Film discussion

Throwback 10: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

1989 was an incredibly busy year for movies; Batman, Lethal Weapon 2, The Abyss, Licence to Kill, Ghostbusters 2, Back to the Future Part II were all competing for our money at the box office, as well as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It also appeared at the time to be the last that we would see of Henry Jones, Jr on a big-screen and it was one hell of a send-off.

The inclusion of Sean Connery as Henry Jones, Sr was a masterstroke, giving the movie a wonderful double act that saw some of the most winning on-screen father/son chemistry ever put to screen, the return of Denholm Elliot as Brody, John Rhys Davies as Sallah, a dastardly villain portrayed by Julian Glover and the most wonderful final shot in movie history, as our four heroes, clad on horseback, rode off into the sunset.

Discussions about a fourth Indiana Jones movie came and went over the intervening years, seemingly in the planning stages and then not. Steven Spielberg went from strength to strength with the box office success of Jurassic Park, and critically acclaimed, award winners such as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, while George Lucas stepped back behind the camera by delivering the mixed-bags that were the Star Wars prequels.

All the while the two main architects got on with their careers, work on a fourth Indy movie was being done at the screenwriting stage, but seemingly none of the drafts that were delivered met with approval from Spielberg, Lucas or Ford. It would take a whole book to write about the screenwriters and the work they delivered as a potential fourth film in the series, but names that contributed drafts to the project included M.Night Shyamalan and Frank Darabont, but in the end it would be regular Spielberg writer David Koepp that would manage to craft a script that would satisfy all the main parties.

Make no mistakes, the resulting film would be a huge box office smash, grossing $786 million worldwide, the highest grossing film of the series unadjusted for inflation, and gaining some good reviews from the more famous contingent of film critics, but some criticisms were vocal and, amazingly, time has not been good to it, its weaknesses and the aura of disappointment surrounding it only becoming more palpable and stronger as the last ten years have passed.

For a long time, when the Indy series was a trilogy, Temple of Doom was considered the weakest of the series, and not unfairly. Temple of Doom has some wonderful set pieces, a beautifully filmed dark style, with gorgeous use of dark red shadows courtesy of director of photography Douglas Slocombe, while also boasting some great set pieces and stunt work, but Willy Scott (Kate Capshaw) is a terrible character, especially coming off the back of Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), there is an uncomfortable suggestion of racism given its India setting and villains, while the violence was heavily criticised and in the UK the film was heavily cut in order to gain a PG rating, cuts that were not waived until the release of the film on Blu-Ray in 2012.

Despite the problems with it, Temple of Doom, rightly or wrongly depending on your point of view, is never boring, and even with its issues, one can still have fun with it. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was, and still is, a massive disappointment, with a messy sense of pace, structure, and over-reliance on CGI, something that came as a surprise given that producer Frank Marshall promised that much of the effects work would be “in camera”.

The worst of it all is, the film starts promisingly. The film takes a real-time approach to its world, as its set nineteen years after the last movie, the Nazis are gone, only to be replaced by Communist Russians as the villains of choice, and the opening set piece takes place in the warehouse that the Ark of the Covenant was stashed in at the end of the first movie.

Whole reviews and articles have been written about the sequence’s most infamous moment, leading to the creation of a famous saying, but say what you want about the stupidity or silliness in “nuking the fridge” the image of Indiana Jones standing watching a mushroom cloud above him is a beautiful one and one that could only have come from the combination of Steven Spielberg and regular Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski.

We are then introduced to Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a biker modeled on Marlon Brando’s character from The Wild One and are then thrown into a wonderful bike chase around the university campus and both Mutt and Indy try to escape Soviet agents.

It’s after this point that the film then falls apart. Indiana Jones movies have frequently used interesting MacGuffins and used the exploration for them as a means to deliver high adventure, great comedy, genuine wit and wonderful character interaction. The problem with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is that it never delivers what one wants from an Indy movie.

The intent is there, but it just feels strangely lifeless, which is a massive disappointment in itself given how vibrant, fresh and entertaining the other movies were (yes, even Temple of Doom, even with the problems). The use of CGI feels wrong for an Indy movie; the return of Marion is wonderful, but the twist involving Mutt being Indy’s son with Marion feels like a stupid attempt at trying to copy the family dynamics and humour from the last movie where the performances and wordplay flowed wonderfully; Mutt’s attempts at doing a Tarzan is a bizarre choice that is not funny in the slightest while his performance throughout is charmless; Ray Winstone is a wonderful actor but the character of Mac is annoying and made even more annoying by his constant changing of allegiances; and lastly the inclusion of aliens (sorry, inter-dimensional beings) is the wrong sort of fantasy for an Indy movie, a series which has usually relied on supernatural genre elements, rather than more hardened science fictional ones.

The latter is an understandable course to take given its 50’s setting and wanting to include the alien invasion/communist themes that were dominant at the time. At one point there was a rumour that the fourth movie was being titled Indiana Jones and the Saucermen from Mars, but the resulting handling of it in this movie never felt as if it coalesced with the series in a manner that made it fit the aesthetic of an Indy adventure.

Technically the film is as wonderful as one would expect from a Spielberg/Lucasfilm combination; John Williams as always delivers a wonderful score, Kaminski, who studied the work of Slocombe before working on this, brings a lovely golden glow to the photography, but in front of the camera everything feels lackluster.

Harrison Ford never feels as if he truly ever there as Indy. It’s remarkable to have seen the actor clamour to return to the role and yet seemingly not show up, and yet when it came to Star Wars and Blade Runner, movies he had been on record as not wanting to go back to, he ended up delivering the goods when performing Han and Deckard as older figures, but when it came to Indy everything about his performance sometimes feels forced and unnatural, with the charm lacking compared to his work in the first three movies.

It could almost sum up the weaknesses of the film itself. Sitting down in the cinema to watch it on opening weekend, you could almost feel the air deflate when audiences realized that the film was not going to deliver as promised and that we were in the presence of another Phantom Menace-style disappointment.

Just a few years prior to beginning work on the movie, in an interview with Mark Kermode for the BBC, Spielberg said he would never make the movie until the popcorn was buttered enough, or words to that effect.

With talk of a fifth movie now beginning, and seemingly the next movie to come from Spielberg after the wonderful success of Ready Player One, and with the series now at the new home of Disney who acquired Lucasfilm and have successfully brought Star Wars back to the appreciation of audiences and critics, here’s hoping that Henry Jones, Jr will get a similarly redemptive return to form. If any character deserves a final installment worthy of fortune and glory, it’s Indy.

What do you think about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Let us know.

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