For your benefit, I will begin this article with a warning: 18 seconds of this movie consist of Shia LeBeouf swinging from vines with CGI monkeys. I know 18 seconds doesn’t seem like a long time, but apparently it’s an eternity for some people. It all depends on your perspective, or lack thereof.
In 2008, Harrison Ford returned to the screen as globe-trotting archaeologist Henry “Indiana” Jones, Junior after a 19-year absence. I myself have been (to be kind) fanatical about Indy since Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, so before I saw Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I knew several things.
- Prior to the Disney buyout, Indiana Jones movies could only be produced with the approval of three men; director Steven Spielberg, writer/producer George Lucas, and Ford. This ensures the quality and consistency of an installment in the life-saga of a legendary figure.
- Adult Indiana Jones can really only be played by Harrison Ford, who was in his sixties in 2008, so I correctly guessed the movie would take place in the 1950s, and feature Commies rather than Nazis as the villains.
- Each Indy movie spotlights a personal milestone, and since I knew Marion Ravenwood was returning (20 years after Raiders), I correctly predicted Indy would become a father, and that LaBeouf was probably his son.
- Indy found the Holy Grail in Last Crusade, and there’s no other quest item that’s as well-known (excepting El Dorado, which, coincidentally, is featured in Crystal Skull), so there’s nowhere to go but down with the MacGuffins. Especially if you’re stuck on the 1930s.
After I left the theater the first time I saw Crystal Skull, I felt disappointed. Not because of what I’d seen. Because the Indy movie was over, and it could be ages before there’s another one.
THE SAME WAY I FELT AFTER LEAVING TEMPLE OF DOOM AND LAST CRUSADE.
I’m telling you straight, Crystal Skull was unfairly received. It didn’t deserve the Razzies, it didn’t deserve the derision, and it DAMN sure didn’t deserve an ass-raping orgy on South Park. Not to go off on it again, but that was the last South Park I ever watched. I’m not gonna sit through commercials so some jack-off can whine about a movie he didn’t like. And I don’t care if the show’s “gotten better”. It’s never met the modern standard for animated television, in my opinion, and it shrilly tells the audience what to safely hate. It’s nothing that would see airtime if it wasn’t propped up by Viacom. Don’t be naive.
But instead of sprinkling bile, I’m going to walk you through it, and show you why you were wrong to hate on it. I’ll point out the many great things everyone ignored in their manic, post-Prequels rush to childishly rage on George Lucas. You’ll see that Crystal Skull is as consistent and necessary as the other three chapters. You’ll understand that it’s an all-too-rare gift from the makers to Indy fans, like Last Crusade. You’ll realize that its flaws are forgivable, if not endearing.
It’s taken me eight years to be this nice to you about it.
Let’s start at the top. One of the things I love about Lucas, is that he hates to show you the same thing twice. Each Indy movie has a distinctive, in medias res opening scene, implying that his life is a never-ending series of adventures, going back to boyhood. Crystal Skull starts with a beautiful fake-out, reminiscent of Temple of Doom, in that for a moment you think you walked into the wrong movie. There’s even Elvis music.
Before that; a CGI prairie dog.
Why not use real prairie dogs? Because:
- They aren’t remotely trainable
- Even if they were, it wouldn’t be worth three brief appearances
- The production of a movie is a finite thing, and CGI rendering is preferable to someone taking forever to wrangle a damn prairie dog while the sun is out and a film crew is waiting
Do the CGI prairie dogs look fake? No more fake than the miniature mine car chase in Temple of Doom, or the blue-screen aerial dogfight in Last Crusade. As with LeBeouf and the monkeys, if you’re going to fixate on a few seconds of film, you’re in the wrong place. You’ll have to suspend your disbelief a lot more than that to enjoy Indiana Jones movies. The series carries the torch of old serial adventure, which is one of the reasons I consider it so important. For example, here we start with a car chase.
In 1957 Nevada, a jalopy loaded with teenagers scorches across the desert. This is another throwback to Lucas’ boyhood of California muscle rods and their drivers, which he illuminated in American Graffiti (1973). More importantly, this is directed by the fucking Picasso of car chases, Steven Spielberg.
