I came across the exploits of Indiana Jones in 2008 in the form of the fourth installment of the series, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I was 18 at the time, and decided that I could pay $7.50 for a movie ticket, another 15 dollars on a medium-size popcorn and soda cup, be in a movie theater for two hours, have a good time and still save money rather than paying an obscene amount of cash to spend the waning days of my Senior year at Disneyland for 12 hours. I remember enjoying myself and the film rather fine, but as I grew older and as my tastes (hopefully) matured, I had realized that many an irate fanboy weren’t happy with the final product that had appeared. Hell, there was a whole episode on South Park, dedicated to Kyle, Stan and the gang from the sleepy, redneck mountain town looking aghast in horror about how George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were abusing the character Indy himself!
I took on the task of doing this series, in part to address Kingdom itself. Not only to understand and talk about Indiana Jones from eyes who have never gotten to know this collaboration between two of film’s greatest storytellers, but to figure out if this movie is as much of a stain on the legacy of its character as the passionate fanboys say and believe it is…
Yeah, no. Over-react, much?
There are good reasons to find fault with the fourth installment, but I believe the initial reaction was overzealous. No, this movie is not the god-awful monstrosity the Internet made it out to be, but yes, I do understand that this movie suffers from two significant issues that stick out like a giant sore thumb.
We pick up Indy’s story (once again played by Harrison Ford), nineteen years later in 1957. He and his compatriot George McHale (Ray Winstone) have been captured by Soviet agents, led by Dr. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchette) to a warehouse which houses top government secrets in a unknown location in Nevada. She is on the trail of, what else, an artifact that can tip the scales of power for the Motherland in the Cold War. So far, we’re already leaning on plot threads picked up from Raiders of the Lost Ark, primarily, the powerful artifact / MacGuffin everyone is after, just substitute Nazis with Communists. Indy’s ally, Mac, as it turns out, is actually a traitor who sided with the Reds in order to square off personal debts, and forces his former partner to fight his way out of a bad situation, complete with escaping an atomic test blast by hiding his ass in a refrigerator. Why yes, we’re borrowing the bit where Indy is screwed over early by his associates, like how Alfred Molina left him stranded on the other side of a booby trap without his whip at the beginning of Raiders, or how Julian Glover screwed over Indy’s father by announcing his allegiance to the Nazis in order to find the Holy Grail and become immortal in Last Crusade.
Jones is approached by a Greaser, Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf) who claims that his old friend Oxley (the late John Hurt) has gone missing while searching for the lost city of Akator in Peru. According to legend, that city contains multiple crystal skulls and that whoever should return the last one to it’s resting place shall be granted vast, unimaginable power (again, borrowing plot points that were discussed in Raiders). So he and his new sidekick race to unlock the mystery of Oxley’s notes which act as a map to the location of the lost city before the Soviets can find it first. And yes, it’s basically the first and the third installments of the franchise being retold, albeit with Marion Ravenwood (yay, Karen Allen is back!) returning to the fold, which leads us to issue no.1 I have with Crystal Skull (and I’m sure everyone else does as well): it’s re-tread of what we’ve seen before in previous installments of the series.
From the race to find a powerful artifact that no mortal could possibly control, to the father-son bonding between an absent father and the son who’s trying to understand him (spoiler: Mutt Williams is Indy’s son, Henry Jones III, and Marion is his mother), these beats were done better the first time around. As a result, the proceedings just feel like old hat, like we’re not really breaking new ground. Well, sort of, but apparently the reveal that the skulls are actually aliens is too far out there, as opposed to a box that contains God’s power, and the blood of Christ that can make a person immortal.
Honestly, though? The rest of the film, as familiar as it feels, doesn’t fully lose it’s sense of adventure and fun. Ford, despite the fact he was well into his mid-60’s, still captures the spirit of why we loved him all those years ago in the 1980’s: he still has his rugged good looks, the leap-without-looking mentality when pushed into a tight corner, and he’s still as skillful with a whip and has a mean right hook. He might have more mileage and wear & tear on him, but he’s still Indiana Jones, famed archaeologist in a continuing search for knowledge and understanding of lost eras and sharing them with the world. It’s great to have Karen Allen back as Marion Ravenwood, and how her complicated relationship with Dr. Jones still has’t changed, but gotten even thornier as the years have gone on. And heck, some of the action scenes themselves are still played fast and loose with that Saturday morning cartoon-vibe still ingrained into the proceedings.
Unfortunately, this brings me to the second glaring issue many folks have with the movie: the crippling dependence on CGI. All three Indiana Jones movies had to be creative with how to shoot and stage their action scenes, and they relied heavily on stunt work, puppet work, using miniature models, stop-motion animation and only a sprinkling of computer effects to enhance the look of the scene. Like George Lucas with his Star Wars prequel trilogy, I believe that Spielberg got caught up with the advancements in computer-generated imagery and tried to be cute and creative and use green screen effects to show off really cool imagery, and as a result, some of the action scenes, like LaBeouf saber-dueling Cate Blanchette on top of two moving vehicles in the middle of the rain forest, and Indy escaping a nuclear blast via a fridge just take most of the sense of excitement out of these scenes. And instead it looks like cut scenes from a video game at best, and straight up ludicrous at worst.
Again, is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as bad as its reputation makes it out to be? Far from it, but yes, some of the shine has worn off, as it reverts to old formula from previous installments of the series. And yes, the over-reliance on CGI hurts the film instead of enhances it. But at the end of the day, it’s still an enjoyable, popcorn action-adventure, just not a fresh one like Raiders was, or contain the surprising poignancy that made Last Crusade emotionally satisfying. But I will say this: between slumming through this, or the nearly unwatchable, tone-deaf Temple of Doom: give me the aliens any day of the week.