It’s been nineteen years since Harrison Ford last donned that iconic fedora in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — a span of time that seems to confirm the sense of finality and closure suggested by that title. (It was already a misnomer, of course; “crusade” here seems to mean “Grail quest” rather than “battle for the Holy Land,” but many viewers took the title to mean more or less “Indy’s last ride.”)
After such a lacuna, another sequel is not strictly a sequel, and this is both a limitation and an asset to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. As with other recent 1980s nostalgia sequels like Live Free or Die Hard, Terminator 3, Rocky Balboa and especially Rambo, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels more like an homage than a credible continuation the franchise per se. With a sequel, we want more of the same; here we know it can’t be the same. Sequels ask: “What happened next?” With these latter-day homages, the question is: “Where are they now?”
With that different question come different expectations, as Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seems to realize from its opening shot. Once again the Paramount logo mountain peak dissolves to a roughly similar shape, but one considerably smaller than any of the previous pinnacles in the earlier films. This shouldn’t necessarily be taken to suggest that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the least consequential of Dr. Jones’s adventures (Temple of Doom retains that dubious distinction); but perhaps it is the most aware that it will never rival the original.
Or perhaps it’s simply we who are aware of it. Raiders of the Lost Ark is such a tour de force homage to the serial adventures of yesteryear that viewers who know nothing of those old cliffhangers are swept up in its nostalgia. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is an homage to homage, playing to nostalgia for the earlier Indiana Jones films. In that capacity, it delivers more or less what one would expect: a reunion with a few old friends amid disposable popcorn entertainment, not a lot different from countless Raiders imitators. Enjoy it for what it is, but don’t hope for more.
Like John McClane in Live Free or Die Hard, Indy can’t pretend to be the man he once was, and George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have allowed Indy to age into the Eisenhower era. Russians, obviously, are the new Nazis, but it’s more than that. Indy’s roots are in 1930s pulp fiction; the pulp fiction of the 1950s had different concerns, from science fiction to spy stories. If Die Hard 4 made the point that McClane has become “an analog cop in a digital world,” perhaps Indy has become a combustion-engine hero in a space-age world, or even a gunpower hero in an atomic-age world.
Well, yes — to an extent. The iconography of 1950s Americana is here, from the startling image at the end of the bravura first act to the sense-overloading special-effects extravaganza of the finale. The soundtrack includes Elvis and the Everly Brothers, and hot-rodding, anti-Red demonstrations and references to espionage and McCarthyism all put in appearances. Indy’s youthful sidekick (another Die Hard 4 connection), played by Shia LaBeouf and oddly called Mutt Williams, is a leather-jacketed biker overtly, if entirely superficially, recalling Brando in The Wild One.
At the same time, the title is enough to tell you that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is still a 1930s Republic serial at heart, with some 1950s window dressing. Ancient temples and deathtraps, vehicular fight scenes, lost cities, creepy-crawly vermin and literal cliffhanging remain very much the order of the day.
The title, alas, is also an indication of the film’s key weakness, signaling that the mystical artifact du jour and the cultural context it represents — like the sankara stones in Temple of Doom — don’t ring any bells for the average moviegoer.
Raiders and Last Crusade were both set in a Judeo-Christian context, lending them an aura of importance, even spiritual significance. With Raiders, they had us at “Lost Ark”; and of course the Holy Grail is, well, the Holy Grail. Where do you go after that? Perhaps almost anything would have been anticlimactic, but surely they could have done better than going back to mystic stone artifacts from some tribal culture.
On the other hand, at least Crystal Skull basically avoids the potential pitfalls of New Age gooeyness lurking on all sides of the subject matter. Crystal skulls really exist, though they don’t look anything like the ones in the film, and enthusiasts tout them as pre-Columbian Mesoamerican artifacts, exceeding the capacity of premodern craftsmanship and possessing psychic or healing powers — claims connected with New Age beliefs in ancient visitors from the stars, premodern super-technology, and the paranormal properties of crystals. (Experts believe that crystal skulls are of modern origin.)
The movie plays with this iconography, with black-bobbed Soviet villainess Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), a parapsychologist researcher searching for magical MacGuffins with potential military applications against Western democracy. But there doesn’t seem to be any particular worldview hiding in the wings, even when Spalko sneers, “Belief, Dr. Jones, is a gift you have yet to receive.”
“Oh, I believe, sweetheart,” Indy shoots back, but the “belief” he has in mind seems limited to the notion that his adventures tend to end in paranormal pyrotechnics, and it’s best to stay out of the way of that sort of thing. Unfortunately, as my friend and fellow critic Peter Chattaway has pointed out, by the time we get there we still have almost no idea what “that sort of thing” is — what we're looking at and why, not to mention what got the whole ball rolling, so to speak.
