Welcome back to my “Good Things About…” feature, where I attempt to find the redeeming qualities in some of the worst superhero/sci-fi/fantasy/geek culture movies of all-time. This time I take a look at Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the much-maligned late fourth entry into the saga of adventuring archaeologist Dr. Henry Jones, Jr.
In October 2008, South Park aired a now-infamous episode depicting the disturbing, and very literal rape of Indiana Jones by his creators George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The message in this scene was twofold – for starters, it cast a harsh light on fanboys who threw the term “raping my childhood” around a little too loosely, reminding them that rape is a horrible physical and emotional violation. And secondly, it perfectly encapsulated the near universal disappointment and anger that longtime Indiana Jones fans experienced after witnessing the wholesale ruination of their idol at the hands of the men who gave him that pop culture status.
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was an unquestionable financial success—finishing third in the 2008 box office race behind Iron Man and The Dark Knight—but audiences complained about the bad CGI compositing, the over-processed “digital” look, terrible slapsticky moments like Shia LaBeouf swinging on vines with CG monkeys, the introduction of “interdimensional beings” *cough*aliens*cough*, a plot hole-ridden screenplay, and the coup de gras – the now legendary “nuking the fridge” sequence.
But, this is an Indiana Jones movie directed by Steven Spielberg, scored by John Williams and starring Harrison Ford – it can’t be all bad, can it? Well, no. Actually there are quite a few things to like about The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, seven things, to be exact:
7.) Cate Blanchett’s Colonel Irina Spalko
Indiana Jones films tend to feature a pair of antagonists – usually a scheming thinker type and a sadistic muscle/intimidator type. Raiders had Belloq and Toht, Temple of Doom had Chatter Lal and Mola Ram, and Last Crusade had Donovan and the Nazi General Vogel. Crystal Skull continued on that tradition, adding the tandem of Cate Blanchett’s Colonel Irina Spalko and the brutal thug Dovchenko to Indy’s rogues gallery.
Despite the lackluster material given to her, I thought Cate Blanchett did a fantastic job playing a ruthless ice queen hellbent on unlocking the mind-control secrets of the crystal skull. Spalko was a walking tool of communism, a throwback villain that preyed on the fears that our individuality and our freedoms would be overtaken and wiped away by the faceless “red menace.” I really dug her sort of ‘50s stern-but-sexy dominatrix look, too.
6.) Indy in the ‘50s
Waiting almost 20 years to make another Indiana Jones film placed the character in a very interesting time period. In addition to confronting his own mortality (“We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away.”), Indy also had to contend with the advent of the atomic age, cold war paranoia, and rampant McCarthyism.
One of the film’s highlights is the sequence in Area 51 interrogation room, where a couple of Mcarthy-era flat-topped G-men are questioning Indy (after he just went through hell trying to protect their secret property, mind you), about potential communist ties. Indy is bailed out by a General that vouches for him, but he becomes a “person of interest” to the FBI, and is eventually blacklisted and forced out of his teaching job at Marshall College.
This is a fascinating subplot of the movie that sadly goes nowhere (It seems that everything has been dropped after Indy returns from South America), but having Indy wrestle with these concepts at least lent a new dimension to the narrative and was a cut above the racist depiction of Indians and “comic book Nazi” stuff of the earlier films.
5.) Indy’s WWII Exploits
In the opening sequence of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indy is hanging around with a guy named “Mac” (played by the always brilliant Ray Winstone). We quickly learn that these two were best buds during World War II, and spent quite a bit of time together on super secret missions for the Allies. It was simultaneously fascinating and frustrating, because while it was awesome to hear that Indiana Jones kicked Nazi ass throughout the war, playing double agent with Mac, we never got any movies about that period in his life!
4.) Temple Exploration
Indiana Jones is always at his best when he’s exploring an ancient temple, hot on the trail of some priceless or mysterious artifact. This is where he puts his experience as an adventurer and an educated archaeologist to good use – deftly avoiding traps, looking in all the right nooks and crannies to uncover hidden clues and secret passages, and always managing to find the prize at the end.
In Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indy deciphers an archaic language, follows some clues about the Nazca lines, and eventually finds his way to the burial chamber of famous conquistador Francisco De Orellana, where he and Mutt discover the Crystal Skull of Akator. This is one of the best sequences in the film, because it avoids silly CGI nonsense and gets back to basics – Indiana Jones exploring dark and dangerous places, just as he did in the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
3.) The Wedding Scene
Some say this is an unearned, overly schmaltzy ending, but I really enjoyed it. I was glad to see Indy and Marion get hitched after all they had been through together. I guess I’m just a big sucker. However, there is another, altogether different reason, to appreciate the wedding scene – the moment with Mutt and the fedora. The hat blows right at “The Beef’s” feet, and just before he can put it on—signalling a possible “passing of the torch” to a new movie franchise and series of adventures starring Mutt—Indy’s hand comes out of nowhere to snatch the moment away and essentially say, “Not yet, kid.” Priceless.
2.) The Diner Fight/Motorcycle Chase
The 1950s was a great era for B-movies (Crystal Skull itself was inspired by the cheap flying saucer movies of the time), and many of them featured class warfare between clean-cut, varsity letter jacket-wearing preps, and slicked back, dirty leather jacket-wearing greasers. Spielberg and Lucas paid loving tribute to these classic tropes in the diner sequence, where Indy forces Mutt to instigate an impromptu rumble between the two warring factions as a diversion in order to escape some undercover Russian thugs. Indy and Mutt make their getaway on Mutt’s motorcycle, but they are quickly pursued by a couple car-fulls of Russian goons.
What follows is a fun and exhilarating chase/fight scene through the streets surrounding Marshall College (eventually the pursuit even goes through the halls of academia itself!), full of the relentless pacing and practical stunt work that were so effective in the classic Indiana Jones movies. It’s definitely a throwback Spielberg sequence; I have a feeling that the director was more engaged and having fun on this set piece than on any other in the film. Sadly, this beautifully shot and staged chase scene would only lead to the garish CGI and cartoonish antics of the disappointing third act.
1.) Harrison Ford
When those hands picked up that famous fedora, and the iconic John Williams score swelled as the camera panned up to reveal an unmistakable silhouette, all questions as to whether or not Harrison Ford still “had it” were instantly put to rest…and we didn’t even have to see his face! When we finally did, sure, he looked a bit older and more gristled, but the familiar Indy spark still twinkled in his eye, and that sly smile still melted hearts. Indiana Jones was finally back on the big screen, and although the journey he embarked on couldn’t measure up to a quest for the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, the swagger, toughness, charm, and sense of adventure were on full display…likely for the last time. (Harrison is 71 as of this writing.)