Some movies age into classics; others degrade over time, revealing the cracks in their conceits. And then there are those movies that were never great to begin with, and no amount of time can redeem them in our collective memory. One of those films is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, released 10 years ago today, and yes, it's still just as disappointing as you remember. Time hasn't exactly polished this turd to a high-gloss sheen. I know, because I just submitted myself to a fresh viewing in an attempt to determine if maybe there was something worthwhile that I missed the first (and only) time I watched it.
I sat. I squinted. And to my surprise, it turns out Crystal Skull isn’t all bad. In fact, I think I may have identified the one and only redeeming factor in this sad, sorry mess of a film.
And no, it’s not that time Indy survived a nuclear test blast by hiding in a fridge, only to casually climb out into the fallout of a GIANT MUSHROOM CLOUD.
But finding that one shining moment meant enduring the other two hours of unrelenting silliness. Crystal Skull is patterned after Raiders of the Lost Ark, only with the Nazis replaced by the KGB, and the religious artifact of immense destructive power replaced by half-dead, highly magnetic, telepathic aliens — all of which would be fine if the movie didn’t try to telegraph its new Cold War-era time period so damn hard. From the opening sequence with the Elvis song, to that completely unnecessary nuclear bomb diversion, to the way Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) is a “greaser” with weirdly frothy hair and an obligatory knife obsession, there’s no way you could miss the fact that Indiana Jones is now adventuring in the late 1950s. Like, we get it. Indy’s older now. The world has changed around him. The problem isn’t the setting, really — it’s the constant on-the-nose reinforcement of it, and the clear lack of confidence in the audience’s ability to keep track of the passage of time. That wouldn't matter so much if all the other elements were firing on all cylinders. But they aren’t.
The whole movie is a procession of unbelievable scenarios that are so ridiculous it’s hard to even be mad about it. The Crystal Skull is incredibly magnetic, but only sometimes? Indy and friends manage to survive tumbling over three consecutive, massive waterfalls? Mutt pulls a Tarzan and goes swinging on vines with a bunch of bad CGI monkeys? It turns out that the legendary El Dorado was built by the crystal aliens, who are basically a race of inter-dimensional Indiana Joneses? Or something?
There’s no redemption to be found in the plot, so instead I focused on the characters. I’ve always enjoyed the dashing-yet-brainy heroism and roguish charm of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, so that should have been a gimme. But Crystal Skull forces weird slapstick action on the character, as though the idea of an older man outrunning Russian bullets will only work if it’s played for laughs.
Um, no. Indy’s still got it. Just let that old dude hotness SHINE.
Speaking of old dudes, the always-wonderful War Doctor himself, John Hurt, can’t save this movie — no matter how many languages he mutters in. Ray Winstone’s double/triple/double agent can’t save it. An army of f*cking man-eating ants can’t save it (though they do come really close).
The return of Karen Allen’s fiery Marion Ravenwood is promising — after all, she’s still got that same melt-you-down smile and combative chemistry with Indy — but she’s undermined by the writing. Not that the romances in any Indiana Jones flick were ever truly realistic or progressive, but Marion was the closest to a serious match Indy ever faced. So finding out that he abandoned her a week before their wedding, and that she raised his son, Mutt, without ever telling him he had a child… well, that’s a situation that’s ripe for some drama, right? Too bad there’s no time in the script to do any of it justice. Instead there’s some immediate bickering (in front of Mutt, of course), which ends with this exchange:
Marion: “I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to go on with my life. There must have been plenty of women over the years…”
Indiana: “Yeah, there were a few. But they all had the same problem.”
Marion: “Yeah, what’s that?”
Indiana: “They weren’t you, honey.”
OK, so a) SWOON. But also b) that is in no way an actual resolution to the freaking problem! “I abandoned you, but it’s cool because I know it was a mistake and you’re totes the best” is a nice sentiment, but isn’t quite enough to justify immediate forgiveness, let alone a marriage in the third act. Yet from this moment on, the pair spends the rest of the plot making puppy dog eyes at each other, much to their son’s dismay. I’m not saying Indy and Marion don’t deserve a happy ending together; I just don’t for a second believe she would let him off the hook that easily.
So without Marion to redeem the movie, I figured Cate Blanchett would be the secret weapon. I mean, she’s always wonderful, and if Thor: Ragnarok proved anything, it’s that she makes a kickass villain. So I was sort of looking forward to revisiting her performance in this, assuming it was a masterpiece I’d simply forgotten about. And it almost is! As the crackpot doctor Irina Spalko, Blanchett gets to wave a sword around and be a gloriously unhinged loony. Yet her accent is all over the map and the Prince Valiant hairdo doesn’t help. I’m not saying she’s bad, per se. She’s Cate Blanchett, she doesn’t do bad. But she’s no Hela, if you catch my drift.
Still, she plays an integral part of what, after much deliberation, I’ve come to realize is the single redeeming moment of the entire film…
The scene where Spalko kicks the sh*t out of Mutt while sword fighting on top of a series of military vehicles racing through the jungle. At one point, she gets a really good high kick in, nailing him right in the face. At another point, Mutt is left straddling two cars while a series of shrubs smack him in the junk. It’s not that Mutt doesn’t acquit himself well in the fight, it’s just that the whole thing seems designed to harass him on some level. In fact, “Harassing Indy’s Weird Marlon Brando-impersonating Son” is basically the film’s mission statement. Still, it’s a fairly entertaining action sequence, one that ages particularly well in light of the additional decade’s worth of information we, the audience, have about the careers of Blanchett and LaBeouf. We know she will go on to bigger and better things, and he’ll go on to… wear a bag on his head or whatever.
But it also pairs well with the film’s closing scene, after Indiana finally marries Marion. A stiff breeze blows Indy’s iconic hat to Mutt’s feet, a very clear passing of the torch, until Indy snatches it back from Mutt and walks away. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull may have taken great pains to introduce an heir to Indy’s legacy, but it never quite takes the character seriously, and it clearly never planned to truly set up Mutt as a hero on par with his dad. When you think about it, the entire film is an exercise in pointlessness, and that final hat-grab was the parting insult — another metaphorical kick to the kid’s face to remind us that his entire existence was ultimately meaningless.
But as far as kicks to the face go, seeing Cate Blanchett do it was still more satisfying. And that’s why that moment is ultimately the most enjoyable thing this film has to offer.