At times Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seems more reminiscent of various Raiders imitators than of the original. In particular, certain plot points and devices — a lost Mesoamerican city of gold, a scavenger-hunt trail of coded messages, heroes balancing on a giant rock platform — compare, not necessarily favorably, to National Treasure: Book of Secrets.
One way Crystal Skull actually does hearken back to Raiders is the welcome return of Karen Allen as Indy’s one true love, Marion Ravenwood. The rapport of their scenes together, even when they’re bickering, underscores all that was lacking in the earlier sequels, with Temple of Doom’s shrilly unpleasant Willie Scott and Last Crusade’s one-dimensional femme fatale Elsa Schneider.
In other ways, though, the film continues the trajectory of the sequels, which got progressively sillier and more over-the-top. Part of the appeal of Raiders is the vulnerability of its mortal action hero; in the sequels, he’s increasingly become an invulnerable super hero. Crystal Skull does have some rollicking action scenes, but without the restraint and minimal sop to realism that make for real excitement. Ironically, the more they ramp up the action, the less exciting it is.
If a movie wants to sell me on characters driving off a 300-foot cliff, breaking their fall on a tree, falling into a river and surviving, I might be willing to buy it. What I can’t buy is a character serenely driving off the cliff on purpose with the intention of breaking the fall on the tree and landing in the river. Then there’s a ridiculous Tarzan vine-swinging bit, and Indy’s extended mano-a-mano with a much younger Russian officer, in which Indy actually seems tougher than he did against the German in Raiders.
Once again I’m reminded of Live Free or Die Hard, which on occasion similarly ramps up the action so far beyond previous installments that it tips over into cartoon self-parody mode. Ironically, someone just pointed out to me that Lucas has apparently been quoted implicitly criticizing Die Hard 4 and favorably comparing Crystal Skull, saying “we didn’t make it bigger and better, we made it exactly the same… if you expect to have F‑14s flying under freeways — that isn’t there.”
As usual, Lucas is so full of hot air one wonders what keeps him tethered to the ground. Does he really think that the climactic stunt at the end of the opening act in the Nevada desert is less preposterous than F‑14s flying under freeways? Granted, even the earlier Indy sequels went beyond the comparative restraint of Raiders; perhaps the previous high-water mark was the absurd early stunt in Temple of Doom in which the heroes leap from a crashing plane with an inflatable life raft, toboggan down a snowcapped mountain peak, then skid off a cliff and fall 300 feet into a river. The Nevada desert climax is even less survivable, though in fairness it’s so brilliant that plausibility is moot. Still, what could have been an opportunity to acknowledge Indy’s mortality, the way Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan did for Captain Kirk, simply passes as Indy climbs to his feet, barely stunned by what should have killed him.
As good as this scene is, many of the film’s best moments are more low-key. I love the sequence with Indy and Marion sinking into a pit of sand, which makes the scene about the characters rather than the crisis. And a brief exchange between Indy and Mutt about the latter’s dropout status allows Indy to be a real person with opinions, values and an outlook on life, not just a swashbuckling grandpa.
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ends on a nostalgic, fan-pleasing note, and for a moment playfully flirts with the notion of the fedora passing to Shia’s character. But the movie is smart enough to know that there will never be another Indy — and, even in his 60s, Indy has too much panache to pass the torch to some wet-behind-the-ears wanna-be. The fedora belongs to him, now and forever.
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You wrote:Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is an homage to homage, playing to nostalgia for the earlier Indiana Jones films. In that capacity, it delivers more or less what one would expect: a reunion with a few old friends amid disposable popcorn entertainment, not a lot different from countless Raiders imitators. Enjoy it for what it is, but don’t hope for more.
Exactly right. And we can enjoy it because the self-referential aspect is much more acceptable here than it is, say, in At World’s End. What we wanted there was a satisfying conclusion to what had been begun only a year before in Dead Man’s Chest; what we got was something prematurely ’mythology-bound’ (as you put it).
Here we’re not looking for the resolution of a crisis, but for something that makes us feel we’re in the world of the Indiana Jones that we came to know all those years ago. And on that level, it works. It’s still disappointing, though, that the aliens/lost-civilization plot, which is the vehicle for the action and interaction, is so silly and so easy not to care about! But then we took it for granted that the aliens would give Spalko her deserts; what we really cared about in the ending was [spoiler alert] seeing Indy and Marion finally get married. And your comment about the fedora is again spot on.
I won’t read your review of Prince Caspian until I’ve seen the movie, but your B+ looks encouraging!
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