It’s gorgeous. The horizon extends into infinity. The bobby-soxers are in the rumble seat. Everyone is caught up in the thrill and freedom of speed. They pull alongside a military caravan, and shout at the soldier driving to floor it. All the while, “Hound Dog” is blasting on the speakers- it sounds like the first time I’ve heard it. Spielberg’s touch is so deft at this point in his career that the lens seems to dance around wheels and bumpers, gliding over the asphalt. If you do what you’re supposed to do as a movie-goer, and forget how you think this movie should be, you could be enjoying this very much.
There seems to be something off about the soldiers, as they speed alongside the teens. The caravan enters a military base, the kids drive off for other kicks, and this is all so subtle that you may not get the message yet.
The kids in the jalopy are the American life we used to enjoy. Then comes paranoia, and military intervention, which turns out to be an opportunity for the enemy to invade. Sound fairly prescient for 2008? For now?
The soldiers are Russians incognito, and they infiltrate the military base in marvelous Bond-villain fashion, by hiding in single-file formation. This is like the “breath of God” sequence from Last Crusade, where something must be observed from a fixed point of view. (True confession time: I didn’t fully understand that sequence until college, when I learned about “forced perspective”. How exalting, to have to learn to “get something”?! Why do you think the jokes on classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 resonate as deeply with viewers as they do?)
This intro is a lovely distraction- Indiana Jones is actually in the trunk, alongside occasional partner George “Mac” MacHale (Ray Winstone). The soldiers drag them out, reporting that they’d been digging in the dirt, in Mexico. The poor bastards had been fermenting in there since south of the border.
Up strides this entry’s major villain, and this time, it’s a lady, played to perfection by Cate Blanchett.
Cate Blanchett has, no question about it, earned her place in the pantheon of great Indiana Jones baddies. We still talk about Rene Belloq and Mola Ram not just because they were the villains; Indiana Jones characters are colorful and larger than life, especially the foils. Spalko is no exception.
She was a favorite of Josef Stalin. She is rumored to be able to read minds. She has the lithe body of a gymnast and has wearied of sword fighting because no man can best her. You get the impression that she gave up sleep because it wastes time. Once she loses the titular skull, she doesn’t so much as sit down for the rest of the movie. It’s absolutely nuts.
Not only that, but she gets numerous extreme close-ups in this movie. I saw this film once at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, on a 40-foot screen. Say what you will about this movie, say what you will about Cate Blanchett; her skin is FUCKING FLAWLESS.
Spalko also gets some of the movie’s best dialogue, as she prepares to expose a bound Indy to the mysterious aura radiating from the crystal skull, and observe the effects:
“Imagine. To peer across the world and know the enemy’s secrets. To place our thoughts into the minds of your leaders. Make your teachers teach the true version of history, your soldiers attack on our command. We’ll be everywhere at once, more powerful than a whisper, invading your dreams, thinking your thoughts for you while you sleep. We will change you, Dr. Jones, all of you, from the inside. We will turn you into us. And the best part? You won’t even know it’s happening.”
Fuck anyone who doesn’t like this movie.
This is the first time we’ve seen Indy in 19 years, and it’s wonderful. He’s grumpy and uncooperative. He looks like he was happier in the trunk. Spalko tries to read Indy’s mind, and when he proves too tough, she playfully slaps his giant ham of a face. If I look as good as Harrison Ford at 60- shit, at 70– I’ll be a happy man. This is, without a doubt, Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Junior.
The proof comes when the Russians order Indy to enter the military base and locate an artifact for them. He basically tells them to sit on a samizdat, but they point rifles at him and insist. Here’s where things start to get juicy.
We’ve seen this base before; it’s where government bureaucrats ordered the Ark of the Covenant stashed, at the end of Raiders. What we didn’t know is what it was called:
This is one of the smartest aspects of this movie. Indy has always walked the line between history and myth. He speaks a zillion languages. He found the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. Here, he gets to be utterly out of his element. He even says “nuke-ular”. He is appropriately dad-like. He knows what’s necessary for the story, and mystery fills in the rest.
