Retrospective: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

In honour of the recent release of the complete adventures of Indiana Jones on Blu-ray, I thought this would be a terrific opportunity to revisit Indy’s latest outing, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Skull’s initial reception wasn’t overwhelmingly positive but it did fall in that respectable mixed-to-positive range among audiences and critics. Some loathed the film however, feeling that George Lucas yet again destroyed their childhood. Needless to say, there are numerous reviews out there that harshly critique the film – I will not be doing so here. What follows is a deliberately one-sided look at why I think Skull works as an Indiana Jones movie and why I have no qualms in ranking it alongside the previous films.

The Little Things

As they say, the devil’s in the details, and if there’s one thing that I appreciate as a fan it’s when filmmakers get the little things right.

One example is the opening titles – Indy films are known for having the Paramount logo fade into a similarly shaped object in order to start things off. Skull continues this tradition, even using a classic Paramount Pictures logo in order to mesh with what had come before.

Also on the subject of opening titles, Skull uses the same font for the opening credits as was used in Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade. Only Temple of Doom actually used the iconic typography that you see on the posters, promotional material and home releases of the films.

The Opening

Each Indy film begins with an action-packed prologue. In Raiders we got Indy running from a boulder, Temple saw him flee Club Obi Wan and Last Crusade gave us young Indy. Skull continues this tradition.

Interestingly, I find that the opening of Temple and Skull are almost entirely on point when it comes to structure.  Check it out:

Nuking the Fridge

Ok, I have to talk about this simply because it’s so infamous.  In my view this is one of those love it or hate it sequences. Personally, I love it – in fact, it’s one of my favourite scenes in the series.

Indy winds up in a quaint, picturesque town only to discover it’s deserted and full of mannequins. He realises as we do that this is part of a nuclear test site and soon to be incinerated by detonation. With seconds to spare Indy climbs inside a lead-lined refrigerator, managing to survive the powerful blast after being blown away some distance.

It’s ludicrous and completely over the top, but then the Indiana Jones series is not known for realism. These are movies based on the action adventure serials of the 1930s (Skull also appropriately draws on those from the 50s) – they’re glorified B-movies that have a sense of fun about them. Raiders was probably the most grounded film, but even then it’s a bit of a stretch.

How about that sequence when Indy hitches a ride on a submarine? Or jumping out of a plane and inflating a raft mid-air only to land on the side of a mountain, careen down the mountain and then fly off a sheer drop to land safely in a ravine in said inflatable raft? Or taking down a fighter plane with an umbrella and flock of birds? I could go on and on – and that’s not to mention all the supernatural stuff and heart-ripping that goes on in these stories.

Now, I know some of these things are possible, but are they all that probable? Reportedly, physicists have determined it would be possible to survive a nuclear detonation by hiding in a lead-lined fridge – but it’s not terribly likely.

Regardless, the reason why I enjoy the scene is because Harrison’s reactions as Indy are pitch perfect and his escape, while ridiculous, feels entirely like something Indy would do. Immediately after his miraculous escape the characters themselves jest at the fact Indy has just survived a nuclear blast and that fridges are death traps. Clearly, this is not something we’re supposed to take seriously.

Classic Indy

From this point on the film is structured pretty much like the previous Indy films. We see Indy at college teaching archaeology to his students. We then get the introduction of the titular MacGuffin (more on that later), which is followed by a nifty chase through the college grounds and which also includes one of the best uses of the Wilhelm Scream I’ve yet seen.

If there’s a weakness here it’s that there’s a bit of a dearth of action throughout the mid-section, but previous films like Raiders were also guilty of this. The dialogue is still interesting and Spielberg manages to infuse some great visual humour into the scenes. What makes it work though is Harrison, who proves he’s still got what it takes to play Indy.

Keeping Continuity

In Skull, we also learn more about the mysterious warehouse that was first and last seen at the end of Raiders.  We catch a glimpse of the Ark of the Covenant (which was also referenced in Last Crusade), learn what Indy has been up to for the past 19 years and also learn the fate of his father and favourites like Marcus Brody (did you catch the three references to Marcus?).

Setting Skull’s story 19 years after Last Crusade was a smart move because this reflected the real-life time between the production of the movies and so was age-appropriate for Harrison Ford. This moved the whole story forward to the 1950s, an era punctuated by the Cold War, Red Scare and nuclear arms and space races – all of which are issues that are touched on throughout the film. Crucially, the Soviets naturally stepped into the role of the Nazis as villains.

Bringing back Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen resuming her role) was also an inspired decision, as Marion was Indy’s original girl and the best fit for him. Likewise, introducing Indy’s son allowed for a reversal of the father-son dynamic that worked so well in Last Crusade.

Mutt Williams

Shia LaBeouf’s turn as Mutt Williams is entirely competent, inoffensive and not worth having a fit over. The character has a couple of neat idiosyncrasies, and his introduction is made to mirror Marlon Brando’s look in The Wild One. The name too – ‘Mutt’ – seems to be a nod to the fact that Indy himself is named after a dog. Fun fact: did you know that Short Round and Willie in Temple are also both named after dogs?

The End is the Same as Raiders’ Ending

I’m just going to let the pictures do most of the talking this time.

In both Raiders and Skull, Indy basically does nothing during the climax while the villains get taken out by their own curiosity in a flashy show of special effects. I’m not saying the ending is flawless – I’m still disappointed that Indy isn’t a more active participant – but I also levy the same criticism against Raiders since the same thing happens there.

Aliens!?

Technically they’re interdimensional beings but I’ll let that slide for now. So… what’s the big deal?

Perhaps I should backtrack a bit first with this one and begin with the MacGuffin (the object that drives the plot and which Indy is after). In Raiders it was the Ark and Last Crusade had the Holy Grail. Now we have the Crystal Skull, an artefact that’s a bit more esoteric and exotic, not unlike the Sankara Stones from Temple.

Crystal skulls therefore are exactly the kind of objects that Indy would go after. Popular depictions of the skulls often tie them to the ancient astronaut theory: the idea that early man was visited by extraterrestrials who cultivated our culture and technology. This theory was explored in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus earlier this year, and has been tackled in many other media as well – one example is the popular Stargate series.

The link to crystal skulls is made because some argue that such skulls could not have been made by human technology. Since many early cultures worshipped the sun and heavens, it’s suggested that the skulls might have had extraterrestrial encouragement.

While the titular Crystal Skull might then have more of a sci-fi leaning to it than the supernatural aspects of what’s come before – which again is appropriate given the 1950s setting – it’s still perfect fodder for an Indy adventure. Moreover, it helps make Skull a unique story rather than simply rehashing another Judeo-Christian artefact. Finally, when you come down to it, supernatural and sci-fi both fit under the broad heading of fantasy; if you can accept the wrath of god, magical stones and a 1000-year-old knight, why not aliens interdimensional beings?

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