HATERS GONNA HATE
IN DEFENCE OF INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL
When George Lucas announced at the tail end of 2006 that production would begin on a fourth Indiana Jones movie with Steven Spielberg back in the director’s chair and Harrison Ford back in the fedora, it was then seen as a good thing. Of course, I know it’s impossible to believe now, but try and cast your mind back. Despite the twenty-year gap between the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), the craving for a new Indy movie had never gone away. The question of continuing the Indy franchise was consistently broached in every interview that Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford had suffered in the interim. And initially, all the signs looked promising. Ford was of a pensionable age, but the early promotional shots of the actor in the iconic costume showed that he was more than capable of portraying every grown-up kid’s favourite bad-ass academic with conviction. The teaser trailers pushed all the right buttons and stimulated ample fanboy goosebumps. But the palpable level of online excitement and expectation disappeared like a fart in the wind as soon as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) hit the cinemas. After a well-received premiere at Cannes (and some promising initial reviews), the bile began to brew. And the more people that saw the movie, the more virulent the vitriol. After a wait of two decades, this new Indiana Jones movie was ultimately unable to live up to the level of expectation attached to it.
Crystal Skull is widely acknowledged to be, not just the weakest of the series, but anathema to the art of Film. It is Spielberg’s unloved, deformed child that’s kept chained up in the attic, out of sight. The movie took the heat off The Phantom Menace (1999) as the worst sequel ever, and was recently named the most disappointing movie of all time. A quick look of some of the initial reviews (“…leaves a faint aura of depression,” David Denby, New Yorker; “…as joyless as its predecessors were blissful” Robert Wilonsky, Village Voice) gives you a good idea of popular opinion, but these are nothing compared to the unilateral abhorrence Crystal Skull draws from the online community.
I would like to suggest that this unfettered rage is unfounded.
I must preface this by saying that if you are one of those keyboard warriors who use the movie as a lazy punchline in some pointless “I’m right and you’re wrong” online argument, then move on and God bless. Nothing I am going to say will change your mind. However, if (like me) you grew up loving the original movies but were initially disappointed with Crystal Skull, I urge you to jettison the years of poisonous baggage that has attached itself to the film like a parasite, and to give the movie a second chance.
I will freely admit that Crystal Skull is not perfect, but the inherent problem is that it is constantly compared to a movie that is perfect. In my opinion, there is no better representation of the power of film as a collective escapist experience than Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). On a personal level, Raiders releases a level of pure and unadulterated joy on every repeat viewing that none of its sequels could ever possibly hope to match. Of course, I still love these latter movies, but I’m not blind to their problems. Yes, there are parts of Crystal Skull that are deserving of derision, but not nearly as many that would engender the appalling legacy that it has endured. It can’t be described as a bad movie, because it simply isn’t a bad movie. It’s not even the worst of the series, so if you’re looking to pick holes in the franchise, I would point you towards Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).
Apart from a few shockingly poor creative choices which made it into the final cut (which we’ll get to later), Crystal Skull is a far better movie than anyone could have possibly expected. Spielberg was at the stage of his career where he had rejected the universal appeal of the tentpole blockbuster in favour of a more personal type of filmmaking. Ford was 65 when principal photography began, and it had been nigh on 20 years since Lucas had produced work that was even remotely approaching respectable. Crystal Skull really shouldn’t exist, so it’s surprising that the end product works.
Let’s start with the positives. Ford’s portrayal of the older Indy is pitch perfect. There is a genuine sense of peril in the Area 51 opening and Marshall College chase sequence, something which has all but disappeared in the modern action genre. These two sequences are as good as many in Raiders, and arguably better than any of its sequels. Marion (Karen Allen) was back. She was the only of Indy’s many love interests who was an equal in terms of chutzpah and resourcefulness. The verbal sparring of Allen’s initial scenes recaptures the spark and chemistry between the couple beautifully, while also managing to avoid any “Indiana Jones – I always knew you’d come walking back through my door… again” in-joke winkery.
Unfortunately, Marion gets relegated to the role of soccer mom; picking up the kids and dropping them off to the next big set piece, but we’re given the resolution that we’ve craved since Raiders. Alfred Hitchcock once said, “the better the villain, the better the film,” and while Crystal Skull’s Russians aren’t quite up to the guilt-free cannon fodder of Raiders’ Nazis, they’re a far better fit than Temple of Doom’s Thuggee cult.
Like the Bond movies, the opening sequence and introduction of Indy is one of the original trilogy’s most recognisable motifs, and Crystal Skull’s Warehouse sequence is one of the best of the series. It immediately rewards the audience with what they have come to expect. Indy is placed in a life-threatening situation, but escapes using a combination of charisma, luck, and bull-headed perseverance. John Williams’ untouchable score gets an early outing (as does the bullwhip), and the Russians get their asses handed back to them in style. The entire sequence bears the look of classic Indy, and the practical stunt work combined with minimal CG is pitch perfect. Finally, the “doom town” coda puts the Cold War timeframe into context.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room. Of all the plot-points repeatedly singled out for ridicule, it is the scene where Indy escapes a nuclear blast by jumping into a lead-lined fridge that has attracted the most sustained derision from critics and fans alike. The phrase “nuking the fridge” has replaced Henry Winkler’s shark-jumping nadir in the popular lexicon as shorthand for the point where entertainment veers into facepalm territory. But think about it for a second: this sequence is no more ridiculous than any of Indy’s other escapist scenarios. Consider Temple of Doom’s track-hopping mine cart chase, or inflatable dinghy parachute. What about Last Crusade’s illogical invisible rock bridge?
