Indiana Jones: An Appreciation – Part 4 – The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a tremendous film; the kind of movie you can watch over and over again and never get tired of. The action is great and thrilling, the characters are bright and entertaining, and the twists come without warning. I can easily say that this film was one of the benchmarks of my childhood, with the final shot being only a reminder that I needed to rewind the tape so I can watch it again. There have been many other trilogies out there, but I can say with confidence that this may be the trilogy that comes as close to “perfect” as you can get.
And then, there came Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).
I wanted to love this movie, I really did. I had been following the making of the film for nearly a year before it was released. There were many signs that said that the film would’ve been great: an early picture of Harrison Ford looked like he didn’t even miss a step with the character, Karen Allen returned in the role of Marion Ravenwood, Cate Blanchett is one of the best actresses working today, and Ray Winstone is a great character actor, the talent assembled here was top notch. I was so excited to watch this movie that for preparation I went out, re-bought, and watched the entire trilogy all over again. The early trailers showed promise, although the newest character of Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) gave me a moment of caution, I quickly dismissed that due to the great track record that previous films laid out. The night the film opened, I convinced my entire work group to go out and watch it all together; I felt that this was a movie that needed to be experienced with a whole bunch of other people.
When the beginning of the film unfolded, it felt like it was going to be the same great adventure we’ve all grown to love. I actually enjoyed the opening sequence in the storage facility, with Indy running through the beams, and the Russians in hot pursuit. I was right there with it when Indy had the fight with the big Russian soldier underneath the building, next to and on the speed tester. The special appearance of the ark was particularly great; a nod to Raiders and a wink to the fans. With this opening, despite the glossiness that was obviously due to the high-tech times of today, I almost felt like that kid again, glued to the screen, anxious to see what happens next.
Then, the rest of the film happened. I felt my heart drop as Indy jumped in to a lead-lined refrigerator to survive an atomic-bomb test. My smile faded as I learned that the story revolved around a Spanish conquistador, El Dorado, the involvement of aliens (oh wait, I mean “inter-dimensional beings” as George Lucas put it) and the “power of knowledge” that the Russians, led by Irina Spalko (Blanchett) so desperately craved for. I scratched my head as I watched an alien spaceship the size of a small city appear from the ground. The practical stunts that made the first three movies so spectacular were replaced by over-used and obvious CGI, the treasures of the Ark and the Holy Grail was replaced by a plastic-looking alien skull, and the comedy that made the other films so light-hearted and joyous seemed forced and silly in this film. Even the chemistry between Indy and Marion, that was so lively in the first movie, seemed absent here.
Before I get ahead of myself, let me back up and say that I didn’t hate this film. Many people I know and many critics out there have written scathing reviews of it, I do not feel this way. I thought the film was simply ok, and it did have many redeeming qualities. I believe Cate Blanchett was great as the Russian leader, Ray Winstone was a good counterpart to Indy, and Harrison Ford himself, at the age of 65, looked 10-15 years younger, and played Jones with the same dead-pan delivery as before. I can understand what George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were trying to do with the movie: all the Indy films dealt with issues that were relevant to the times that they were set in. This movie took place in the early 1950s, so what did you have? You have the Cold War, the Red Scare, Area 51, and the fear of nuclear war. This is all well and good; I mean honestly, how much more silly does it sound compared to World War II and a magical box that would melt the faces off of anyone that opened it, or a two thousand year old knight defending a golden cup?
To me, the film suffered from three major issues. The first being the CGI: what made the first three movies great was that all the action happened in reality, you can see Indy jumping from those high rises and riding on that horse, it made the action tense with real stakes at hand. The overuse of CGI in Skulls made the action cartoony, there’s no suspense because you never felt that the characters were ever in real danger, and don’t even get me started on the monkeys. The second issue is the alien theme: I don’t know what it is with Spielberg and Lucas, particularly Lucas, but it seems that they just cannot get away from using extraterrestrial beings in their films. The other movies, though also containing elements of the supernatural, dealt with legends that we as a society already know about. They add a historical thread that we are familiar with, whereas in Skulls we know nothing of the history and therefore lose any kind of interest in it. I read that one of the dropped story ideas dealt with the lost city of Atlantis, that would have been much more fascinating to see. And finally, the third issue was Shia LaBeouf: I don’t hate him as an actor, I actually think he is very good and competent in what he does, but in this film he seems completely out of his league. I did not buy for a second that he was a leather wearing, knife spinning, greasy-haired biker, he felt like a caricature, unlike those of past, much better supporting characters.
Despite the missteps that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull took, I still feel that it had flashes of what made the original trilogy work, and as a result, I do not feel that the film has tainted the legacy of Indiana Jones in any way. Each film still stands on their own, and gives the same great experience they always have. With the making of these four films, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg created and solidified a character that has captured and riveted the thoughts and imaginations of movie audiences worldwide. Indiana Jones is a complete original, a once-in-a-lifetime character. There has been talk of possibly making a fifth film, much to the dismay of detractors, and with good reason. However, if that film were to be made, rest assured that I will be in that theater, wide-eyed as I was when I was 8 years old, excited to see what the next adventure will bring.