Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) – Directed by Steven Spielberg – Starring Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Shia LeBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, and Jim Broadbent.
I don’t know what’s happened between 2008 and 2011 but I’ve gone from hating INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL to enjoying it immensely. My life isn’t appreciably different now than it was three years ago, and I don’t remember being in a bad mood that night in the theater when I watched it originally, or in a particularly good mood the other night when I popped it into the DVD player. In fact, I was more in a mood to not like it than like it because I put it in late at night, wanting only to finish it so I could drop it in the outgoing mail Saturday morning instead of having to wait until Monday morning.
My opinion can change quite a bit about movies I watched as a kid and then rewatch now, but I honestly can’t think of any film to have undergone such a radical transformation in three years as CRYSTAL SKULL.
The easiest answer is that my expectations were so much higher in 2008 than 2011; back then it was the first Indy film in 19 years and SKULL had the accumulated weight of all those years waiting for the next chapter. Combine that with the general lack of satisfaction from the STAR WARS prequels, the general asshattery of Lucas and Spielberg in constantly tweaking and editing their old films, the inclusion of Shia LeBeouf, and the ridiculous “atomic refrigerator” sequence right near the start, and perhaps it’s simply a matter of my hopes being too high.
If you buy that line, however, then you have to also recognize that I wasn’t a massively huge Indiana Jones fan as a kid, so waiting for INDIANA JONES 4 came in well below the anticipation for the new Star Wars movies, the Spider-Man films, the Batman movies, and especially the Lord of the Rings movies. It was more like, “Hey, new Indy, new Harrison Ford? Let’s go eat some popcorn and watch this sucker.”
I was let down but not crushed in the way I was when THE PHANTOM MENACE festered in move theaters in 1999. I felt betrayed by PHANTOM – like Lucas had personally not only let me down but abandoned me in his insistence that he was making a kid’s movie and so some of the stupidity inherent in the film was okay. I hated that Lucas didn’t allow his films to grow up with me – it’s a selfish response, of course, but when you give all of those years of fandom to a movie you do feel, justified or not, like it was made for you and so you expect that future chapters of the story will be made for you, too. In hindsight, it’s completely silly to think this way, of course. I was a wee lad in 1977 and an adult by 1999, but Lucas was an adult that entire time. And even if he wasn’t, it’s his stories, his characters, his universe, so if he wants to make Star Wars into a kid-movie franchise, that’s his call, not mine. I don’t have to like it, but I was fooling myself if I thought anything else.
I typically like to name my reviews after a line from the movie, which is why I grabbed “How Much of Human Life is Lost in Waiting?” for this review. The line is spoken by Harold Oxley (John Hurt), who took Marion and Mutt in and then went nutty when he gazed too long into the crystal skull. Anticipation can be a great thing, but when it comes to movies or books or TV shows there’s a difference between waiting for the next season and waiting for the potential, hypothetical next Indiana Jones or Star Wars or Police Academy movie. If the people in charge of the franchise aren’t in a rush to get a movie made, you might as well go find something else because if you’re waiting, someone else is waiting, and they might actually have access to enough money to do something about it.
This belief is what led to my oft-repeated, snarky line back around the turn of the century that, “The best Indiana Jones movie ever made was called RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The second was called The Mummy. The third best was called The Mummy Returns, and no one cares what the fourth best was.” It was (mildly) funny, but I really believed that the Mummy movies were better than the latter two Indy films. I wasn’t going to mourn the lack of a new Indiana Jones movie because I had the two Mummy movies, so when CRYSTAL SKULL came out in 2008 I was just as excited about the third Mummy movie.
Both sucked. So it goes …
Perhaps history will be kind to THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, because what we have here (when stripped of everything that went into me sitting in a theater three years ago) is a perfectly enjoyable adventure film. It’s not close to perfect, it’s still probably the worst of the four, and it feels trapped in a tug-of-war between Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford, but it’s become an enjoyable, if overlong, watch.
As I mentioned, there is a sense of the film being caught between its three creators. From Spielberg, I get the sense that he just wanted to make a mass-appealing roller coaster ride that gave Indiana Jones a happy ending. It’s Spielberg directing from a place of aged contentment; whatever ups and downs Spielberg has experienced over the years, one gets the sense that he’s settled in comfortable with himself and his art at this stage in his life, but not necessarily the world we inhabit. SKULL is set in the late 1950s and it’s easy to see the political unrest in the country – with the (perceived) threat of Commies everywhere – as a stand-in for the “patriotic” discourse fueled by Fox News and the Republicans at the end of the George W. Bush administration.
