Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: A critical conversation
The summer of 2008 broke history, and rebuilt it. America suffered through a bitter presidential election on the road to a globewrecking financial crisis. In theaters, cinematic generations were rising — and falling. Superheroes, Will Smith, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, Emma Stone, Mike Myers, Sisterhoods and Step Brothers, Batman and ABBA, adaptations of TV shows we still tweet about, new installments of movie franchises studios won’t stop rebooting: everything Hollywood was before, alongside everything it still is.
In our weekly column Two Thousand Late, we’ll explore the big hits and curious flops from a summer that has never really ended. Last week: Prince Caspian ended a fantasy era. Next week: Beloved TV show Sex and the City becomes a somewhat-less-beloved movie. This week: EW film critic Chris Nashawaty and TV critic Darren Franich discuss the Indiana Jones movies with aliens, spoiler alert.
CHRIS: Okay, Darren. So a couple of weeks ago, we disagreed and went Socratically back and forth about the relative merits (such as they are) about the Wachowskis’ Day-Glo Ritalin fantasia, Speed Racer. You were Pro; I was Con. But something tells me we’re going to be on the same page with this week’s installment on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
I’ll come right out and say it: It’s a terrible movie, but not for the cynical reasons some might expect. I actually have no problem with Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford waiting 19 years to follow up The Last Crusade with Crystal Skull like someone who finds an old lottery ticket while cleaning their house and decides to cash it in. It didn’t feel greedy or craven to me. I actually wish filmmakers took longer gaps between sequels. Nor do I buy any of the ageist arguments that some put forth about Ford being too old to don the fedora and pick up the bullwhip.
My main beef with the movie is its tone. As he proved with 1941 much earlier in his career, Spielberg is not a filmmaker who should get within a mile of comedy. Crystal Skull is a campy, corny movie that thinks it’s a lot funnier than it is. Just about every joke falls flat and Spielberg doesn’t even seem to know it. It’s like watching Sinbad do stand-up. From Cate Blanchett’s villainous Boris-and-Natasha “moose and squirrel” accent, to the “nuke the fridge” moment, to the insane gopher reaction shots in the opening action set piece (It’s the most questionable use of gophers onscreen since Caddyshack II), all of it feels totally out of touch. That said, I will always…ALWAYS…get goosebumps when I see Indy make an entrance or hear John Williams strike up the Indy theme.
DARREN: If you’ll allow me, Chris, I’d like to begin with a story. On the evening of May 21, 2008, I celebrated my birthday by getting a crew of friends together to go to a midnight screening of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The mood was ebullient. Then the movie happened. That night I stared sleepless at the ceiling of my apartment, and the next morning I saw the sunrise, and realized the sun would never shine so bright again.
Dramatic? Of course! Everything you’re saying about the film is right on, Chris. But rewatching the film ten years after that fateful night, I didn’t feel the same old rage. After the Star Wars prequels, Crystal Skull was the final proof in the collective internet argument that George Lucas had ruined our childhoods. I used to agree with that opinion, now I think it’s pretty dopey, and there are a couple set pieces in the film I almost enjoy. The fridge-nuking is still bad, but Indy running through the phony bomb-target suburbia is a two-minute burst of candy-colored Twilight Zone-ish horror. There’s a moment in the second chase scene when the Russians pull Indy into their car — and Harrison Ford bodily punches his way across the back seat, in one window and out the other. That is, like, a top 20 Harrison Ford action moment, unfortunately tossed into a bottom-20 Harrison Ford movie. The campiness of the first half-hour almost connects, and the whole idea of Indy living in a distrustful new America (the feds get him fired!) is halfway interesting, a sudden burst of Minority Report/Munich-y 2000s paranoia.
And talk about goosebumps: Spielberg films Indy in silhouette etched against the mushroom cloud, and for one brief second the whole “30s pulp hero in the Atomic Age” idea actually feels palpable.
