Having made my way through my Indiana Jones box set and watched both Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom and Last Crusade, the time has now come for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the Indy sequel that came out just last year. And hold on to your fedoras now, because this is going to be one long mothafucka of a review. If you’re starting to get tired of my lengthy Indy blog reviews then maybe you can take comfort in the fact that this is the last Indy movie that’s been made so far, so it will probably be a while before I blog about Indy again.
(Photo: Paramount Pictures)
So, Crystall Skull. I saw it in the theatres last year, and was somewhat disappointed by it, but I was excited about watching it again now that the first three movies were still fresh in my memory. And I’m glad I did, because I was actually pleasantly surprised by it this time around. I think the ending (which I will adress later in this review – and there’ll be plenty of spoilers so you should stop reading now if you haven’t seen the movie yet) was so awful that it had overshadowed my entire memory of the movie. I actually called the fourth Indy movie a “trainwreck” in a previous post, and I would like to take that back now.
Military Warehouses and Lead-linen Refrigerators
Because the first three fourths of the movie? Awesome. The furious Indy pace we came to know in Last Crusade is there right from the luscious opening sequence in which we find an aged Indy (the film is set 19 years later in history than Last Crusade) in the clutches of Russian communists who want Indy’s help to find some kind of wrecked airplane in a U.S. Military warehouse. The sequence then takes us from the warehouse into the desert of Nevada and from the desert into a fake town (a nuclear test town) where Indy survives a nuclear explosion by seeking shelter in a lead-lined refrigerator! All this happens within the first twenty minutes of the movie, mind you.
And the movie actually doesn’t lose its pace at any point during the rest of the movie. Whatever one may think of the development of the movie’s plot (again, more on this later), in terms of action, Lucas & Spielberg have not lost their touch in this fourth installment of Indiana Jones.
“Not as easy as it used to be”
But of course Lucas and Spielberg have both aged two centuries since the last Indy movie, and so has Ford, and so has Indy. Set in 1957 Indy is probably somewhere in his 50s, Harrison Ford was 66 when the movie opened, and Spielberg and Lucas have wisely chosen (heh) to address this issue head-on. Indy has always been a fallible character who tended to get himself into trouble, and since he relies on dangerous stunts during his adventures, he’s become even more fallible now that he is approaching the age of retirement. “Damn, I thought that was close!” he mutters in the warehouse as he fails to swing himself onto a driving truck by his bullwhip, and when he finds himself surrounded by armed Russians in the first scene he owns up the fact that getting himself out of this situation isn’t going to be “as easy as it used to be”.
Indy is too cool a guy to be trying to kid himself – and us as his audience – that he’s still physically a match for the guy he used to be in the first three movies.
What Indy’s not cool about when it comes to his age, however, is the fact that as regards his personal relationships, he appears to have arrived at a kind of terminus. In a touching scene early in the movie, we see Indy at home, sadly contemplating the framed pictures of the two men who have arguably been Indy’s most important father figures: Indy’s father Henry Jones Sr, and Marcus Brody, both of whom have passed on. “Brutal couple of years,” Indy says to his friend Charles Stanforth, the Dean of Marshall College, “First Dad, then Marcus.” “We seem to have reached the age,” replies Charles, “where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away.”
The message is clear: As Shakespeare’s childless monarch Macbeth taught us, success isn’t worth a whole lot if you don’t have succession, and Indy is left alone as his fathers die, with no son to follow in his own footsteps. It’s surely no coincidence that in the next scene, young greaser Mutt Williams pulls up beside Indy on a train station and asks for his help, as his ersatz father figure, Indy’s old friend and fellow archeologist Harold Oxley, has been captured along with Mutt’s mother by Russians in the Peruvian jungle, as Oxley tried to recover an old treasure, the legendary Crystal Skull.
…and the son.
Because of course Mutt is Indy’s son. Although Indy at first neither realizes this nor the fact that Mutt’s mother is no other than his old flame Marion Ravenwood, because Mutt refers to her as Mary Williams (Mutt: “Mary Williams. You don’t remember her?” Indy: “There were a lot of Marys, kid…” Mutt: “Shut up! That’s my mother you’re talking about!”).
But Indy and Mutt have great father/son chemistry right from the get-go, and Mutt seems to have inhereted quite a bit of spunk and stubbornness from both his parents. Shia LaBoeuf blends very well into the Indy universe, and I really like him in this part. He’s a charismatic kid, but not too heroic-looking, and he’s good at balancing Mutt’s qualities of “Impetuous Punk” and “Competent Young Man”. One of my favourite moments of the movie is the scene in Peru where Indy, Marion, and Mutt are being held at gunpoint by the Russians. The aging Indy sees no other solution than to cooperate with the Russians, but Mutt will have none of this, so he single-handedly attacks the soldiers and has Indy and Marion make a run for it into the jungle with him, and the following dialogue ensues:
Indy: What the hell are we doing, kid?!
