Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

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I don’t what to say about the most recent Indiana Jones film, but that’s not because it’s bad.  It’s just… kind of like the others.  It seems like filmmakers (or artists in general) often make a concerted effort to do something different, and when they do something that feels the same it’s because they didn’t try hard enough.  Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, however, feels like Spielberg tried very hard to do the same thing as before.

This film follows up a number of gritty, serious and not always successful films.  The color palette of this film is clean, bright and it really does feel like it could simply be a restored version of a movie shot around the time of The Last Crusade (except for the CGI).

I’m not the biggest Indiana Jones fan, and I don’t think you can separate a viewing experience of this latest film from the first three of those films.  Crystal Skull is built on the same foundation as RaidersTemple of Doom and The Last Crusade.  You start with Indy in a bind, followed by a long action sequence in which he escapes from the bad guy.  Then Indy goes back to his university to teach, someone approaches him with a new mystery, he sets off on his adventure, unlocking clues along the way, then the bad guy from the beginning of the movie catches up with him, then he faces more danger not just from the elements (snakes, beetles, etc.) but also from the main villain, then he rescues his friend and/or love interest, then the bad guy gets disintegrated, vaporized or face-melted, then Indy escapes with his family in tact.

When this movie first came out, I remember there being a lot of frustration towards Spielberg and Hollywood in general.  It’s one of those very common complaints about Hollywood not having any original ideas and only remaking or adapting projects.  But having very recently watched the first three Indy movies, this one is no better or worse than those, in my opinion.  Were I to rank them, Raiders would be number one, Temple of Doom would be last and The Last Crusade and Crystal Skull would battle it out for the second spot.

In other words, this movie is not that bad or the first three are not that good.  Of course, this is only my opinion here, and I think a lot of the appeal for those original Indy movies was that they appealed to a sense of adventure, particularly in a young audience which by 2008 would be all grown up.  Like the new installments of Star Wars, however, I think the idea is that the original fans of Indiana Jones could take their kids to this movie because despite some violence, these movies are made for both adults and kids, like a cartoon.

I guess the main concern with this movie is whether or not the spirit of Indiana Jones and his adventures lives on.  And I think it does.  Sure there may have been some greed in the production of this movie, but there’s greed in any production of any movie with a budget as big as this one.  I’m really veering off into pointless speculation here.  What I suppose I’m saying is that this film was more fun than I anticipated.  It’s not my favorite film by any measure, but it fit in with what I’ve seen from the first three films.

So the story is set in 1957, and instead of Nazis, Indy faces off against KGB spies and Joseph Stalin’s favorite scientist, Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett).  Spalko is broad, villainous and that’s about it.  She has a role to play, and she plays it.  Indiana Jones deals with broad strokes, good versus bad, protection versus greed, us versus them, Americans versus Nazis and now Americans versus the KGB.

Whereas the macguffin in the previous films was almost always a religious item (the lost ark, the holy grail for example), this one is more magical and in someways scientific.  Everyone searches for a crystal skull, and within the first sequence of the film we see that aliens exist.  I guess it’s hard to classify this as scientific, but aliens are related to science I suppose.  The crystal skull isn’t exactly scientific but it’s kind of proof of other intelligent life in the universe.  The focus of the film is less religious and more… I’m not sure what to call it.

When I think of aliens I think of the future.  Aliens feel futuristic, but this film and every Indiana Jones film deals with past.  After all, Indy is an archeologist, constantly uncovering mysteries of the past.  In order to keep that same story structure, aliens become part of the past.  Indy is joined on the mission by Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) who is pretty clearly going to be revealed to be his son (he is).  Mutt is looking for his mother, who turns out to be Marion Ravenwood from Raiders of the Lost Ark and for Professor Oxley, both of whom went missing.

On their journey together, Indy and Mutt discover the crystal skull and deduce that Oxley had discovered it but then returned it.  The mystery is why.  They are soon capture by Spalko and the Russians who already have captured Oxley and Marion.  Oxley, it turns out, has gone a bit crazy from looking too long at the crystal skull.

Honestly, I forget what happens next.  I mean, I know Spalko makes Indy stare at the skull for some reason.  I think she says it’s so they can scramble his brains so he can communicate with Oxley, but I’m not sure why that would work, except it kind of does.  Oxley draws a map and they search for Akafor.  Okay I remember now.  Spalko wants to go to Akafor because she believes there will be more skulls there and that these skulls will give the Russians power over the human mind.  Okay, so that’s what’s going on.

They eventually reach Akafor but only after a long, I’d say pretty entertaining car chase scene that stretches the limits of believability until you remember this is Indiana Jones and there’s always a car chase scene like this.  So our heroes get away, the go to Akafor, but the Russians are still following them.  They find the other skulls, but then Spalko shows up and is the one to hold the skull in front of the other alien skeletons.  The skulls get mad or something, and they burn Spalko to death on the spot.

The alien skeletons join into one and an alien appears.  He or she leaves with the alien space ship which has been underground this entire time.  The alien ship leaves, and we’re all happy.

