By Eric Hanson
Let me preface this by saying the Indiana Jones series is my favorite film of all time, a position it has managed to hold since I was a tot. One of my earliest memories is of watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade at our home in Cleveland, and to date, no action movie has matched the excitement little me felt watching that finale action set piece set on a tank rolling across the desert. The series is a great example of finding that difficult balance between art and entertainment and succeeding at both. But for a long time there was a black sheep amongst the series, a film so hated, so reviled, that few dare speak its name. It’s a film that, in retrospect, isn’t as bad as I remembered. I’m of course talking about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull finds an aged Doctor Jones, now 19 years removed from the Holy Grail quest, narrowly escaping a group of Russian operatives after an artifact he helped secure several years prior. Afterward, he teams up with a young greaser named Mutt to uncover why. Their adventure leads them across continents, into the paths of old friends, and eventually into a temple deep in the heart of the Amazon, all while being led by a mysterious crystal skull that seems to possess an otherworldly power.
In 2008, I was there. I just started college, and news of a new Indy film had me more excited than you could ever know. Then the film came out, and I, like everyone else, was disappointed. No…disappointed isn’t the right word. A more accurate term would be furious. I was furious that the film dared bring science fiction into a fantasy series. I was incensed that anyone thought the audience would accept that stupid scene with the fridge. I was outraged that the action didn’t have the same punch as the previous entries. Eventually, Skull became nothing more than a rumor to me, a bad memory I wanted nothing more than to forget. But with the arrival of blu-ray and 4K, that proved difficult. I got the box sets both times, and both came with the dreaded 4th installment to my beloved Indy adventures. For several years it waited, sitting in the folds of the set, occasionally pulling my gaze, but never being played.
Maybe I was bored that day. Maybe I had just seen the first three so many times that I wanted to try something different. I’m not sure why, but last year I bit the bullet, taking my 4K disc of Skull and popping it in. I hit play, let the movie go, and that’s when the really strange thing happened.
I started having fun.
Now, let’s get one thing clear. Crystal Skull is a flawed film, and the criticisms towards it are entirely fair. That bit with the fridge is a cheat. The action lacks the punch of what came before. Mutt Williams is an interesting idea for a character but the execution isn’t the best. The villainous Irina Spalko isn’t as memorable as previous Indy adversaries. Even the titular artifact looked goofy as hell.
But I was still having fun.
Surely it would end and that same furious resentment I felt for the movie would return. I waited for it to happen, from the escape from the remote military warehouse all the way to a nondescript church where Indy tied the knot. That feeling did not return. At the rolling of the credits, all I felt was a sense of genuine satisfaction, maybe even a little nostalgia for the movie I once despised so deeply.
Let’s start this off with the big one. This is the Indiana Jones flick that did aliens, or rather, “interdimensional beings”. This bugged me for a long time as the series has always typically been fantasy, but in recent years I’ve grown to appreciate the change of pace. The Indiana Jones video games featured numerous horrors from other dimensions, namely the excellent Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine. If it worked in a game, why not a movie? The real question is whether or not the execution was good. The CGI aliens at the end and the 50s-style flying saucer that appears do seem a bit over the top even by the Nazi melting standards of the series. So yes, it’s fair to say this could have been handled better even if the idea itself held promise.
The artifact itself is one of the film’s weaker elements. The previous three entries kept things relatively simple with the artifacts being essentially a big box, a few rocks, and an old cup. With the exception of the Ark from the original, the objects don’t look remarkable, which makes the reveal of their hidden power more interesting. The titular skull here is easily the goofiest of the bunch. At times it feels like the characters are tossing a trinket from a novelty shop back and forth, despite the film’s best efforts to get us to take it seriously.
But does this mean the whole movie is terrible? I used to think so, but now I find myself noticing more good stuff than bad. This is especially true in the first half of the movie. The opening series of set pieces, capped by the infamous fridge nuke scene, was actually a pretty exciting series of vignettes and the closest to matching the energy of the previous movies. The use of the warehouse from the end of Raiders was an especially nice touch. And would you believe that despite the silly ending to the nuke scene, I actually had fun for most of it? The chase around the college was great fun, and the mood of the exploration through the graveyard was appropriately spooky. That bit where Indy poisons an attacker with his own blowgun during said scene has gone on to become one of my favorite franchise moments.