And then, erp, Indy and Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt go to the jungle, and from there it’s all a wash. There’s a half hour of people talking about Crystal Skulls, and staring at Crystal Skulls. There’s a scene where Indy and Mutt fight the movie-est kind of savage, come on now gang it’s freaking 2008. I propose a drinking game for whenever a character mentions “Ox,” a character played by John Hurt in a criminal waste of John Hurt. Everyone’s got a theory, but what do you think happened here, Chris? Were Lucas and Spielberg unable to take this material even half-seriously? Is it just a weird fit to airdrop a retro wartime hero like Indiana Jones into an adventure rooted in ’50s horror weirdness? Dare I say it, is it possible that LaBeouf was not the next-generation adventure hero Hollywood was hoping for?
CHRIS: Darren, I think somewhere in the intervening 19 years, Spielberg and Lucas just forgot what made the Indy character so great in the first place. It wasn’t the jokey moments like Indy shooting the show-offy assassin with the giant scimitar in Raiders (although that was great), or Kate Capshaw screeching (not so great). It was the pulpy adventure sequences and Rube Goldberg booby traps, the mix of high brow scholarship (the Ark of the Covenant!) and down-and-dirty swashbuckling. You ask if Spielberg and Lucas were able to take this material half-seriously. The introduction of aliens answers that question in ALL CAPS. NO! I don’t mind Indy in the ‘50s. But I mind him in this version of the ‘50s.
Ah, yes. “Mutt.” I intentionally left LaBeouf’s riff on Marlon Brando in The Wild One out of my initial salvo. Wanted to let you serve that one. And here’s the thing, I remember hating Mutt back when I saw this movie in 2008. Now, I kind of think he’s the best thing in the move. No joke. When he first shows up it feels like we’re being dropped into a Nick at Nite episode of “Indy and Jughead”. But as the film goes on, I kind of got what he was going for this time around. Should the character exist in the script? No. But considering that he does, I think LaBeouf makes the absolute best of it. If you ignore all the Basil Exposition lines he’s given (“Hey, it’s a skull…made of out of crystal! What does that mean, gramps?” ((For the record: not actual dialogue. But it might as well have been)), then I’m Team Mutt. Something I never thought I’d admit.
My biggest problem is that Crystal Skull needs some goddamn Nazis. The nemeses are two-fold in this movie. The Cold War era Soviets, which I understand because of the time frame but are just watered-down versions of the occult-relic-hunting Germans, and the paranoid, Red Scare American government itself. That second one is pretty heady stuff and could have been interesting if handled with less-cartoony nuance. But there isn’t an ounce of nuance anywhere near the blast radius of Crystal Skull. I’m curious, though, what are the things you liked seeing in the movie? Karen Allen? Those flight map interstitials? Jim Broadbent trying his best to make us forget about Denholm Elliott?
DARREN: Karen Allen, all the way! All the cool kids know Marion Ravenwood was the secret Raiders of the Lost Ark sauce that forever made it pointless to argue about “The Best Indiana Jones Movie.” One of the fifteen unconvincing ideas powering Crystal Skull is that Marion, Indy, and Mutt form a family on the fly—cut to Indy telling his suddenly-discovered son “You’re gonna go back and finish school!”—and there are a couple moments of spiky chemistry between Ford and Allen that recapture the old magic. The one moment of comedy that actually works is all Allen: Driving through a jungle, she’s hit in the face by some branches—and then shakes it off somehow simultaneously tough and glamourous. Team Marion!
I feel the necessity to point out that my older brother—who grew up steadily rewatching the same tattered Indiana Jones VHS tapes as me—really likes Crystal Skull. He’s also depraved enough to enjoy Temple of Doom, which leans in a similar cartoony vein. As with Temple, sometimes the sheer lack of nuance is its own reward—I almost laugh when Indy’s gang falls down three waterfalls. But unlike the truly grody second film, this fourth Jones gets to a point where it just feels like every other CGI action film from the mid-2000s, and the whole talented cast spends the last half hour just watching crazy things happen in various ruins. Even the swordfight-on-the-moving-cars scene feels overly reminiscent of the swordfight-above-the-whirlpool scene in Pirates of the Caribbean 3, and god help all of us who somehow saw both movies.