Mutt: They were gonna kill us!
Indy: Well, maybe…
Mutt: Somebody had to do something!
Indy: Something else would have been good!
Mutt: At least I got a plan!
Indy: This is intolerable…
“This is intolerable…” being of course the line Sean Connery’s character repeated a few times during Last Crusade, whenever Indy made a particularly reckless move and put himself and his father in danger. I thought that was an excellent little detail.
Does this mean that I’m ready for Shia LaBoeuf to take over Ford’s part and be the new Indiana Jones? Hells, no! Ford’s Indiana Jones is incomparably cool, and I harbour the illusion that Ford’s got at least 30 years worth of action-adventure hero left in him, and that Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford will make several more Indy movies together. But I guess if I have to be realistic, I kind of like to think that there’s a possibilty that my potential kids may grow up with their very own Indy. Although, as Mutant Reviewers from Hell point out The Adventures of Mutt Jones does not have that same ring to it.
The Return of Marion Ravenwood
I’ve already praised Karen Allen’s reappearance as Marion Ravenwood in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in my tribute to Marion Ravenwood, so I won’t ramble on about that again in this review. Of course I loved it that she was back in this movie, and Karen Allen shone in the part. If I have any peeves about her part in this movie it is, perhaps, that the character left something to be desired in terms of gravity. Marion was a lot of fun in the first movie, but there was also glimpses of something darker to her when we were first introduced to her. “Do you know what you did to me, to my life?” Marion muttered gloomily as Indy came to see her in Nepal in Raiders. Since then he’s caused her even more grief by leaving her without a word a week before their wedding, pregnant with his child, in the late 30s. And yet, Marion’s dialogue with Indy in Crystal Skull is kept humourous and banter-ish all the way through.
I also have issues with the scene in which she decides to drive that jeep off a cliff and into a river. Marion was courageous in Raiders, but she wasn’t foolhardy. Driving a jeep off a cliff (while your own son is a passanger!), that’s foolhardy.
But these are minor peeves, really. I’m thrilled that they brought her back.
Giant Ants and Extraterrestial Over-stimulation
A lot has happened in the world of special effects since Raiders of the Lost Ark, but surprisingly this actually proves to be a drawback for the Indy franchise, I think. In the special features for Raiders there was this really neat little documentary on how they made that melting head from the “Opening of the Ark” scene. First they had made a copy of Ronald Lacey’s (the actor who played Toht) head, and then they added to the model several layers of glycerine, each in a different flesh-like shade, and ending with a skin-coloured layer. The fake head was then exposed to extreme heat from a blow-torch until the glycerine started to melt off, exposing layer after layer, while they filmed. The process was then sped up and inserted into the movie scene.
Simple craftsmanship, and yet immensely effective. I don’t know how they made the equally effective Rapidly Aging Donovan scene from The Last Crusade, but by the looks of it, they used good old-fashioned claymation for the scene.
Nowadays we have computers to do effects like that for us, without us ever getting our fingers dirty or greasy with clay or glycerine. But I think Crystal Skull is proof to the fact that this new clinical approach to special effects is not always a good thing.
In Crystal Skull one of the villains gets punished for her evil ambition in much the same way as Toht and Donovan do in the first and the third Indy movie: Curiosity kills the Cate Blanchett as Irina Spalko basically explodes as a result of extraterrestiral intellectual over-stimulation (!) in one of the last scenes. First her eye sockets catch fire, then the rest of her evaporates while she screams. Sounds like it ought to be an effective scene, no? But it isn’t. It’s nowhere near as horrifying as the scenes in Raiders and Last Crusade. It simply looks too clinical, too smooth, too clean. Computers can do a lot of things, but they can’t compete with the gruelling textural effect that old-fashioned materials can produce. The melting head was (and still is, I’ll venture!) effective, not because it was sophisticated, but because it had an imperfect materiality to it that is recognizable to a spectator. A dying human body isn’t supposed to look sophisticated, it’s supposed to look messy. The Irina Spalko death scene felt unreal and distant in its perfect smoothness in comparison.
Same thing with the giant ants. Creepy crawlies are a tradition in the Indiana Jones movies, but they have never been less creepy than they were in Crystal Skull. Instead of the 8000-10.000 very real snakes they brought in for the Well of Souls scene in Raiders, the humongus bugs in Temple of Doom, or the swarming sewer rats in Last Crusade, the Crystal Skull special effects crew has created computer-animated giant ants for the movie’s obligatory creepy crawly scene. Highly sophisticated – yet utterly dull to look at.
