shrugs off Spalko’s sinister threats and declarations of mystical power with a crooked smile and a shake of the head, all but mocking her.

    This is what an AARP Indy would do–an Indy who, by this point, has survived one too many super-villains and diabolical schemes to be all that affected by the next evildoer in line, not that he ever showed much reverence towards past arch nemeses to begin with. There’re also his interactions with Mutt, whom he humorously and hypocritically scolds for brash heroics ("Somebody’s gonna get hurt!" he yells aback a speeding motorbike), and whereupon he dishes bits of practical wisdom about life-choices, poisonous scorpions etc. Their dynamic is distinctly different from the father-son relationship in Last Crusade, being less about conflicts of estrangement and more about two ends of the same rebellious lifestyle butting heads while also sharing in the camaraderie.

    Another major complaint is that Indy’s pursuit for the crystal skull proves inconsequential, in that the Russians eventually score the MacGuffin regardless and make their way to the source of its power. Yet, this rap fails to recognize that basically the same thing happens in both Raiders and Last Crusade. This is important to consider. Indiana Jones is not Superman, or even 007. Heroism brings him to the rescue of friends and family (a village’s worth of slave children, at most) and is likewise the result of internal moral choices, but he never "saves the day", so to speak. He never saves the world or mankind from annihilation. Such was never really the idea behind the character, and certainly never the appeal. To this extent, Indy is just another adventurer along for the ride whose ultimate storytelling purpose is not to thwart the villains, per se, but to understand and in turn respect the greater forces to which the villains succumb by their own arrogance. Indy and Spalko both seek to return the crystal skull to Akator, but each for different reasons, as you pointed out.

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  9. 4

    I honestly do love the film’s final act. Many may laugh, but there is some intellectual substance to it, or at least geeky food for thought. Resonant is the idea that Indy’s lifelong archeological quest is shared by travelers from another dimension; that these travelers themselves exist multi-dimensionally as one; that a spellbound Splako, with her collectivist agenda, observes this state of existence as a "hive mind". The climactic moment where Indy, alone (the rest of the gang running for cover), witnesses the saucer’s departure mirror-opposites the image of him standing before an A-bomb mushroom cloud, and thus exalts him as a 'man of the century'–as someone who has lived the extraordinary. That’s part of what makes Indiana Jones so cool.

    I’m all for Crystal Skull. I enjoy Ford’s regained enthusiasm (which had been absent for years up until that point) and Cate Blanchett’s commitment in playing her role as an exotic caricature but without any hint of camp or parody. I enjoy Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, which honors in basic principle the style Douglas Slocombe brought to the first three films whilst distinguishing this one with a boosted veneer and more radiant lighting scheme appropriate for its time and setting. And I enjoy how John Williams incorporated various musical motifs ranging from Golden Age pirate-swashbuckling for Mutt to femme fatale noir for Splako and the central luminous theme for all the weird alien shit. Hell, I even adore how the opening Paramount Logo fades into a dirt mound -- a mountain out of a molehill -- for its intended jokey response to impossible fan expectations: "Okay, everybody, this ain’t the Second Coming. It’s just a movie. Have fun with it."


    Post Script

    I totally get the criticisms in how this movie makes evermore challenging suspensions of disbelief. But I think some perspective is needed here. When Spielberg was conceiving booby trapped temples with giant boulders, Indy straddling a two-story collapsing statue and all the stunt-work around a desert truck chase, I doubt he was doing so with any intent to establish some X-amount of implausibility as the standard never to be exceeded. At the time, he was probably going as far as the filmmaking technology and his own filmmaking experience could take him. I imagine that he, Lucas and Co. looked at these set pieces in advance and more innocently concluded, "This is crazy. Let’s do it!" and that such was the attitude with each following installment: "Air-rafts? Mine-cart jumps? Crazy. Let’s do it!" ..."Henry Sr. destroying a fighter plane with seagulls? Indy exploding a tank gun by stuffing a rock into it? Crazy. Let’s do it!”

    This bubble was simply and consistently pushed that much further with Crystal Skull.

    Now, this doesn’t nullify the fact that many fans assumed a different view regardless. All I’m suggesting is that the rules of realism broken by nuking the fridge or Mutt swinging like Tarzan were likely only those projected onto the series by audiences, and that the filmmakers themselves simply never cared. If you can make your peace with that, great. If not, I can at least understand why. Myself? I just never had a problem with it.


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  10. I find the fact people would comment on his age as a bad thing staggered me. I've seen people say Han Solo can't come back because he'd be old, nor can Indy. I think the age factor is actually a decent reason for a sequel. If you don't want to retread, age can give you a reason to form a story and drama.
    My issue with Skull, as I will unaffectionately call it, is it fails on this point, despite setting up a new era beyond Indy's, Indy is utilized in very much the same way. The notion you can't have an action movie with an older, less agile and more vulnerable hero is beyond ludicrous - the very nature of an action movie is feeling one man at odds, one older man at odds would have been a very interesting take. Yet all we get is Indy being the same guy and bar two comments about age and a mis-swing on his whip, its more of the same. I think people find it harder to "buy" Skull because they Indy has lost the vulnerability that was present in his young tough character and to audiences he just looked a bit odd.
    The next mistake was his son. I could understand his utilization on the basis of having an older less able Indy, but Indy does the same as always, leaping between cars, fistfights, acts of crazy proportions, so the son becomes irrelevant.
    Shocked as I am, the next mistake is Marion. I don't know what happened, but the chemistry between these two actors, or the difficulties in the script just lead to some awkward scenes. I don't mind the marriage, I just found myself stunned at how stilted their scenes were.
    I can deal with the rest of the film. I can overlook cgi animals, I can overlook some very odd fight-in-the-jungle-scenes that verged on video game. I wholeheartedly agree the move to the 50s and the different genre was a smart one too. I think Aliens are fine in Indy. We have God, we have gods and we even have vampires thanks to the Young Indy canon, but what I think we lost was essential nuances, to believe in Indy, to feel the bond in his romantic lead and ultimately, a smaller cast to allow the main ones to breathe. Without those core dramatic strength all you're left with is the memories of the silliness. I don't think its a terrible film, but I don't think Temple of Doom was high on the smarts stakes (I challenge anyone who finds the nuclear bomb absurd, explain to me how a toppled water tower creates pressure through a riddle of tunnels that literally forces out rock on the side of the mountain), but Short Round, Indy and Kapshaw had the dynamics needed for viewers to see beyond the silly and enjoy the protagonist's ride.