A few years post-Skull, Spielberg gave an interview where he admitted that he “never liked the MacGuffin,” meaning the whole alien plot, and straight-up said that the whole story was his pal George’s idea. This is probably the friendliest bus-throwing-under in recent film history (Spielberg and Lucas, BFFs for life!) It also feels like a careful bit of franchise curation on Spielberg’s part: I know the last one didn’t work, but I know what the problem was—and maybe I can fix it. There’s a fifth Indiana Jones film on the horizon now, Chris, currently slated for 2020. Is there anything in Crystal Skull that makes you feel like there’s still any real blood in this cinematic stone? What would you want in a theoretical fifth film—if you want anything at all?
CHRIS: It sounds like you’re almost talking yourself into kind of liking Crystal Skull, Darren. And, for the record, I love Temple of Doom — another movie that Spielberg has retroactively tried to talk himself out of supporting. Grow a backbone, man. Your name’s on it!
That said, I am totally down for Indy 5. Of course, I am! As far as what I’d want to see in that sequel, let’s do the math for a sec. If the 65-year-old Ford played Indy in the Cold War ‘50s that means the actor will be 78 in 2020. Add the four, carry the one, that means that Indy 5 should be set around 1969. So here’s my pitch: Indy outruns agents from Fidel’s Cuba to the Catskills in New York, where he stumbles upon a groovy three-day festival of “peace and music”. His mission: to find Woodstock’s “brown acid” before it’s too late!
DARREN: Wait, you’re in the Temple of Doom club, too? You’re all as crazy as a bowl of chilled monkey brain soup! (My indisputable Indy ranking: Lost Ark > Last Crusade > the classic Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis point-and-click adventure videogame > Temple of Doom > Crystal Aliens.)
I’m definitely in for Indiana Jones and the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, or whatever by-default lesser idea they wind up exploring. Although I still don’t like Crystal Skull, this conversation has been therapeutic, Chris. If I squint a little, I can now spot some unintended resonance in the story.
Ray Winstone plays one of Indy’s old pals, Mac, whose big running subplot is that he keeps on switching sides. By all rights, Indy should hate him after the first time he betrays him. But they’ve got a history, so Indy keeps forgiving him—bringing him to El Dorado, trying to rescue him from the person-magnet wormhole thing at the end of the movie.
Midway through this rewatch, I started wondering if this dynamic was some sort of reflection by the men who made these Indiana Jones movies, famous best friends whose careers have balanced the highest levels of Hollywood art and commerce. Here’s Indy, great adventure hero, motivated by an urge to explore, uncover the mysteries of the world, with his best pals at his side. Mac’s big motivation? He’s after “a gigantic pile of money,” something that could make him “Richer than Howard Hughes!”His reward for seeking all these riches? He winds up swallowed by horrible-looking digital effects, which pretty well sums up the final effect of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.Commerce won, but at least something did.
Complete Summer 2008 Schedule:
May 2: Iron Man and Made of Honor
May 9: Speed Racer
May 16: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
May 22: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull
May 30: Sex and the City
June 6: Kung Fu Panda
June 13: The Happening
June 20: Get Smart, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, and The Love Guru
June 27: Wall-E and Wanted
July 2: Hancock
July 11: Hellboy 2: The Golden Army
July 18: Mamma Mia and The Dark Knight
July 25: Step Brothers
August 1: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
August 6: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 and Pineapple Express
August 13: Tropic Thunder
August 15: Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Star Wars: The Clone Wars
August 22: The House Bunny
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Movie)