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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is better than you give it credit for

Contributed by
May 29, 2018

Welcome to Wednesday Rewatch, a SYFY WIRE series that challenges writers to rewatch a science fiction, fantasy, or otherwise genre-adjacent movie they've already seen and reevaluate in a new context.

Today's not Wednesday, but what the heck. Let's revisit Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).

THE FIRST WATCH

My first time seeing Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull was a minor epic. It begins early in May 2008 when my then-five-year-old son, Anakin, accidentally set himself on fire.

We were at a barbecue and he managed to get his hand on some matches and lit the grass skirt he was wearing ablaze. Second and third-degree burns covered at least 12 percent of his body and my life turned upside down, trying to juggle my day job and the crisis of being at the hospital's burn unit with him night and day. I had to hold him down while they cut away the blisters and bandaged his hands and his torso. It was a nightmare, but the boy, despite his pain, had a good humor about it.

The first time he came out of the grogginess after the initial dressing of his bandages, he looked at me slyly and asked, "Aren't you glad it's not like the movie and I still have all my limbs?"

A reference to Revenge of the Sith.

Yup. He was definitely my kid.

At five, he was interested in Star Wars, but Indiana Jones held a more special place in his heart. In months leading up to the release of Crystal Skull, we rewatched the films and went through the entire Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. He'd taken to wearing a brown felt fedora and, at school, he asked his friends to start calling him Indy instead of Anakin.

Over the next couple of weeks in the hospital, we learned how to change his bandages, which was no easy feat. For burn victims, their bandages need to be changed a few times a day and you need to wipe away the dead skin, apply a silver-based ointment, and re-bandage. Needlessly to say it was painful. Anakin wore his fedora at the hospital constantly.

Being five years old and dealing with that much pain on a daily basis was no easy feat. Tantrums were thrown pretty much every time we had to change his dressings, and understandably so. Eventually, after a couple of weeks of this, the doctors said that if my wife and I could change Anakin's bandages without him throwing a tantrum, we could take him home. Anakin wasn't having it and I was going to need to take more drastic measures.

Namely: bribery.

Knowing how much Anakin wanted to see Crystal Skull, I bought tickets for the midnight screening and told him that unless he got out of the hospital, we wouldn't be able to take him to the movie for his birthday. After a few days of trying to successfully change his bandages, it worked. He was able to get through it without screaming and we were able to take him home three days before the movie. We got home from the hospital, changed his bandages, and went to bed.

Or at least I tried to go to bed. The worst chest pains I'd ever experienced prevented me from sleeping. After hours of trying to sleep the pain off, I needed to go to the hospital myself. Let me tell you that my wife was thrilled. If anything was seriously wrong with me, she'd have to change Anakin's bandages on her own.

Soon enough, we discovered there was something seriously wrong. My gallbladder was infected and needed to be removed immediately, lest it kill me. They took it out that next morning.

My recovery time for the surgery was to have been three days, which would have made me miss that first screening of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The day after my surgery, Anakin wheeled into my recovery room in his wagon and wearing his Indy hat asking if I'd be able to be out in time.

I was going to need to have some words with the doctor.

After a full day of smooth talking (through lots of painkillers) and pushing myself harder than I should have, the doctor released me from the hospital the morning of the screening, a full day earlier than he was supposed to.

Anakin and I went to the movie that night, both donning Indiana Jones fedoras, he in his wagon, me in my wheelchair.

The movie started and his eyes lit up and I'm not sure I've ever had a more pure and perfect cinema experience. It didn't matter to me that the movie didn't land as well with me than the other Indiana Jones films because I at least I was there and not in a hospital. The few issues I had with the script seemed cleaned up by a second, less drug-addled viewing, and a third cemented it as my fourth favorite Indy film. I remember it moving along at a quick pace, offering the sort of humor that I love in my Indy pictures, and delivering a show-stopping finale that led right into a wedding I'd hoped for, for years.

THE OFFICIAL REWATCH

I'll be honest, it's probably been five years since I've rewatched this film, and I think the benefit of time does it a great service. This film begins in 1957 with Russian agents, operating in the US and led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), seeking the secret to the aliens of Roswell at Area 51. They've kidnapped Indiana Jones (played once again by Harrison Ford) and coerce him into helping. He helps them, though he does his best to disrupt their plans, but not even a nuclear blast can stop them.

Why are the Russians after aliens of Roswell? Because their skeletons are made of crystal, the same thing we found in crystal skulls throughout mythology, all of it leading to El Dorado. But the Russians know they do something more; those that wield the skulls might be able to unlock the secret to mind control. Spalko wants to use this mind control to influence the Americans from Russia and change the face of society to benefit the ideals of the USSR.