If you start dissecting the realism, or dwell on these scenes for longer than they last in screen-time, you’re bound to see how ludicrous these scenarios are. But this approach misses the point. This is escapism, not documentary. In his analysis of the Lucas/Spielberg fantasy genre, The film critic and academic Robin Wood said that movies like Raiders and Star Wars (1977) “set up a deliberate resistance: they are so insistently not serious, so knowing about their own escapist fantasy/pure entertainment nature, and they consistently invite the audience’s complicity in this.
One of the two problems with Crystal Skull
To raise serious objections to them is to run the risk of looking like a fool or, worse, a spoilsport.” So criticising the fridge pay-off is churlish, and also makes you sound like a bit of an idiot.
Nuked fridges notwithstanding, it’s only fair to acknowledge some of the other issues which crop up in the usual hatchet job. Due to issues of budget and convenience, most of the set pieces were obviously shot on a soundstage, in spite of assurances from Spielberg that location shooting and minimal CG would be used, in keeping with the original trilogy’s aesthetic. Janusz Kaminski is undeniably a gifted director of cinematography, but Crystal Skull’s washed-out colour palette makes the absence of OG DP Doug Slocombe’s amber hues and classical sensibility all the more blatant. Considering the years spent in development, the final script by David Koepp (through Frank Darabont, Jeff Nathanson, Stuart Beattie and, allegedly, M. Night Shyamalan) could have undoubtedly benefited from a few more passes and further tightening. As I have already mentioned, one of modern cinema’s most beloved heroines is woefully underused. And God knows what John Hurt was thinking. However, in the overall scheme of things these factors are inconsequential, and have little effect on the overall enjoyability of the movie as a whole. It’s my opinion that there are only two creative choices that have negatively impacted on the legacy of Crystal Skull. One is relatively small and easily overlooked, but the other is a whopper.
As we were leaving the cinema on the first day of Crystal Skull’s release in 2008, my friend turned to me and said, “What the hell was with the gophers?” Those CG gophers barely registered with me, but the Elvis monkeys pushed me right over the edge. Indy’s sidekicks have previously been either annoying (Short Round), or positively loathsome (Willie Scott). Early indications pointed to Shia LeBeouf’s character being equally despised. The sidekicks are an unnecessary distraction for the audience. After all, it’s Indiana Jones we’ve paid to see. Why bother with all this other stuff? To make matters worse, there were rumblings that LaBeouf was being groomed to take over from Ford. It was surprising, then, that Mutt Williams turned out to be one of the stronger elements of the movie. I honestly think that LaBeouf did his best with the material that he was given by Lucas. His character said what the audience was thinking, his interactions with the ageing Indy displayed the right degree of cynicism, and mirrored the father/son dynamic of Last Crusade. So it is unfortunate that all goodwill for the character is wiped out by a bunch of CG monkeys. To any sane individual, the scene with Williams vine-swinging from tree-to-tree with some pomaded monkey buddies elicits a degree of WTF-ism to which the only plausible response is to slap your own face in frustration.
That this scene survived the final cut is not only staggering, it is unforgivable. LaBeouf later acknowledged that the movie was less than the fans had hoped for, and accepted some responsibility for the disappointment, displaying a level of candour that all-but-destroyed his working relationship with Spielberg. But he doesn’t deserve the flak; the two beards do. Either way, if you can blank out this scene, you’re halfway to giving the movie a fighting chance.
It’s no secret that a major factor in the 19-year delay between the third and fourth movies was Ford and Spielberg’s refusal to commit to the story that Lucas wanted to use. See, Uncle George had a hard-on for UFOs, and thought that little green men and Indiana Jones was a natural fit. Lucas eventually wore Spielberg down, and the Saucer Men from Mars became the “inter-dimensional beings” that show up to ruin the end of the movie. Judeo-Christian artefacts, such as the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, fit the Indy aesthetic in a way that the Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skull simply doesn’t, but ultimately, nobody cares. It’s the journey that’s important, not the prize. The MacGuffin is merely the excuse for the quest – it’s there to motivate characters and place them in situations of peril from which to escape, but it’s of no importance to the audience. So my grievance here is not with Lucas’ determination to use aliens or crystal skulls; it’s with their representation. Instead of trying to maintain any acceptable sense of ambiguity or mystery (as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind  for example), nothing is left to the imagination. If it was handled properly, the ending could have worked. Instead, we’re shown The Full Monty; prolonged shots of aliens – actual bloody aliens – and badly CG’d ones at that. And just to make sure that any semblance of credibility is obliterated, Spielberg sticks in a UFO for good measure. This sequence is the overriding factor in leaving the viewer with an appalling opinion of the film as a whole.
Spielberg and Lucas have made more kids happy than Elmo giving out ice cream and free legos on a rollercoaster. They may have missed the mark on this occasion, but they still came pretty damn close. Despite making a shedload of cash, the critical drubbing and universal hatred for the movie has ensured that we’ll never see a fifth one. Neither the creatives nor the public have any appetite for it now. But for all its problems, Crystal Skull stands up to repeated viewings in a way that Temple of Doom doesn’t (and if you’re one of those oddballs who lay into the movie at every opportunity but will happily sit through Temple of Doom every Christmas, bank holiday or whatever, you seriously need to re-evaluate your taste barometer).
…or “inter-dimensional beings” if you prefer
If your only exposure to the movie has been as the butt of a joke, I would urge you to watch it first. Crystal Skull is as worthy a successor to Raiders as any of the franchise’s other sequels. If you hated it, it’s not because the movie’s bad. It’s simply because your balding, saggy 40-year-old ass couldn’t block out a sufficient amount of adult disappointment. You couldn’t get back to that place of the sheer, unadulterated joy when you watched Indy drag himself under that truck and lay into that Nazi while John William’s majestic score swelled in the background. Watch it again with an open mind and I guarantee that you are in for two hours of utter pleasure.
Just as long as you can block out the dodgy aliens and Elvis monkeys.