Film discussion

Is It Really So Bad? Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones has always been the embodiment of director Steven Spielberg’s own sense of youthful adventurism, revealing vibrant and exotic worlds that have unraveled from the fabric of civilization. The two allow audiences to escape into romanticized excursions that, for better or worse, feel right at home within the novels of Doc Savage, John Carter, and the adventure laden films of the 1930’s, such as East of Borneo and Jungle Menace.

Both dashing professor and director offer daring thrills and unexpected danger around every corner, displaying willingness for escapism of the most archetypal kind. For Spielberg, there’s a little bit of the intrepid explorer in all of us. The Indiana Jones films are in many ways masters of their respective class, demonstrating that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to be exciting, just as long as you can keep it spinning.

Fans were gung-ho over the prospect of embarking on another globe-spanning expedition when news broke of Indy once again picking up his whip for a fourth entry. Audiences flocked to the theater, filled with ardent memories of Nazi face melting, the blood of Kali, and the withered old Crusader who guarded the Holy Grail, eager to see what new archaic discovery would unfold. What many who worship at the Temple of Indy got was akin to a massive boulder crushing their much anticipated dreams, with its titular MacGuffin revealing CGI aliens that Spielberg later blamed on long-time pal George Lucas, who co-wrote the story with Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me if You Can):

I sympathize with people who didn’t like the MacGuffin because I never liked the MacGuffin. George and I had big arguments about the MacGuffin. I didn’t want these things to be either aliens or inter-dimensional beings. But I am loyal to my best friend. When he writes a story he believes in – even if I don’t believe in it – I’m going to shoot the movie the way George envisaged it.

Shia Labeouf, who stars as Indy’s estranged son, Mutt, went as far as to tell Variety that “I don’t like the movies I made with Spielberg,” placing the actor on the directors’ proverbial shit-list. Yet worse have been the 10 years since its release, seemingly amassing a staunch collective of dissenters who place Kingdom of the Crystal Skull among Lucas’ ostracized Star Wars prequels.

But is that fair? Has one of the greatest living directors of our time really crafted a polished travesty, reawakening alarming bouts of PMTSD (Phantom Menace Traumatic Stress Disorder)? Most importantly…

Is it really so bad?

Steven Spielberg, wasting no time, gets to work placing us back within the world of whips and fedoras – now 1957 with the Cold War in full effect – showing us how far cinema’s technology has come… with a CGI gopher. In a series of films that showcased some memorable practical effects, that gopher feels as out of place as a computer generated Yoda. “It’s just a gopher,” you might say, but it’s oh so much more; a foreboding and troubling sign of what’s ahead.

Our furry friend narrowly avoids a speeding car full of depression babies, driving to the beat of Elvis’ ‘Hound Dog’, which for all intents and purposes sets the mood with toe-tapping energy. We may be out in the middle of the desert, but the cool breeze of rock and rolls burgeoning scene can be felt for miles, as our drag racing teens speed past rows of military vehicles evoking rebellion while pointing us in the direction of our films imminent threat; the Russians.

Disguised as American troops, Soviet forces mow down US soldiers at a military outpost that’s restricted due to nuclear testing in order to infiltrate the highly classified“Warehouse 51”. The Soviets, led by Colonel Dovchenko (played by Igor Jijikine) and Colonel Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), who sinks her teeth into her W’s harder than Barbara Bach in The Spy Who Loved Me, hope to uncover materials within a highly magnetized crate that may or may obviously contain alien evidence.

Stuffed in the trunk of Spalkos car is Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and is partner Mac (Ray Winstone), an MI6 agent who accompanied Jones on missions throughout WW2.

Dusting off his fedora, Indy feels and looks – save for a few creases, good as new and ready to once again battle fascism. And for a man halfway through his 60’s, watching Ford scramble up crates, swing from a whip and bare-knuckle brawl with foes is borderline wizardry. Indy, for the first time in almost 20 years and once again backed by John Williams’ pomp, further proves that age is only skin deep, and that for the most part, there’s still movie magic within our favorite adventurer.

Almost immediately we learn that Mac is a double agent working for Irina and company; yet we’ve had no time to have any investment we with him or his apparently long standing relationship with Indy. It’s an unveiling that demands the question: why do we care? After all, this isn’t a character we know, nor is it a friendship that we’re allowed to feel. They might as well have been shoved in the trunk of that car for nearly two decades. Even when Last Crusade’s Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody), the film’s latent object of desire for both father (Sean Connery) and son, reveals herself as a Nazi agent, it comes at almost no dramatic cost because well, Lucas and Spielberg never quite allow anyone to get close to our virile voyager. After all, they can’t all be like Marion Ravenwood.