Ten years earlier, the government forced Indy to examine wreckage from Roswell. All he knows is that the artifact is magnetic, so he concocts a marvelous plan to locate it in the cavernous warehouse; he gets gunpowder from the Russians’ bullets and throws it into the air.
The whole sequence is terrific, with Indy leading Spalko and the soldiers through the warehouse as they pour shot into hats for him to throw. The sound design of the magnetic pull is well-realized, and it guides your ears while what’s on screen guides your eyes, like an undulating python. Indy locates the box, and when the Russians pull it out of its nesting place, the flood lights 30 feet overhead are pulled by its magnetism.
(Angry Matty sneaks in briefly.)
How could you fail to get excited about this? The idea behind this movie is that your concept of the “typical alien” is utterly incorrect. But it turns out a lot of you (South Park fans) saw an “alien”, decided you were too cool for the room, and shut your minds. That’s not the movie’s problem; that’s yours.
(Angry Matty slinks back out, sulking.)
This is gonna be a long article. Eight years, folks.
In fact, to keep this thing from becoming a bloated, wheezing monster, I have to get briefer from here on. I started writing this in 2008, and I’ve been hacking at it since January of this year. There are ten revisions already, and I’m closing in on 2000 words. Next time think a little harder before you hate on a movie I love, okay? Pretty please?
The magnetic crate is discovered and opened, revealing a sarcophagus packed inside a huge ammo box. The build-up to the opening is electric; dogtags, eyeglasses and various sundry items are all slowly tugged towards the casket, as Russian soldiers carry it to Spalko. She gamely cuts the rubber shroud open with a dagger, which isn’t affected by the magnetic pull; a detail that escapes her notice, but is actually foreshadowing. She peels that sucker open, exposing what looks like the corpse of a “grey alien”, packed in dry ice. She actually reaches in and inspects the thing’s grody steaming arm. Cut to the Russian soldiers. Their reactions are absolutely priceless. They can probably smell it.
Look at those mugs. This is one of my favorite moments in the whole film. Russian soldiers are trained not to show fear, and they’re looking at something that’s making them betray their tough exterior for a moment or two. It’s a million times better than showing you a corpse that you’re just going to assume is a grey alien you’ve seen everywhere, and not actually something else.
THE CRYSTAL SKULL OF AKATOR
The skull itself has to be one of the most incredible props I’ve ever seen. Film has a funny way of revealing the fakeness of props; high-definition only makes matters worse. On screen, the Skull looks priceless, shaped like an elongated headbone and big as a watermelon. It’s as realistic as anything else on-screen, and in every shot it looks just phenomenal. Even if you hate this movie, you have to acknowledge the sheer craftsmanship that is on display here. Someone had to make this thing that looks like nobody on Earth could possibly make it.
Plus, like almost all major Indy artifacts, the Skull has a sound that illustrates its otherworldly power. The Ark of the Covenant made that wawawa-wowww-WOWWW noise when God cleaned house, or when doofus Nazis painted a swastika on its packing crate. The Sankara stones gave off a hum when placed together. The Holy Grail was silent, partly because it’s a different type of artifact, but mainly so it could hide behind the fancier chalices and have a good laugh at the expense of those who chose poorly.
The Skull makes a deep metallic buzz if you stare into its eyes, and if you stare long enough, you may experience telepathy briefly, before you totally lose your mind. I almost had a fucking heart attack when I saw the similarities between the Skull and Shining Example’s Space Rock XT-912, but honestly some coincidences are just that; coincidences. Look at the dates*. Still, it scared the shit out of me on a cosmic level for a millisecond.
(*This is referencing an obscure detail from John’s Arm: Armageddon, which is more proof I started this article in 2008.)
It’s vitally important that the Skull is outside Indy’s expertise, like Area 51. He’s dumbfounded when it attracts gold, when neither it nor crystal are magnetic. Our reliable guide has finally thrown up his hands in defeat. He looks to Mutt and meekly inquires:
“What is this thing?”
INDY THE STORYTELLER
At least twice during this movie, Harrison Ford spins a yarn, while the ambient audio disappears and the score creeps in. This is a reminder that you are watching possibly the greatest movie star in the history of film.
