Fandom can be a fickle thing. When Spielberg decided to return to the Indiana Jones franchise after 19 years, he would learn this the hard way. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are revisiting a work from the career of Steven Spielberg. (Thank you for your patience on this one). Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull tends to be a target of mockery, although it’s actually a rather fine Indy flick. You, dear reader, may be one of the naysayers, and if that’s the case, it’s my intention here to try and persuade you that this belated sequel does have its strengths.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
Before The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was released in 2008, there hadn’t been an Indy film since 1989. George Lucas and Spielberg had originally made a deal with Paramount Pictures for five Indy movies, but after wrapping The Last Crusade, Lucas lacked ideas for a plot device to drive another film, and so he opted to continue the franchise with a TV series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Over the ensuing decades, however, fan demand for a sequel only continued to intensify, and Lucas never actually stopped thinking about ways to write another film.
An episode of the 90s TV series featured Harrison Ford in a guest role as an aging Indiana Jones narrating some of his younger life. This gave Lucas the idea of an older Indy set in the 1950s, and a plot device involving aliens. Another Indy film wouldn’t be for some time, though. As the new millennium approached, Lucas would become busy with the Star Wars prequels, and Spielberg would be focused on maturing as a filmmaker with more dramatic films. Neither would be ready to leave Indy behind, however; as in 2008, Lucas’s 1950s-aliens concept became a reality.
The highly anticipated fourth Indy film opens in the Nevada desert as Russian soldiers led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) force a kidnapped Indy (Harrison Ford) to help them find a mysterious corpse. After escaping, surviving an atomic blast, and being forced out of his job as a professor, Indy meets a young greaser who goes by “Mutt” Williams (Shia LaBeouf), who tells him Indy’s old colleague Ox (John Hurt) and his mother Marion (Karen Allen) have been kidnapped by the Russians over a “crystal skull,” instigating the archeologist’s latest adventure.
Similar to past Indy films, the artifact-centric plot device, or “MacGuffin” here is loosely based on existing legend. There are many existing “crystal skulls” in existence, which are commonly claimed to be Mesoamerican in origin. The fourth Indy film associates these with the legend of Akator, or “the Lost City of Gold,” and the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana. All this and the South American jungle fit right at home in the Indy universe; however, it’s the aliens, or rather, the “inter-dimensional beings” in the film’s climax which have drawn much fan ire.
There have been many outlandish and fantastical elements throughout the Indiana Jones franchise. Raiders of the Lost Ark drew on biblical descriptions of the Ark of the Covenant to convey the wrath of God in the form of lightning and melting faces. The Temple of Doom drew on the dark history of the Thuggee cult to feature black magic, blood rituals and flaming hearts. The Last Crusade drew on the Holy Grail to depict a man aging from middle age to a skeleton and to dust in mere seconds. But the concept of aliens proved to be a polarizing inclusion in the series.
To anyone who hates this idea, I’ll grant you that science fiction is a rather eccentric choice for a series built on folklore and fantasy. But Lucas and Spielberg make it work. First, because it uses the legend of Akator as foundation, which allows the film to still primarily involve the classical Indy settings of tombs and jungles. And second, because it builds on the franchise’s original styling as a time capsule of its setting’s cinema. Just as Raiders was a tribute to the adventure serials of the 1930s, The Crystal Skull is a tribute to the science fiction B-movies of the 1950s.
And this second point is particularly where the film achieves artistic merit. The film fittingly advances its time period to match up with Harrison Ford’s current age, an inspired choice in contrast to misguided approaches such as de-aging makeup. By making use of the alien plot device, the series also properly advances its appreciation for the media of the day, an aspect to which is central to its DNA. But, importantly, it does so without sacrificing the dusty adventure stylings which are essential to the heart of the franchise and its appeal to longtime viewers.
The film also updates itself to reflect its setting by fully positioning itself in the political climate of the 1950s, and by exhibiting the tensions of the Cold War and the fears of the nuclear age. Here, the Russians take the place of the usual Nazis chasing some archaic weapon, and series newcomer Cate Blanchett shines as the cold and ambitious Irina Spalko. Spalko’s pursuit of the crystal skulls draws on Joseph Stalin’s actual interest in psychic warfare, and her speech to Jones in the jungle tent aptly represents Western anxieties of Communist indoctrination in that era.
So, I say all this in attempts to hopefully demonstrate that the aliens angle actually earns much more justification than simply “jumping the shark.” But in all reality, this element far from dominates the film, as The Crystal Skull truly is a classic adventure tale that fits right at home in the series. Scenes such as Indy surviving a nuclear blast in a lead-lined fridge, Mutt swinging on vines through the jungle, and man-eating giant ants have drawn fan criticism, but over-the-top stunts and treats such as these are what Indy movies are all about, and they’re a ton of fun.
It’s also delightful to see Indy’s original and most effective love interest return in the form of a still-sprightly Karen Allen, and by the way, it’s refreshing to not have the late-60s Harrison Ford paired off with someone half his age. Shia LaBeouf is a fun and talented casting choice as Indy’s long-lost son, though I have to say, the idea of Shia becoming the “new” Jones is intolerable, and thankfully, the final shot dismisses this idea. Sean Connery doesn’t appear here as Jones Sr., which probably suits the film well, although John Rhys-Davies as Sallah is certainly missed.
As Spielberg had collaborated with Janusz Kamiński for cinematography on his last 10 films, he relied on him again for Crystal Skull. Having studied Douglas Slocombe’s work on the original movies, Kamiński adeptly imitates him to preserve their style. Steven set out to do all the effects practically to avoid modernizing Indy too much, but unfortunately production logistics necessitated using CGI, and this does detract from the film. But it doesn’t too much: The Crystal Skull is still a rousing adventure, and it’s good enough to stand alongside any of the Indy sequels.
On our next installment of Series Spielberg, we’ll be taking a break from actual Spielberg fare to take a look at J.J. Abrams’ Spielberg tribute Super 8. It’s available on DVD and blu-ray; you can also stream it on Hulu or rent it with digital retailers. Give it a watch, and I’ll see you next time.
INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL
Paramount Pictures, Lucasfilm Ltd.
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Written by David Koepp, story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson.
Starring Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, and Shia LaBeouf.
Released May 22, 2008.
More reviews in this series: