In Defense Of: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Special Note: “In Defense Of” is a seasonal column series where I defend films that were not only panned in their initial release; that not only do I find to be pretty good, but also to hopefully encourage people to go back and re-evaluate them. So for this new installment, let’s begin with 2008′Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull!

Legacies can be as hollow as that one guy who seemingly only talks about the “good ole’ days” being back when he was in high school. And at times they run the same in long-running franchise filmmaking: It started gloriously back in the day, but as time progressed expectations grew higher and memories became lionized and romanticized. With all that, you may have heard of the Indiana Jones franchise, and inside that you may have heard of the franchise’s fourth film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It’s inside the opening twenty-minutes of that chapter of the franchise, where cinema’s most iconic archaeologist survives an atomic blast by hiding inside of a lead-lined refrigerator. It follows a scene in which a small squadron of Russian soldiers infiltrated Area 51, unveiled an alien corpse, and got derailed by an old, grizzled part-time college professor. So it’s safe to say that, even before the scene in question, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, like the earlier films in its series, doesn’t feel particularly beholden to realism. Nevertheless, a certain collective of moviegoers might (laughably) try to make you believe that the refrigerated moment devalues the entire Indiana Jones franchise. But a closer look — so quickly disregarded as the candied, counterfeit distillation of a hallowed film hero — reveals this sequence as a possible key to solving the Indiana Jones mythos, proving Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as a vital (if imperfect) chapter of this beloved saga, as necessary for its hero as it was for its maker.

Evidence suggests that Spielberg was mightily reluctant in trying to tackle a fourth Indiana Jones film. But it all started when producer George Lucas was struck with inspiration in the early ’90s; He asked, “What about an Indiana Jones film set in the ’50s that draws from the sci-fi B-movies of the era?” Spielberg and Harrison Ford weren’t sure about it, especially since the franchise’s previous film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, literally ended with Indy riding off into the sunset. But Lucas still saw the potential, so he brought on Die Hard and The Fugitive writer Jeb Stuart and Last Crusade writer Jeffery Boam to begin to start tackling a new Indiana Jones adventure. And what they all brought together was Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars, a vastly different film when compared to Crystal Skull, but included many elements that would eventually show up in the final film we all saw: an army of murderous ants, Russians as the villains, Indiana Jones pursuing a mysterious alien object, and Indy getting married.

crystal skull
Image via Paramount Pictures

But then Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day arrived in 1996, crushed the box office, and Spielberg pushed back on trying to tackle a blockbuster alien film. Years would pass before any talks would happen again, but then in 2000 while meeting at an AFI event, the talks began again with Spielberg, Ford, Lucas, and now producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. It was after that when M. Night Shyamalan was very briefly brought on to take a pass on a draft, but it was 2002 when The Shawshank Redemption and The Mist writer-director Frank Darabont came in with something completely different. Working over a year solely on it, Darabont delivered Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods, the script that brought the ancient civilization element, the nuke in the fridge moment, but also a lot more bleaker touches. Yet (as someone who has read it), Darabont’s fantastic script was loved by Spielberg but not by Lucas, so the script, as a whole, was moved aside. It was shortly after that when Catch Me If You Can writer Jeff Nathanson and Jurassic Park writer David Koepp came in and put/pieced together the film we all ultimately saw.

Yet the response to that film at the time of its release was decently positive, but over time has grown more negative. Even Spielberg started to offer versions of apologies during interviews post the film’s release. What’s surprising is that its pretty unwarranted. Perhaps this was always going to be the case: During all the aforementioned development, Spielberg wasn’t ever fully supportive of the plot’s somewhat controversial reliance upon “interdimensional beings,” but ultimately gave way to his friend George Lucas. Nevertheless, the film itself isn’t the work of a man wracked by doubt — Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a boisterous mix of Spielberg’s classicism with Lucas’ retrofuturism, that finds another familial touch for Spielberg. For over four decades, Spielberg has obsessively struggled to reconcile the opposing ideals of the modern man: the fight for domesticity and the thirst of adventure. His films acknowledge the need for the latter but ultimately rule in favor of the former, families and the real immediacy of their love positioned as the satisfying consolation prize for the hero’s impossible dream. In Spielberg’s films, family is almost never conflated with adventure but always the counter to it. E.T. wants to go home, and the movie ends as soon as he’s on his way. Catch Me If You Can‘s Frank Abagnale Jr. starts running the moment his family fractures, stopping only when he accepts Carl Hanratty as his surrogate father.