Lucas, of course, seems to be mentally regressing, using “it’s a kid’s film” as an excuse for crappy film making, yet he’s also clearly the most concerned about his legacy. He initially expressed an interest in seeing this franchise push forward with Shia LeBeouf in the lead (God help us) and there’s more Star Wars content out now (or in the pipeline) than there ever was in the past. The film regrettably dabbles in a bunch of “old man” rhetoric between Mutt and Indy, but luckily neither the film nor the franchise becomes LeBouef’s.
Then there’s Ford, who comes off as something of a curmudgeon these days, his understated demeanor now seeming tired and bored more than anything else. Ford has become, in his own way, a relic of past glories, much like the B-movies that Spielberg and Lucas celebrate with the Indiana Jones series. It’s nice to see him relax a bit here, and he plays the aging archaeologist as a man saddened by what’s happened personally (the deaths of his bad and Marcus Brody) more than nationally (the red scare).
Make no mistake, however, this movie works because of Harrison Ford’s acting more than anything else.
As annoying as LeBeouf can be, Ford is at his best when it’s just him and Mutt on-screen together. Mutt is Indy’s kid, but we don’t find that revelation out until the film is halfway gone. Prior to that revelation, Ford and LeBeouf work well together. LeBeouf’s Mutt Williams is a Brando-esque greaser – exactly the kind of cheap regurgitation of the past that Lucas seems to love so much – and he’s quick to fly into a temper. Indy remains calm, telling Mutt that he doesn’t have to pretend to act tough all the time by getting angry. (It’s advice LeBeouf the actor would do well to heed, too.)
While the initial chase scene across campus with Mutt and Indy goes on too long, the chemistry between them is firmly established and the grave robbing sequence in Peru is effectively produced. I actually enjoyed the Mutt/Indy dynamic fine prior to the revelation of their relationship. When Mutt tells Indy he wants to be a mechanic and that his mom is angry with him for dropping out of school, Indy tells him he should do whatever makes him happy. Contrast that to his post-revelation response, which is delivered to Marion: “Why didn’t you make him finish school?”
I love Karen Allen and I love the character of Marion Ravenwood, but once she shows up in CRYSTAL SKULL the adventure movie we’ve been watching takes an unwanted shift over into a campier realm where bickering is the main conversational tone. Prior to that, what we’re seeing with Indy and Mutt is an extension of the Indy/Short Round relationship from TEMPLE OF DOOM, and it’s a shame that Indy changes into such a parenting dick when he finds out Mutt is his actual kid and not just any old kid.
They’ve dumped the Nazis for the Soviets and it’s a wise choice, with Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko serving as the main bad guy. Blanchett plays Spalko as cold and calculating and because of that there’s not really anything memorable in the character. She’s much closer to Julian Glover’s Donovan than Paul Freeman’s Belloq in terms of her overall effectiveness. There’s a whole plot here, of course, that Spalko drives concerning the maybe-alien crystal skulls but it’s all insignificant to the Indy-Mutt and then Indy-Marion relationships.
There are still massive idiot moments in the movie – jumping in the fridge to survive a nuclear bomb test, Mutt’s Tarzan romp through the jungle – but on the whole KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL has become an enjoyable film to me. I like the pacing, I like Ford’s take on Indy, and I like Ray Winstone’s Mac. It’s a tad too silly at times, but it’s also highly enjoyable at other times, too. I wish the film had stayed less busy with the clutter of characters, but on the whole the good far overwhelms the bad.
But I’m not going to hold my breath for INDIANA JONES 5 – there’s plenty of other great films out there needing to be watched for me to wait around waiting for Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford to agree on something new.
Here’s the Full List of Indiana Jones movie reviews:
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK: Asps. Very Dangerous. You Go First.
TEMPLE OF DOOM: Two Hours of Kate Capshaw Shrieking Like a Harpy
THE LAST CRUSADE: You Lost Today, Kid. But That Doesn’t Mean You Have to Like It.
THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL: How Much of Human Life is Lost in Waiting?