The fourth cinematic installment chronicling the adventures of Professor Henry (Indiana) Jones Jr. has just its 10-year anniversary. How time flies! Seems like only yesterday we were swinging on those jungle vines with Mutt Williams for the first time. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a long-awaited sequel, and in the 10 years since its release, the film has taken over ten billion whip-lashings from fans.
From constant complaints about too much CGI, to "nuking the fridge," to the Shia LaBeouf of it all, this film gets punched on a regular basis. Does it deserve it? In my opinion, it does not. There are buried treasures to be found in this film. It's not perfect, not even close — but that doesn't mean it deserves to be devoured by CGI ants.
I should start by saying what is likely already obvious — I am a raging, unconditional, no-holds-barred Indiana Jones fanatic. When the film that would turn out to be Crystal Skull was finally announced, my anticipation hit the ceiling. I wanted this film, I needed this film, and there was no way that this film would disappoint me. How could it, when it was to be directed by Steven Spielberg, with Harrison Ford back in the lead?
When I walked out of the theater on May 20, 2008, was I in a state of jubilation? Honestly, no. I remember really liking it, but I didn't love it. My expectations were way too high for sure, but that doesn't change the fact that this film has issues. Upon countless repeat viewings, however, I have grown to love Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Is this love logical? No, but love doesn't have to be. This is not the only film I'm like this with either; Iron Man 2 is in the club, and there are many (many) others.
Crystal Skull is not anywhere close to the level of quality of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, or (my personal favorite) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That's okay. It's doing its own thing. Here are a few of the many reasons why I love this film as much as I do. Grab your fedora and jump on that red map line — it's time for an adventure.
THE ARCHEOLOGIST HAS BECOME A RELIC
"Who knows? In ten thousand years, even you may be worth something!"
Rene Belloq turned out to be right, and it didn't even take 10,000 years. This film finds Indiana Jones in the 1950s, well past the time period of the original trilogy, and also past the point of his own relevance. The film opens with Indy literally being taken out of the trunk of a car and thrown on the ground, as if he was some bit of excess baggage.
Harrison Ford still plays him with a devil-may-care dignity in the face of impossible odds, and even though Indy's feeling his age, he rarely lets anyone see it. His biggest issue is that the world has started to pass him by. His once precious artifacts are carelessly kicked in the dirt by the film's villain, Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) and she makes it clear she isn't interested in any religious knick-knacks or magic rocks. She's a scientist, and even if she saw the Ark of the Covenant when it gets slightly revealed in Area 51, she probably wouldn't care.
This is a world that is done with the old myths, in which 1930s serial format of the classic trilogy gives way to the sci-fi B-movie vibe of the 50s. As a result, Indy constantly looks out of place. When clumsily wandering around a 1950s "Doom town," his whip and satchel look silly among the Pleasantville decor.
Indy might not understand this new world, but he shows that he can definitely survive in it. He manages to escape a nuclear blast in one of the film's most criticized sequences, but it is the shot of the moment's aftermath that truly embodies the theme of Indy being faced with an entirely new reality.
We are well past the God-fueled powers of something like the Ark now, welcome to the age of man-made horrors. Is it something that one old teacher with a hat and whip can deal with?
"About time you showed up."
Welcome back, Karen Allen! Indy has only ever had one true soulmate. He and Marion were meant to be, and this film finally brings her back.
This would be worth celebrating for nothing more than Allen's smile, which could light up the darkest tomb. Thankfully, there's much more to it than that. The moment Marion enters the film, she injects it with a classic energy that makes Raiders feel like it was only yesterday. She calls Indy out on his nonsense and also proves perfectly capable in her own right. She's every bit his equal, just as she always has been.
Indy and Marion are each other's foundation, and the film goes the extra step in having them get MARRIED at the end. Yes, this makes me insanely happy. They've come a long way since that night in Nepal, and all is as it should be... as soon as Mutt is sent off to boarding school.
A WHIRL THROUGH ACADEME
"...you gotta get out of the library!"
I might be the only one who always wanted to see more of Indy's time as a teacher. We barely saw any of it in the classic trilogy, and this film really takes us to school. One of the best action scenes in the film is the practically-shot chase across campus, with Indy leading a pair of Russian thugs on a merry romp.
Come for the action, but stay for the homages to our dearly departed Marcus Brody. Marcus is not in the film due to the passing of actor Denholm Elliot, but his presence can definitely be felt. The two Russian thugs end up crashing into a memorial bust of the man, and while Mutt finds this funny, Indy does not. The look he casts Mutt in this moment is pure Henry Jones Sr. (Sean Connery). We realize that Indy has become his father.
"Through eyes at last I saw in tears..."
John Hurt plays Harold Oxley, a former colleague of Indy. You know him, right? Harold Oxley!