Okay, so as you can tell by how I breezed through the end of that recap, I didn’t really care about this story.  I still feel like defending this movie against criticism, but that’s only because I thought all of the Indiana Jones films were a little cheesy.  If you like those, you should like this, but I don’t think people want to like this one.

I don’t want to start speculating again, so I’ll just discuss some other observations I had.

The idea that Spalko wants to control the human mind reminded me of the differences in the horror genre over the years.  I read a book a while ago about how horror movies change over time, reflecting cultural fears.  Early horror stories involve vampires or Frankenstein.  I’m not sure if these are the earliest examples, but they’re early examples nonetheless.  In these instances, the fear is of something outside of us that is easily identifiable.  You see a vampire and you know it’s a vampire, and the same goes for zombies.

In other horror films, though, the danger comes from people who look like us.  This could be someone in your community, your family or you yourself.  I think this reflects the cultural fears of communism aka the red scare.  Communists were probably thought to look just like you, and I think (though I don’t know all the details at that time) that in the 50’s, people were occasionally fearful that communists lived in their communities.  In other words, the danger is more difficult to identify and could come from within.

In this film, Spalko momentarily seems to be able to control Indy’s mind, but that threat goes away almost immediately.  In the four Indiana Jones films in general, though, the danger is very much clear and foreign.  There are many depictions of tribal communities that feel very simplistic and probably a little offensive, so the danger is almost always other.  I feel like Crystal Skull was about to touch on that idea of danger from within, but it really did seem to abandon it pretty quickly when Indy didn’t succumb to the mind control of the crystal skull.

But I think this series of films was never meant to be hard-hitting.  Indy triumphs over all, family triumphs over all, the gritty American triumphs over all, etc.  We root for Indy and he wins, that’s the unwritten pact that both Spielberg and the audience have agreed to before going on.

So while I think there are some interesting ideas raised in this film, the nature of Indiana Jones is such that it’s not a sufficient arena for any kind of debate or thoughtful questions.  Think of the questions raised in Spielberg’s previous film, Munich and imagine any kind of debate like that existing in the Indiana Jones world.

The simplicity of Indiana Jones makes Munich feel even more layered and complex than it already is.  So taking a step back, I think the only real way to analyze the subtext of Indiana Jones is, again, to take a look at all four of the films, when they were released, and what they’re paying homage to.

I don’t have all the backstory or historical significance of those films.  I don’t know what was going on in Spielberg’s career or life at the time of making these films.  I’m sure I could read more about his thought process, and I would like to.  As of now though, I don’t know.

To me it seems like Spielberg made Raiders of the Lost Ark at a time when he wanted to make a trilogy much like his friend George Lucas had done with Star Wars.  At the time of the release of Raiders, there had already been two Star Wars films and the third was probably already in production.  I wonder if there was some appeal to the simplicity of Star Wars and the simplicity of Indiana Jones.  Spielberg’s previous films were 1941Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws.  I don’t know what that means other than it feels like he tried something new in each of those films.  Maybe the appeal of Indy was just a handsome, cowboy-esque hero battling the bad guys.  Like Star Wars, it deals with good versus evil in a pretty clear way, and I’m sure it didn’t hurt that they could sell a lot of Indiana Jones toys and merchandise much like with Star Wars.

Once again, this is just speculation, but if that is all true, what does the fourth movie in this franchise mean?  Spielberg had to have known he was taking a risk with a return to the franchise after 19 years away.  After all, almost a decade earlier his friend Lucas returned to Star Wars with the first of three prequels, and no one has ever forgiven Lucas for it.  George Lucas has a writing credit on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull so I’d wager a guess and say this film was just as much meant to be a redemption for him as it was important for Spielberg.  Maybe it just meant more to Lucas, but wow I’ve just been guessing for a few thousand words here.

This movie at least tries to be fun, mimicking the previous Indy films.  The Star Wars prequels were not very fun, and I think it’s clear that this movie tries to capture its own magic as well as the escapism of old Hollywood.  I think this film might be more successful if there had been no Indiana Jones already, and if it was clear that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was paying respects to old B movies.  I mean, having 66 year old Harrison Ford (at the time) play the hero feels like an old film with an aging Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart.

I don’t know anything, I’m really just speculating more and more even though I said I wouldn’t.  The last thing is that early in the film, it feels like Spielberg/Lucas are namedropping important concepts from the 40s and 50s: the KGB, martians, communists, area 51, the atomic bomb and bomb towns, greasers, etc.

Oh yeah, and to end on a positive note, I think that optimism is as important to Indiana Jones as anything else in the series.  In these movies, there’s always another mystery to be solved.  It’s also kind of amusing that someone always seems to bring the mystery to Indiana, and that’s when he solves it.  He’s solving new mysteries, tracking down famous objects, etc. but in the story he’s just doing his thing until someone comes along saying “I need your help” and despite Indiana Jones’ relative grumpiness, he always says ‘yes.’

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