Thursday, March 17, 2016

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


In light of this week's announcement regarding a new Indiana Jones film coming in 2019 -- and the resurrection of snarky criticisms about the 2008 entry in the saga, I thought it would be an ideal time to re-post this review.

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” regarding 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. 

4 comments:

  1. I liked your point about the change in audience mood from the 1980s to 2008. When Raiders came out, we had firmly turned our back on the gritty '70s action of Shaft, The French Connection, and Sorcerer. We wanted escapist fun like Star Wars and Raiders fit perfectly in that mold. Now we're in this odd middle ground where we want fantasy characters and situations, but everything is laden with grim emotions and stark violence. Rollicking adventure is out of style.

    I could never quite put my finger on why I didn't like Crystal Skulls. They did everything I expected them to do, such as use '50s movie references and a Cold War backdrop. Somehow, it just didn't come together the way I expected.

    My biggest complaint was the heavy use of CGI. The main selling point for Raiders at the time was the amazing stuntwork employed. This was no longer necessary, so we end up with Shia LeBeouf swordfighting on the back of a jeep and giving it the same sense of realism as Don Knotts flying a Gemini rocket. And while Indiana did survive the mountain slide and waterfall in Temple of Doom, it didn't feel quite as exhaustingly ridiculous as the multiple trips over the stepped waterfall in Crystal Skulls. The tone was the same, but somehow the execution was not as good.

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  2. Funny thing about the involvement of aliens right from the first movie with the "Ark" being a device to communicate with said aliens is something I come across in almost everything I've read about the movie but despite being part of the "In Search Of..." generation it never occurred to me when I first saw the movie. All of the casual viewers of the film (you know, not obsessives like us who re-watch pontificate about and hungrily consume all available information about our beloved films, TV shows and books:-) that I've talked to seem to take the events supernatural/religious.

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  3. I really hate this movie, but I have to agree with you to a certain point, that audiences changed pretty much in the 20 years between Indy 3 and 4. But there are 2 things about this movie, that really destroys the whole thing for me and that just differs from the original trilogy.And both things can be summed down to "too much".
    First of all, there is just too much CGI in this Movie. Nothing seems to be real. The Jungle, the Killerants, the Aliens, all the Action is coming out of computers. Well, I guess that's just how it is today, but I hate it in every movie. So it really bothered me here.
    But even more I hate a point that you just mentioned. The lack of realism. Of course I know, that Indy never was much about relaism. We had Indy possesed by a Voodoo-Spirit and Holy Grails that cure everything and all that stuff. But there is a big differnce between the old movies and this one. In the original trilogy they always "earthed" it down a little bit. It seemed realistic to a certain level. Talking about "suspension of disbelief". I bought, that this stuff could happen more or less like it happens in the movie. But with this one it is just too much. We have Mutt swinging through the jungle with a bunch of monkeys, then he fights Irina on Jeeps driving through the jungel, then they all are attakced by the Ants, then they go down a thousand waterfalls, then there are aliens an d a UFO etc. It was just too much of everything. I know, movies are made that way nowadays and I hate it. But when you take an old franchise you have to look back and see what the people in this frnachise were able to do. Indy always had action, but it always was kind of realistic to a certain point. Or let's say "believable".
    Today everybody is a undestroyable superhero. Take another "reboot" that came around that time for instance. Die Hard. I really enjoyed Die Hard 4. Yes, it was't the best movie of the franchise but the action was there and John McClane was ther an d the One-Liners were there. Everything a Die Hard Movie needs. I had a fun time. And then suddenly John McClane, a character who was famous for being kind of vulnerable, startet surfing a Jet and became a undestroyable Super Hero.
    Yes, Super Heros are the new thing and all. But that doesn't mean that everything out there has to be that way. Indy 4 and Die Hard 4 (and 5 even more so) forgot about the roots of the characters and destroyed them.
    I really hope Indy 5 will make up for it. I haven't lost hope ... yet.

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  4. Great insightful analysis as to why this underrated Indiana Jones film has become the target of such raging vitriol and misplaced scorn. Has there ever been a more despised major genre film? Maybe "The Phantom Menace".

    "The Temple of Doom" has always been my favorite Indy film by a mile. My only beef with "The Crystal Skull" is the CGI army ants. Compare that to the terrifying scream-in-your-seats bug scene in "Temple of Doom", using REAL bugs (mostly).

    I love the 50s stuff in "Chrystal", especially the chilling McCarthy-esque subtext.

    I also absolutely am on board with the alien/Roswell style McGuffin. For that reason I give Chrystal the edge over the toned down intensity of "The Last Crusade", which recycled the "safe" Nazi villains after the torrid backlash "Temple of Doom" received.

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