Oxley is very present in the film. The script really tries to make him a thing, almost to a comical point. It's as if they want to get to the point where they mention his name, and we're all thinking, "Ah yes, Oxley, we know and love him."
It was annoying on my first watch, but I have grown to love the Ox. Most of this is due to the performance of the sadly departed John Hurt, who does a lot with very little. Oxley is a man who has lost his mind, and Hurt plays it perfectly. When he's given a comical moment every now and then, Hurt nails those, as well.
"For love of God, shut the hell up!"
Soon after Marion is back in the mix and it is revealed that Mutt is actually Indy's son (Henry Jones III), the three of them are stuck in the back of a Russian truck together. The proceeding family squabble is one of my favorite scenes in the film, containing priceless Indy/Marion banter. Mutt's best contribution is telling Indy that he's not his father, which prompts one of Indy's best lines in the movie, delivered perfectly by Ford: "You bet I am, and I've got news for you. You're gonna go back and finish school!"
I cannot overstate how much I love Ford's delivery of that line. The way he scrunches up his face in complete earnestness is priceless, and there's just something about an older Harrison Ford using the phrase "I've got news for you" that gets me right where I live. After they break free, Indy delivers yet another one of the film's best lines.
Questioned by Marion about whether there were any other women in Indy's life over the years, Indy says there were, but that they all had the same problem. Tossing the knife back to Mutt, he says, "They weren't you, honey."
I mean... that's the stuff. Ford's delivery, the line itself, the history between them, and again, the smile on Marion's face after he says it, it's perfect.
WE WILL TURN YOU INTO US
"Just like in Berlin..."
Though Cate Blanchett's Irina Spalko might not win any awards in the "Great Indiana Jones Villain Derby," but she does get one fantastic scene where she lays out her Russian scheme. Setting Indy in front of the crystal skull and looking for answers, Spalko monologues in horrifying fashion.
She's not going to attack with a bomb, she wants to attack using the psychic powers of the crystal skulls. The notion of a "mind weapon" plays into the film's themes of knowledge being highly dangerous in the wrong hands, and it also ties into the man-made horror idea. The scene also happens to feature two incredible shots of shadows on the tent — this first is the familiar shadow of Indy in his fedora, and the second is the reverse, the shadow taking the form of Spalko's black bob.
Indy's skull experience ends up unlocking something in Oxley, and the moment where Indy, the skull, and Oxley all connect telepathically is wonderful. It's greatly assisted by John Williams' understated theme for the crystal skull starting to grow in intensity.
INTERDIMENSIONAL BEINGS, IN POINT OF FACT
"I'm selling fine leather jackets like the one I'm wearing."
I know, I know... but we had to get to the "aliens" at some point. For one thing, if the movie is setting itself up as a '50s sci-fi homage, the appearance of aliens isn't entirely out of left field. If you've ever read some of the very odd real-life theories behind the crystal skulls, you may also have seen it coming.
They make about as much sense as a magic cup/religious relic that can heal a bullet wound, and the concept of "ancient aliens" is not a new one. If you want to really split hairs, they aren't aliens at all — the newly un-screwed Oxley informs us that they are "interdimensional beings." I'll admit that they don't look great, but the flying saucer does.
The flying saucer is another instance of Indy facing the complete unknown. He's faced the mysteries of the occult plenty of times, but this is Indy facing the potential future of science. The shot (seen above) of Indy witnessing the saucer is a direct parallel to the shot of him facing the mushroom cloud, and the symmetry is beautiful.
OTHER POINTS OF INTEREST
- Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski obviously know how to shoot a movie. For every strange CGI prairie dog, there's a beautifully shot hubcap reflection.
- The escape from Area 51 is marvelous.
- Ray Winstone is having a ball in this film as Mac, the double/triple/double agent. His escalating screams of "You don't know him!" during the Area 51 chase are wonderful and accurate.
- The jungle chase has some dodgy CGI, but I still enjoy it. The requisite punch-fest following it is also quite good. Also, Indy finally gets to shoot that bazooka he's been carrying in his pocket ever since the end of Raiders.
- Indy mentions riding with Pancho Villa, which was shown in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Here's hoping he talks about learning piano from Albert Schweitzer in the next film.
The truth is that I could go on and on. As I already mentioned, I can see the movie's faults — the biggest, for me, is that Indy is following Oxley's trail for most of the movie, and not really making any new discoveries himself. Looking through his history, Indy is far better at finishing the work of others than he is at starting anything himself. Will Spielberg, Ford, and the entire team change things up in Indiana Jones 5? Time will tell, but I'm there either way.
Ten years after it's release, consider giving Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull another go. It may not belong in a museum, but you might be surprised at what a whip-cracking good time you will have with it. If you don't, you don't — but if that's the case, follow the wisdom of Henry Jones Sr. in Last Crusade: "Indiana? Indiana...let it go."