The idea that the Russians would want to discover a way to control the minds of the Americans from a distance is oddly prescient. In fact, in this charged political climate, the MacGuffin feels urgently relevant. We need an Indiana Jones to stop the Russians from controlling our minds from afar as badly as we needed him to keep the Nazis from obtaining the power of the Ark or the Grail.

More than anything, the film is more fun and playful than I remembered. Giving it a decade lets some of the camp soak in and nothing seems as jarring. Even the things people seemed to complain about at the moment, from the fridge-nuking to the vine-swinging, all seemed not only appropriate but fun. Indiana Jones was supposed to be fun and this film delivered it in spades.

I understand that I attach a lot of nostalgia to it based on my circumstances of first seeing it, but seeing it again after a decade, the movie found a warmth, humor, and adventurous spirit that is vital to an Indiana Jones picture.

NOTABLE MENTIONS

The Warehouse Chase - The opening sequence is as action-packed as any of the Indiana Jones films and the way Spielberg designs it is absolutely delicious. Everything falls into place in a way that makes you understand how much homework Spielberg did to stage and block a thing so complicated. But the best part? Ray Winstone (as George "Mac" Michale) telling his Russian driver, "Don't try anything clever, Boris. You don't know him," and then repeatedly screaming, "You don't know him!" as Indy proceeds to ram a truck into them. It perfectly encapsulates their relationship and cements the idea that Indy is still a badass.

Cate Blanchett - As a big bad villain in an Indiana Jones movie, I really love Irina Spalko and Cate Blanchett plays her with such a fierce zeal that it's hard to not like her. Whether she's trading verbal barbs with Indiana Jones or sparring with swords against Mutt Williams, she's just a joy to watch on screen.

Jim Broadbent - Jim Broadbent plays Dean Stanforth and fills the role that Denholm Elliot held with Marcus Brody. He's always a fantastic character actor, but gives us the most poignant line in the movie: "We seem to have reached the age when life stops giving us things and starts taking them away."

It's something that sticks with you and is really just a great piece of writing.

Shia Labeouf - For all the grief Labeouf got for swinging around on vines with monkeys, he brings an emotional grounding to the film and a healthy skepticism of Indiana Jones himself. The emotion and weight he brings to the scene where they visit the sanitarium where Harold Oxley had stayed is incredible. He has a sense of timing for drama and comedy that serves as a perfect compliment to Harrison Ford, whether he's in the diner ready to punch Joe College or whether he's struggling to come to terms with his parentage.

The Cemetery Fight - Another fantastic action centerpiece of the film, it is tense and really shows that Harrison Ford still has the chops to play the character at his age, where he can outthink opponents rather than outfight them. It's also fascinating to see the craft in putting the sequence together, as it's almost all told from Mutt's perspective, and he's lost and out of his element. It creates a new dynamic for what could have been a run of the mill Indiana Jones fight scene.

The Ants - Every Indy film has its creepy-crawly scene; the snakes in Raiders, the bugs in Temple of Doom, and the mice in Last Crusade. This film brings us man-eating fire ants and builds a tense action sequence around a conceit you'd expect to see in a ‘30s serial brought into the atomic age.

Janusz Kaminski - The cinematography of this film is nothing short of breathtaking. Kaminski is at the top of his game here, painting every frame with light that gives it a more polished ‘50s flair. It makes it easy to imagine this film on television in black and white without losing any of the sharp color palette we expect from an Indiana Jones film. Seriously, if you're not going to watch it for any other reason, watch it for Kaminski's work.

THE TAKEAWAY

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a different sort of Indy film and that's not a bad thing. From the very beginning, it tells you we're in a different era, from the American Graffiti opening to the long shot of the "Atomic Cafe" marquee, we're in an era of uncharted territory for Dr. Jones. Where the other films took on serials from the ‘30s and the religious iconography of major world religions, this one took on atomic age ‘50s sci-fi and aliens. It's a natural step between the eras and makes a lot of sense when you consider the film history of it all.

But as I talk about, I get nothing but enthusiasm from it. It's fun.

Sure, Karen Allen wasn't as good this time as her turn as Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark and aliens were the MacGuffin, but if you can maintain the proper frame of mind, there's really nothing bad about this movie.

I think, with time, we'll look back on this movie with the same fondness as the other Indiana Jones films. It just needed time to breathe and get away from the contemporary sensibilities of movies of its era and allow us to view it through the retrospective lens of ‘50s B cinema. Give it another look without the jade glasses of cynicism and you might find that adventure found a name in Crystal Skull as well.

I know I did.