Image via Paramount Pictures

It’s an idea pivotal to Spielberg’s identity as a storyteller, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull serves as further affirmation of how it holds through his work. The crux of Indy’s appeal is that he’s the rare hero whose romantic bravado and heroic courage are at once both unique and recyclable. His roguish appeal is a timeless one, but Indy belongs to a very particular era, and the idea of immortality runs through the series as a trap for the foolish and greedy. Whereas the James Bond franchise requires its hero to be stuck on endless missions, the Indiana Jones films are powered by the promise of replacement, of heroes being reborn rather than simply recast. The Last Crusade ends with Indy having to actually let go of the Holy Grail — the most literal incarnation of his father’s pursuit, and the promise of immortality — in order to ride off into the sunset with his dad. The film positions adventure and family as mutually exclusive paths, and for almost twenty years it appeared as if the franchise would end with Indy practically resigning himself to the latter. Crystal Skull amends that conclusion, showing Spielberg returning to his most iconic hero not because he feels he was wrong, but because he seems to have learned that Indy should never have been forced to pick between an eternity alone or a family life together. Naturally, the only way to have Indy make that discovery for himself was to saddle him with a son of his own, repositioning everyone’s favorite adventurer so he once again confront the dilemma, but this time from a new perspective.

Essentially, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the story of Indiana Jones rebuilding the notion of the modern family in his own image, a notion that was disregarded when the discourse surrounding the film’s spectacular refrigerator opening sequence began to (foolishly) center on how Indy survives it, and not what’s destroyed in the process. When Indy finds himself in the heart of a nuclear test site, it initially appears as if he’s arrived in an idyllic desert ghost town. The streets are paved, the houses are pastel, and the people are plastic — it’s the most intensely foreign place Indy’s adventures have ever taken him: suburbia (Guy Hendrix Dyas’ production design throughout finds things both transportive and expansive). It’s a sequence of an off-kilter mood that Spielberg captures in minute detail, as we see Indy duck into the living room in hopes of finding a way to escape the imminent blast, and there he finds a model family of four sitting together on a sofa. He then borrows their fridge, but as the bomb detonates a few seconds later, Spielberg cuts away to revisit these particular mannequins, and we watch from several different angles as they’re blown to bits: the nuclear family writ large and disintegrated. When Indy emerges from the fridge, he hasn’t just escaped a fiery death, he’s also escaped an even greater fear.

kingdom of the crystal
Image via Paramount Pictures

Early on, we’re reminded how bad of a loner Indy is. All he wants is to do his own thing and to do it by himself, but despite his best efforts he always manages to be struck with all sorts of sidekicks. Of all Indy’s unwanted companions, Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf) is the least unlikely — his skills as a cynic are so pathetically underdeveloped that he and Indy are instantly simpatico. They share their similarities and fit together as thematic foils (even though Mutt on his own isn’t the strongest of characters). But where Indy actively searched for his father in Last Crusade in order to kick the plot into gear, here Indy’s son does the same for him. Indy’s quest is complicated further by the second-act reintroduction of his old flame, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), and the subsequent revelation that Mutt is their child. (As well there is other characters thrown in, such as Ray Winstone’s Mac and John Hurt’s Oxley, who as characters are incredibly weak to mixed.) Of course, Mutt and Marion soon prove to be valuable cohorts as Indy clashes against Cate Blanchett’s dastardly Irina Spalko in their race to obtain the knowledge of the skulls, and their contributions force Indy to reconsider one character’s earlier assessment that he’s “Reached the age where life stops giving us things, and starts taking them away.” On the contrary, as someone who is both an archeologist and a teacher, Indy is professionally dedicated to the idea that things can only be lost if they’re not preserved and passed along. Which, in this film, he attempts to do the same as a father.

The bane of Indy’s existence is made visually palpable in this installment in a way unique to the series, as the swooping, dynamic, unifying camerawork immediately sets apart Crystal Skull from the three previous Indiana Jones films (Janusz Kaminksi’s 35mm cinematography, while it might not match Douglas Slocombe’s gruff and tactile work in the original trilogy, balances the ‘00s blockbuster sleekness with richness of the period). In retrospect, the kinetic action here shines the most in the first fortyish minutes with two electric chase sequences, with Spielberg’s glorious staging front-and-center. Countless scenes attempt to constantly redefine Indy’s place in relation to the world around him, and to collapse his actions in the same frame as those of Mutt and Marion. The jungle chase sequence, for example, attempts this but is sadly distracted by the overwhelmingly weak visual effects. But this builds to when the villains have once again been destroyed by their lust for knowledge, and Indiana Jones has survived by settling for the smiling arms of a misshapen family.

Image via Paramount Pictures

There’s many problems with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and many of them were validly stated throughout the years post its release. From the shaky supporting characters to the weak visual effects to even more minute critiques (like how easily Indy breezes through many scenarios). Yet some fans were also miffed at the idea that Indiana Jones would ever get married because they felt it was contrary to his character. But Indy’s ultimate commitment to being involved in his son’s life satisfies the most pressing tension of his existence as a character. Moreover, in snatching his iconic fedora back from Mutt after the wind threatens to blow it away, Indy indicates that he’s not quite ready to hang up the whip, countering the popular trait of Spielberg schmaltz that family is only a motivating factor when it’s absent. Indy has learned that adventure is something he’s never been much good at by himself. And maybe its time for others to take the adventure of re-evaluation.

Where to Watch: Netflix

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