There’s gonna be a day, when we won’t have Harrison Ford anymore. You’ll see him as Indiana Jones, riding a horse, expertly firing a revolver or cracking a whip, and you’ll realize that everything good about Hollywood was present within this one man. You’ll look back at this movie, and you’ll realize that he could grab the audience by the collar with a handful of words, even in his twilight. You’ll see that there is no contemporary equivalent to fill his shoes, and that he was every bit the legend he was on screen. This one man; the keystone of your formative life.
So when he tells tales of catching typhus while hunting El Dorado, or buses with blacked-out windows, or being taken hostage as a lad by Pancho Villa, you listen and enjoy.
I’ve had my falling-out with Shia LeBeouf due to his habit of shitting on movies he starred in that I liked. That’s like saying, “Oh, you don’t like the cake I baked for you? Well, I thought the recipe was stupid, so I didn’t wash my hands when I made it.” If you’re an actor, you don’t get to play Ebert too. That’s not how it works.
However, I can certainly see why Spielberg invested so much in LeBeouf. Clearly visible in the above picture is the reason why he was cast as Mutt Williams: he and Ford have the exact same profile.
Look at it and tell me I’m wrong. Mutt looks more like Indy than River Phoenix did in Last Crusade. Shia, if you’re reading this, you could be making movies right now if you’d kept your opinions to yourself. You are an actor.
Let’s get this out of the way too:
- “Mutt” is one letter off from “Matt”
- My dad was born in 1937, a year after Raiders of the Lost Ark took place
- I’m an American mutt
- JUST LET ME HAVE THIS, OKAY?!?
Also for personal reasons, I appreciate the happy ending, with the wedding and such. It’s nicer than putting out a “Death Movie”, like some people do.
Many terrific scenes unfold at the college where Indy professes, often following up on similar moments in previous movies. Federal agents ransack Indy’s office, causing the Dean (Jim Broadbent) to fire him. (Rather, force him to take a leave of absence.) Broadbent is a welcome presence here, as he sadly reveals his resignation in the wake of the incident.
At Indy’s home, he and the Dean commiserate over brandy, lamenting the state of life under the Red Scare. Indy’s eyes fall upon framed photos of his father, and old friend Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott).
Indy: Brutal couple of years, huh Charlie? First Dad, then Marcus…
Dean: It seems we’ve reached the point where life stops giving us things, and starts taking them away.
That’s some pretty incredible dialogue, in this movie you hate so much. Maybe when you’re older, and you’ve lost some things, you’ll get it.
MARION RAVENWOOD RETURNS
Karen Allen was coaxed out of retirement to play Marion again. Marion and Indiana Jones make Leia and Han Solo look like kindergarteners.
I don’t know how old Allen was in 2008. She looks great. She drives an amphibious vehicle along jungle cliffsides without cracking a sweat. The idea has always been that Marion is Indy’s match; in fact, she’s even tougher. Remember when the Ark of the Covenant was opened, and the wrath of God emerged and scorched the Nazis to ash?
Marion was lashed to a post wearing nothing but a silk nightgown.
She wore similar attire when thrown into a seething pit of snakes. Asps, in fact. Veddy dangerous.
Something else everyone forgets about Karen Allen; she can emote and deliver dialogue understandably while gagged. She did it in Raiders, and she gets to do it again here. It’s no fetish; it’s a woman letting you know that as soon as the bonds come off, you’re gonna get fucked up.
My connections to the character of Marion Ravenwood run very deep, since I was 9 and I thought she was blown up in a truck. Seeing her again 27 years later was tremendous. I believe a lot of contemporary audiences should count their blessings.
At the Fox, when Indy told Marion “they weren’t you”, the entire audience burst into rapturous applause. Hundreds of people.
GEORGE “MAC” MACHALE
Ray Winstone brings more than just physical heft to the role of Mac. In Crystal Skull we see the dissolution of Mac’s friendship with Indy, a bond that goes all the way back to WWII, when Indy was in the OSS. (Let that sink in.) Mac has seen all sides of war as an MI6 double agent, and any personal ethics he once held have long since eroded. Winstone assays the role of Mac with a deft mix of aplomb and defeat. We want to see Mac rise above what he’s allowed himself to become, since he’s a confidant of Indy’s, but he knows redemption is simply not in the cards. He’s cheated too many for too long.