The movie does lose a lot of its momentum in the second half, especially once the characters reach the Amazon and make their way to the temple. There are some inventive set pieces such as a truck chase through the jungle, a narrow escape from flesh-eating ants, and my favorite bit, a nasty ride down three waterfalls. The problem is filmmaking had changed a lot in the 19 years since The Last Crusade and Crystal Skull, with the advents of new technology leaving the techniques used to bring the first three movies to life obsolete in the eyes of those behind the camera. The result is a movie that lacks the rough edges of the first three. Skull just feels like a cleaner film, and this isn’t to its benefit.
But sometimes people focus so much on these elements that they miss a lot of the practical magic in the film, perhaps the best in the entire Indy series. Much of the effects done during the nuclear detonation at the start were actually done with practical effects such as miniatures. The use of practical effects and stunts is also one of the things that make the chase through the college one of the best-set pieces in the movie. Even much of the temple was created using practical magic, such as the massive mechanism that opens the pyramid top to allow the heroes inside. My favorite practical effect occurs after the interdimensional vessel departs, showing a torrent of water flooding the valley where it once rested. It’s sad that the goofy-looking saucer craft is the one thing people take away from this scene, missing out on some of the finest miniature work being done at the time.
Yes, some of the characters aren’t great. George McHale is pretty useless and doesn’t contribute anything meaningful during the film’s entire runtime. This doesn’t even touch on how horribly wasted a fine talent like John Hurt is in the movie. John Hurt’s Ox also contributes little to the story apart from a few expository mumblings, and it’s a shame to see such a fine actor not being given more to do in the film.
The character who is most hated, however, is Mutt Williams, played by Shia Labeouf. I used to be in the anti-Mutt camp, and while Indy’s son could have been done better, Mutt had still grown on me over the last few years. It was fun to see him underestimate Indy during their early meetings, only to be constantly outdone by the more experienced adventurer. It’s like The Last Crusade; Indy may be older, but he’s still the more experienced adventurer. This chemistry is especially effective when the character of Marion Ravenwood from Raiders of the Lost Ark is reintroduced, giving the three characters opportunities aplenty to play off each other.
Karen Allen’s return as Marion is easily my favorite part of the film. Allen has always been one of the more underrated actresses of her generation, and it was a shame her career post-Raiders wasn’t bigger. When she returned for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it was as if she never stopped playing the part, bringing the same quick wit and hard punches she brought to the role in 1981. The stuff with her and Ford is some of the best stuff in the film, and though the adventure around them could have been better, that fire burns as bright as ever.
But the best thing about the film is Harrison Ford himself. Indiana Jones has always been a character Ford enjoys, even more than the beloved Han Solo. A lot of jokes were made about Ford’s age at the time, the same as today in preparation for the upcoming Dial of Destiny. Despite his age, Ford never sleepwalks through the part. He never seems lost or disinterested. He never seems apathetic or grouchy. When he plays Indy, he’s all in.
Ford’s work here is delightful. When he and Marion bicker, it has the same energy as the original Raiders. When Mutt talks down to him, Ford stays calm because he knows he can handle things. When the Russians abandon him at a test sight, his angry shout after them is genuinely funny. There are too many great Ford moments in this film to name, and all of them are the same old Indy. That energy and passion proved contagious and carried me through every nuked fridge and every unconvincing CGI alien, all the way past that ending at the church.
Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the weakest of the series. It is a flawed film with some very goofy and questionable moments that dull the overall experience. However, is it really fair to dismiss an entire movie based on what in the end amounts to a few minutes of its runtime? Calling the film a disappointment is fair. The first three movies set the gold standard for action/adventure cinema which few have ever matched. so by comparison, Skull seemed trite. But maybe Skull had an impossible mission. The original Indy trilogy, to me at least, is the gold standard for action/adventure movies. Each movie is a 5/5. Skull managed about a 3. But is a 3 so bad?
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