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  11. In your review of "Last Crusade" I mentioned how that was a "family friendly" feature and that familial themes ran through the piece. Reading your review of Crystal Skull and thinking about its "new family" conclusion, its lead me to believe that viewing this movie with others is important. After all, many of the flaws of Last Crusade that you listed had never occurred to me, likely because of some many fond memories of watching it repeatedly with my family.

    I initially saw "Crystal Skull" when I was still fresh at college. A bunch of my friends went to the theater early on a Saturday morning to beat the crowds, had the place practically to ourselves, took the long walk home and fired up some burgers on the grill for lunch. A good time had by all. Seeing it again on DVD removed from that experience, the film doesn't seem to make much of an impact. Granted, since I don't have many memories of growing up with it like the previous films so I'll admit there may be a bit of bias.

    Like yourself, I didn't have a problem with the nuked fridge and often cited the falling raft from Temple of Doom as an example of how the franchise plays fast and lose with physics. If anything, I'd say that scene had some of the best visuals in the movie. I got Twilight Zone chills when Indy was running through the abandoned model home and Indy's silhouette against the mushroom cloud is a very potent image.

    You've hit a vein when you say that Crystal Skull is in vast contrast with it cinematic neighbors of the time. This Indy was about peaceful resignation (again another "family" theme) while James Bond and Batman were offering rejuvenation.

    This isn't something I can see myself revisiting or enjoying as much as the previous Indy films, but I'm kind of glad that its around just to keep that spirit of adventure alive.

    Plus now that John Hurt is now part of the Doctor Who canon, we can weld Indy in as well and that the Crystal Skull was a weapon used by The War Doctor!

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  12. I was looking forward to your review of this often maligned film. You took the direction I expected, but you pointed out some elements that I hadn't noticed before. That's one of the reasons I love reading your blog, I always get a different or deeper perspective on things.

    For me, "Crystal Skull" is a real mixed bag. I love parts of it, I'm terribly annoyed by other parts, and the final mix just never quite works. I feel like I need to give it another chance, maybe in a marathon viewing session. I've seen it twice. I disliked it the first time. I warmed up a bit the second time.

    One thing that was great was Williams' score. He brings back the Indy theme (of course), but he creates some wonderful new themes for Mutt, the Russians and the mystery of the Crystal Skulls. This score is almost as varied as "Temple of Doom" and has a bit more energy and fun to it than "Last Crusade". The Jungle Chase is an excellent action track. Williams just stepped right back into the franchise and knocked it out of the park (just as he did with the Star Wars prequels).

    And that brings me to my main issue. I'm thinking its that "warm glow of nostalgia" that is missing, but "Crystal Skull" feels a lot like the Star Wars prequels in style and execution. There's a lot of great ideas in these films, but time and again things go in a direction that doesn't click for me. "Crystal Skull" feels a lot like "Doom" in that way.

    One of my biggest issues is Mutt. I like the concept of the character, even his story arc and how he fits in thematically. But I think the casting was way off. I never believe that LeBeouf is a delinquent, or a tough guy, or anything but an actor attempting to be those things. And I think he's a solid actor most of the time, but here he just never works for me.

    And I admit the infamous fridge moment really got to me the first viewing. But after seeing another reviewer compare it to the raft plummet in "Doom", it is less of an issue. I've never been a fan of that raft moment either, but at least it is consistent in the series.

    I like the fifties setting. I like that they had an noticeably older Indy and played with the idea. I dig the Russian villains, the aliens, even the crystal skull idea. I think some portions of the film were great fun, especially the tomb sequence half way through. But for each moment of classic Indy fun, there were moments that just seemed too silly (Tarzan swinging and crotch smashing - really?) or smirky (the visual rip-off... sorry, nod to "The Wild One") to pull me out of the whole thing. Again, reminding me strongly of the same issues I had with the prequels.

    And yes the older films had some similar issues, but the concentration never seemed so high. Again, maybe I'm just getting old and crotchety like Indy himself. I'm willing to give the flick another try. I am interested if all the complaining about this film comes from us older crotchety fans, and if younger folks have no problem with these things. If that is the case, I think your theory on "the warm glow of nostalgia" may be right on the money.

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  13. A great review as always, but I would quibble with your assumption of the audience's acceptance of the raft scene in Temple of Doom. I remember a huge collective groan (and one from my younger self) when seeing it in theater back in '84. But I imagine that was the intended reaction anyway... Personally, I find the refrigerator bit to be less cartoony, possibly because Dr. Jones doesn't have passengers along with him.

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  14. This review shows why (even when I don't always agree with you) I love you as a reviewer and as a blogger. Keep on going, John.

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