Not to mention, Mac is a nice metaphor for the prickly British-American (and vice versa) relations of the middle 20th century. And he’s an instant classic Lucas “imagination stoker” character in the vein of Temple’s Wu Han, where the audience is given the backstory pieces, and invited to imagine everything they don’t see for themselves. Let’s use Boba Fett as an example. Really, how much of Boba Fett did everyone see in The Empire Strikes Back, in 1980? I mean, he’s not one of the most popular, enduring icons of all time or anything, right?
HAROLD “OX” OXLEY
I am a gigantic fan of John Hurt; for crying out loud, his was the chest the titular monster burst from, in 1979’s Alien. He was Hazel in Watership Down! He was Winston Smith in 1984!
Here, as Oxley, he’s an old colleague of Indy’s from the University of Chicago. He spent some time in a South American sanitarium, and he looks like death warmed over. Much of the tension in Crystal Skull comes from a frail-looking elderly person in peril. It works nearly as well as children (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., etc.).
To give you an idea of how good Hurt is in this, that’s him looking normal at the wedding, at the end. That’s why Mutt cries when he sees him, and the cell he was trapped in.
Aside from Temple of Doom, no other Indiana Jones movie spends as much time in creepy, scary places. If you enjoyed Dungeons & Dragons and Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, you’ll be delighted by Crystal Skull‘s final act. Included are:
- elaborate traps and pitfalls
- Nazca warriors that pop out of the walls*
- a museum room with artifacts from all of history
- a ready room with an interdimensional being divided into 13 selves**
- a transdimensional centrifuge that looks like a goddamn FLYING SAUCER***
*They weren’t “dormant” inside the walls, for fuck’s sake. They got in secretly, to scare you half to death before you die.
**This is stated, on screen, both directly and obliquely. It’s easy to get angry for people complaining about “aliens”, when it’s repeatedly stated in the film that they are not. What you “knew” about aliens was incorrect. Misinformation is a key theme in the movie. (By the way; 13? That would be the number of Jesus and his Apostles.)
***I can’t believe I live in a world where people don’t get excited about a FLYING SAUCER.
Maybe it’s because I saw it in IMAX. That saucer sequence nearly brought tears to my eyes, even more so than the mushroom cloud. Crystal Skull reminds me of my love for the movies every time I watch it. That heart of American legend and courage beats as loudly there as any other Indy movie. Do you honestly believe I could sit here and write almost 4,000 words on an unwatchably stupid turkey? Really?
It’s long past time for me to let this go. In closing, Crystal Skull is my second-favorite Indiana Jones movie after Raiders. If you can’t see why, subject yourself to this article a second time.
If you think I’m wasting my time defending insensitive millionaires, consider the scene where Indy is interrogated by government agents, after a miraculous escape from a nuclear blast inside a lead-lined fridge. A great scene, by the way, and the very definition of “unfairly maligned”. (It’s a harrowing, well-shot escape sequence that totally does its job. What the fuck do you know about the effects of a nuclear blast?)
Anyway, the “men in black” have a real attitude with Dr. Jones, suspecting him a Commie, and his friend, the highly-decorated General Ross, has to stick up for him.
Ross: [re: Indy] Do you have any idea how many medals this son of a bitch won?
The agents are visibly unimpressed. One looks at Indy scornfully, and replies with sarcasm:
Agent: A great many, I’m sure. But does he deserve them?
That’s the audience attitude in a nutshell. Right there.
If I’ve enticed you to rewatch or reappraise your opinions of Crystal Skull, I’m glad. I hope I’ve at least proven that it doesn’t fit the definition of a bad movie; I had to leave out a dozen more things I love. (The kid from The Last Dragon is the shrieking guardian in the graveyard, for example.) To appreciate Crystal Skull is to appreciate that our lives have phases, and the things we once found intense change in their priority. It contrasts the raucous, earlier adventures of the man in the way life itself does, as it inevitably goes on.
And there’s actual bad movies out there, that deserve your rage.