Following a rocket-fueled train ride through a tunnel, Indy finds himself in what amounts to one of Spielberg’s most creatively terrifying scenes since his excursion into giallo territory with Minority Report, revealing Max von Sydow as a masked slasher. He quickly realizes he’s stumbled into a model town on the Nevada Test Site, a reservation used to demonstrate and test the catastrophic nature of the atomic bomb. In a scene that stems from a real life town constructed in the Nevada desert for a mission dubbed ‘Operation Doorstep’, mannequins of children and even household pets fill faux homes and yards poised in routine positions, replicating a real life nuclear scenario. As a siren cuts through the air indicating the imminent explosion of an atomic bomb, the chill of its relevance can be felt like a coating of dust, speaking volumes about our political climate, as well as Spielberg’s proclivity towards moments that combine a sense of horror and awe.

But this is also where the film informs you of its dedication to the absurd, shoving Indy into a lead-lined refrigerator before blasting him to kingdom come with nary a broken bone or dislocated hip. It works if all you can recall from Indy’s previous trips is the supernatural – be it holy ghosts, ceremonial sacrifices or elixirs offering eternal vitality, all which ask you to suspend disbelief because after all, these are only myths and legends. Here, it only does so if you believe after all these years that Indiana Jones is really no more than a myth, a façade for a professor searching for tenure, and not the Ark of the Covenant.

Because even though most would watch Doctor Jones battle penguins atop the bones of Conquistadors if it meant an invitation back into the world Spielberg bestowed upon our childhood, watching everything unfold in such a vacuum of lackluster formality might not be all that we hoped for.

As Indy boards a train after being put on indefinite leave from teaching due to an investigation by the FBI, we hear the low rumble of a motorcycle traversing the train platform. Enter Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a hot-headed greaser who enlists the help of Doctor Jones to rescue his mother and mentor Oxley (John Hurt giving a cuckoo-stock performance), who went missing scouring Peru for an object known as the crystal skull.

Mutt, with his aggression on his sleeve, trades stories back and forth with Indy, establishing a modus operandi between the two that works like an elder with a grip’n grab; it gets us where we need to go, but it’s a damn struggle.

Stories about the lost city of El Dorado and a city known as Akator, home to the crystal skull, are interplayed with tales of Mutt’s upbringing, how he dropped out of school because well, a greaser’s got to grease, working on motorcycles for a living rather than hitting the books. It’s all exposition and no heart, which might work for any old disposable character, except Mutt’s more important than that.

This is particularly odd for a director who turned an obnoxious British boy into a heart-string with Empire of the Sun, even making the most out of a wrought father-son relationship in Hook. Heart for Spielberg is just as important as tension, working around its characters in crescendos that build and build to the point of collapse. Here, he tells us to believe in the spirit of action, the heart of adventure, not because it necessarily exists in this world, but because it has in others.

Following Mutt and Indy to Peru, they discover the crazed wall scribblings of Oxley; drawings of elongated skulls and the word “return” written out in various languages line the room, motivating our duo to explain the whereabouts of not Oxley, but the story. Rather than show us the journey, Spielberg and Lucas exhaustively lecture it at us, offering up exotic tales that to some degree would make an infinitely better film than the one we have.

Yet that doesn’t stop us from embarking on the one we’re shown, as the famed Lost City (not nearly as hard to find as you’d believe) becomes the centerpiece for excavating antics, taking us back to the crypt keeping that sufficiently crawled under our skin in Temple of Doom. Scorpions, decayed bodies and thick cobwebs remind us that the sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark is perhaps, not nearly as deserving of its maligned reputation. This was after all an entry where risks felt perilous, the unknown dreadful, and the experience transformative. That’s all here; though part of it must have been left in Indy’s other satchel, because its allure isn’t nearly as jaw-dropping.

Crawling through tight ruins, stepping into uncharted rooms and locating treasure feels far less remarkable than previously discovered, commentating more on the marriage between nostalgia and expectation. Going into a fourth entry in a series that helped introduced, for many, the power of cinema as well as the rush of adventure and escape is bound to carry with it levels of expectation that can, perhaps, never be satiated.

So the question isn’t how to turn off expectation, but how to turn nostalgia into understanding.

After all, Indiana Jones isn’t the same youthful image of adolescent excitement we see in the eyes of 13-year old Indy (River Phoenix), or within the rugged smirk of a 35-year old Ford who lives for the sexual vivacity of a damsel in distress. No, this is a man who has been around the block almost as much as he gets up to take a piss in the middle of the night. And as an audience to nearly three decades of globetrotting, we manifest a type of sustained irrationality to our heroes, where they seemingly don’t age; at least on the inside.