The one scene that did work in terms of creepiness was the one with the Fake Town in the desert. That entire scene, from the moment when Indy realizes that all the inhabitants are an advanced kind of crash test dummies to the time when we see the dummies slowly dissolving during the nuclear test bombing, was absolutely brilliantly eerie, in a Offenbach-esquely uncanny sort of way. Despite the fact that this scene was made in a relatively old-fashioned way: The art directors simply went out and bought the most old-timey-looking mannequins they could find, filled the set with them, and then blew up a miniature model version of the town. I definitely think this is the kind of simplicity the Indy crew should pursue, if they intend to make more Indy movies, rather than plastering the movies with sterile computer graphics.
The Aesthetics of Extraterrestrials and the Phenomenology of Indy
Because the aesthetics are an important part of the Indy franchise, and I actually think that this was part of the problem with the Extraterrestrial plot of the movie as well. Aliens are, the way they’re usually represented in pop culture, stream-lined, sterile-looking creatures: Smooth, greyish skin, large inscrutable eyes, tiny lip-less mouths. Their means of transportation are sophisticatedly smooth and perfectly rounded spaceships.
These are not aesthetics that go well with the Indiana Jones universe. The traditional Indiana Jones universe is charming because it had a sense of materiality, of porosity, of something mechanical to it. Indy was the hero with the scar on his chin, with a ragged hat on his head, and dust and dirt all over his clothes. The Indy landscape was one of dirt and jungles and desserts, of holes that you could fall into, and of booby traps made from nifty, yet simple mechanical devises.
Likewise, the mythological dimension of the movies was one in which if you were willing to dig far enough through the layers of dust of our cultural history, you might find the truth.
This perspective was lost in Crystal Skull with the extraterristrial storyline. The elegant computer-animated extraterrestrials simply didn’t fit into this universe, and Lucas’ absurd idea that the aliens were actually inter-dimensional creatures only made it worse. “Where did they go? Into space?” asks Indy in the Crystal Skull ending as the extraterrestrial escape in their spaceship. “To the space between spaces.” Oxley replies, very cheesily, and the whole thing is just so wrong. This stupid pseudo-metaphysical explanation leaves nothing for Indy to dig his archeologist’s hands into, and leaves us without that thrilling idea of the Raiders and Last Crusade that our own soil hides incredible truths and powers. Who cares about extraordinary powers if they reside in a space that’s not even accessable to us?
The Domestication of Indy
The ending is, however, almost saved by the wonderfully sweet ending, where Indy and Marion tie the knot and walk down the aisle with Mutt as a happy little family. Some might argue that this is a pitiful domestication of the wayfaring Indy, but as this very poignant article by FilmChat argues, the domestication of Indy has been anticipated by the first three movies in which Indy’s carefree lifestyle is always interrupted or complicated by representations of domestication or of family: In Raiders his relationship with Marion is complicated by the fact that Marion’s father was (yet another) father-figure of Indy’s and had disapproved of their relationship. In Last Crusade Indy flirted with Elsa, but the movie’s most important relationship was the one between Indy and his father. And even in Temple of Doom it is the Family that prevails and we’re introduced to a father-mother-son constellation that might be said to foreshadow the last scene of Indiana Jones:
In Temple of Doom, Indy is at his most Bond-like, boldly promiscuous and telling Willie that he has done “years of fieldwork” in “primitive sexual practices” — but the greatest bond in that film is either fraternal or filial, not erotic, as Short Round declares “Indy, I love you!” before causing him the necessary pain that will free him from the spell that Mola Ram has cast on him. The film ends with man, woman and child happily united in a sort of makeshift family.
There are a lot of special features for Crystal Skull – a whole seperate DVD with special features is included in the box-set. It’s almots too much I think – as should have become obvious by now, I’m a big Indy fan, and even I was bored with some of it. There’s a pre-production feature, a post-production feature, a production diary, a feature about the special effects, just to name a few. The best feature, for me, was the documentary “The Return of a Legend” in which the cast and crew discussed how it was that Indiana Jones was brought back to life in 2008.
I especially enjoyed the part where Lucas, Spielberg, and screenwriter David Koepp discussed how they came up with the title for the movie. Among the working titles they mention are the insanely corny Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men (Lucas’ idea), Indiana Jones and the Attack of the Giant Ants, and my personal favourite, the wonderfully clunky and expositional Indiana Jones and the Son of Indiana Jones, which I liked enough to make it the title of this review of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.