All The Skull Things: In Defense of 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull'
How many film characters are as iconic and beloved as Indiana Jones? Ever since 1981, Indy has been charming his way into audiences' hearts around the world. With the help of Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg, John Williams, and George Lucas, the Indiana Jones franchise has become synonymous with the term "blockbuster". Raiders of the Lost Ark is considered to be one of the greatest motion pictures of all-time. The Last Crusade, the third installment of the series, is also a fan favorite (personally my favorite Spielberg movie). While considered the weakest of the original 3 films by many, Temple of Doom still has its fans. Despite all of this, there is one installment of the franchise that, for whatever reason, remains a "controversial" topic.
For many years, Steven Spielberg was asked "when are you making Indiana Jones 4?" constantly by fans, journalists, and even his own family. Spielberg thought The Last Crusade was Indy's curtain call, so he never thought he'd do another one. With the success of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (which Harrison Ford guest-starred on), Spielberg, Ford, and Lucas, as well as Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, began thinking of another movie. Many writers came and went, including Jeb Stuart, Jeffrey Boam, Frank Darabont, M Night. Shyamalan, and Jeff Nathanson. Finally, David Koepp, best known for his work on Jurassic Park and Spider-Man, wrote what would become the final draft. It was off to the races from there.
At the time of its release, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull received mostly positive reviews from critics, receiving praise for its performances, action scenes, direction, and score. However, some criticized its screenplay, pacing, humor, and overuse of CGI. One of the biggest points of contention was its tone. While some praised it for fitting in with the tone and feel of the original 3 films, others thought it was too familiar and formulaic.. Fan reaction was heavily mixed, with some being very vocal about their hatred for the movie. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has made it on many "worst sequels" lists, but most arguments against the movie don't hold much water. Similar to the Star Wars Prequels Trilogy, people usually resort to nitpicks as opposed to actually talking about the picture itself. So today, I want to share my two cents on why Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn't as bad as people say it is, and how it's actually pretty great.
From the very first scene, Steven Spielberg wants you to know you're in the 1950s. Instead of jumping into the adventure from the word go, it opens with a group of rowdy teenagers challenging Russian soldiers to a race. All this is happening while Elvis Presley's version of the hit song, 'Hound Dog' is playing in the background, as opposed to the score by John Williams. After this, we are finally reintroduced to Indiana Jones, and Ford's sense of charm and comedic timing doesn't miss a single beat. In the same scene, we are introduced to 3 major players; Our main Dr. Irina Spalko (played by Cate Blanchett), her right-hand man, Colonel Antonin Dovchenko (played by Igor Jijikine), and Indy's new sidekick, Mac (played by Ray Winestone).
The antics in Area 51 really play into the B movie feel that George Lucas really wanted to go for. We're treated to a little nice nod to Raiders, with John Williams referencing the Ark of the Covenant theme. The chase scene in the warehouse is exciting to behold and it's astounding that Harrison Ford (who was 66 at the time) did all of his own stunts. The high-speed chases and fun antics are reminiscent of Indy running from the giant boulder in Raiders, or the high-stakes brawl at Club Obi-Wan in Temple of Doom. As much hate fanboys give Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for being "too over the top", you'll notice that it's completely in-tune to the delightful absurdity of the previous films.
After floating gun powder, chases, and refrigerators, we're introduced to the core theme of the movie. Due to Mac's allegiance with the Russians, Indy is suspected to be in league with them. On top of this, he is forced to take a leave of absence from the college he has worked for since the first film. To quote Jim Broadbent's Charles Stanforth, "We're at that age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away." Indy is faced with his own mortality as he is still mourning the deaths of his father and Marcus Brody. These scenes are not only meant to give Indy personal drama but help make the introductions of Mutt Williams and the titular crystal skull all the more fun.
While the character of Mutt Williams has been torn apart by fans, I believe he's a pretty fun character. Shia LaBeouf to me plays the character to perfection and complements an aged, more cynical Harrison Ford. Some have criticized LaBeouf for overacting and being annoying, yet in a franchise where we have Ronald Lacey and Kate Capshaw, the idea of overacting not belonging in this film just feels absurd. Ford and LaBeouf have great chemistry throughout, even if the revelation of Mutt being Indy's son doesn't come until an hour in. Even scenes of Indy explaining his relationship with Harold Oxley and the history of crystal skull are just fascinating to watch. The scene where Mutt and Indy are running from KGB agents on a motorcycle through a library is a sight to behold and is pure Indy goodness, to say the least.
Following scorpions and secret doors, we're introduced to John Hurt's Harold Oxley and see the return of Karen Allen's Marion Ravenwood. Despite being only her second appearance, Karen Allen doesn't miss a single beat, having the same sparkling chemistry she had with Ford in 1981. The scenes in the jungle are also where John Williams' music truly shines. The chase through the jungle is one of the best set pieces of the entire franchise in my opinion - CGI monkeys and large ants included. Harold Oxley, who was inspired by the character Ben Gunn from Treasure Island, provides a wonderful sense of comic relief in the film. While it's a shame John Hurt passed away before he could reprise the role or work with Spielberg again, at the very least his time with us here was nothing short of fun.
Now we enter the biggest point of contention, the aliens, or the "Interdimensional". After returning the crystal skull to the Temple of Akator, the whole temple begins to fall apart, revealing that the statutes are actually interdimensional beings beginning to depart. Mac and Irina's Russian soldiers are sucked into the portal, while Spalko herself is seemingly killed after receiving unlimited knowledge. Successfully escaping, Indy and the crew witness the departure of a flying saucer.
This whole sequence has remained a thorn in the side of many fans, and to this day I don't understand why. The Indiana Jones films are no stranger to the supernatural, see the Angels of Death destroying the Nazis in Raiders, Indy saving people from the depths of Hell in Temple of Doom, or Walter Donovan's death by rapid aging in The Last Crusade. If people are willing to suspend disbelief for all of that, I don't get how aliens were the straw that broke the camel's back, especially when the whole movie was created as a tribute to old B-movies. My biggest complaint is we didn't get to see the aliens more, but I think the giant flying saucer was enough.
While the film isn't the greatest thing in the world, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is another fun, exciting, and delightfully campy installment in the Indiana Jones franchise. It still makes for an entertaining experience now in 2020. Steven Spielberg, David Koepp, John Williams, and the rest of the cast and crew deliver a bang for buck film that is more than deserving to stand alongside the original trilogy. It's a shame that Crystal Skull was one of the last blockbusters of its kind, with most action movies either flopping or having to be a part of the MCU (see Guardians of the Galaxy). As a fifth movie in the franchise is still circulating in the walls of Lucasfilm, I await the day where we can take another adventure with Indiana Jones once again (hopefully soon).