This is what makes Sylvester Stallone’s turn as Rocky Balboa so remarkable in Ryan Coogler’s Creed; vulnerability. Behind the muscular frame and eyes of an underdog turned champ lies a hurting, lonely soul who never forgot the past, but who also never held onto it. It’s where Lucas loses footing with Indy, who for the sake of expectation, needs to slip once in a while. And an off-handed comment from Mutt about Indy’s age is certainly not the way to do it.

At this point, our intrepid duo is captured by the Russians, who have been off screen for almost 40 minutes performing the greatest disappearing act since Houdini. Along for the ride is Mac and his heavy British accent who is seemingly dragged along for the sole purpose of proving that closed captioning is a man’s best friend.

Yet through his muddled tete-a-tete with Indy, we further learn of Mac’s greed and stance as a triple agent, which doesn’t so much engage two men with a torrid past as it disengages us from a story that feels clamoring at the bit to unite old friends. Because no matter how much screen time Mac receives, he just can’t obtain the friendly camaraderie of Sallah (Jonathan Rys-Davies) from Raiders of the Lost Ark, who through the setting sun of Egypt managed to turn an act of betrayal into a moment of crestfallen rage for audiences everywhere.

Colonel Spalko, furthering the push-and-pull between our two opposing factions, commences using Indy’s mental wellbeing to test the crystal skull, placing it within arm’s reach to demonstrate the mysterious power that radiates from the core of it. Perhaps my knock on Indy’s vulnerability was unwarranted? Is there a foible in this character that seemingly has more agility than a crowded school yard? Unfortunately no, as he proves that despite the odds and grave circumstances, Indy is still a playful scamp who can ham it up while pulling the wool over the eyes of even the most cunning Russian henchmen.

Desperately seeking answers to Akator, Spalko reveals Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Mutt’s mother and Indy’s old fling, who reveals that he left her at the altar and that Mutt is in fact his son. This is revealed as Marion and Indy are sinking into a dry sandpit after Oxley crazily draws circles on a piece of paper as dozens of Russian soldiers look on.

And why not, because clearly this is the most interesting thing going on within a mission that spans the entire Amazon rainforest, which they effortlessly destroy with a massive piece of machinery that really only exists so Spielberg could shoot a car chase through a jungle. This, despite its logistics, works, because it offers yet another exhilarating chase from a master who brilliantly manages to insert the thrill of it into just about every one of his films.

Trees are shredded into oblivion, wildlife is bombarded and Russians are consumed (quite literally) by the rainforest as vehicles defy physics while Mutt and Spalko fence between two speeding jeeps. It’s simultaneously ludicrous and stupidly amusing, disposing of fluff dialogue in favor of uniting our newly rekindled family through action. It’s what creates and resolves conflict for the characters within the world of Indiana Jones.

Marion and Indy have rarely felt more passionate, more inseparable than when they were both in distress. Indy and his father can’t seem to find a commonality through proper discourse. It’s only when life turns to life or death that Indy’s relationships start to feel augmented beyond the powers of communication.

It’s why when Marion decides to take things into her own hands and drive off a cliff that she demonstrate trust, as well as her own agency, despite her characters peculiar behavior and utter dismissal of any bad blood between her and Indy. Because characters within Spielberg’s particular world progress the story and themselves not so much through dialogue, but through action, revealing worlds and objects, motives and villains from physically exploring the realms of Spielberg and Lucas’ brain. We as an audience don’t need to be told that Nazis are bad, nor explained that Thuggee cult members are evil, because we see their actions just as we’ve seen the Nazi’s countless atrocities over the decades.

It’s why our fourth adventure with Doctor Jones feels put to paper from two men who aren’t necessarily without risk or excitement, but who are in their own ways, stuck in a dry sandpit. But maybe the peril between Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, two of Hollywood’s biggest collaborators isn’t really gone, but lost within their iconic character, shriveled up like the quarantined alien at the heart of their film.

And as Shia Labeouf swings like Tarzan alongside a barrel of CGI Capuchin monkeys, and after a swarm of ants consume a couple of Russian’s for lunch, we’re confronted by a crudely computerized alien who reflects the emptiness of it all, inviting the films CGI gopher to coalesce with itself into a single hollow creation. Because beneath the nostalgia and expectation is film with a gaping void where an adventurous heart once beat, proving that perhaps, once the nostalgia settles, that all of it really is so bad.

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