Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
(for adventure violence, scary images, and some language)
Released: May 22, 2008
Runtime: 122 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Shia LaBeouf, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent
Why must George Lucas keep ruining our childhoods?
Yes, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is Steven Spielberg’s movie, but Lucas — the creator and co-producer that formed the Holy Indy Trinity (a.k.a. Lucas / Spielberg / Ford) — is primarily responsible for everything that people didn’t like about this highly anticipated and longed-for return of Indiana Jones.
I guess ruining the Star Wars saga with prequels wasn’t enough.
I’ll get to this film’s backstory in a bit, which is more interesting than the movie itself (particularly since it explains so much), but first: a take on what works and what doesn’t.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the fourth and thankfully not final chapter for the iconic title character, the only action hero in movie history to reach the rarified legacy once held by James Bond alone.
It will, however, mark the last time that Steven Spielberg is at the helm. (You can read about the director change for Indy 5 here.)
The first signs of trouble for Indy 4 actually started with the announcement of the subtitle: “…the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”. It sounds more like some bit of random fan fiction, with a McGuffin that just doesn’t spark the same intrigue as the Ark or the Holy Grail.
Yet sitting down to watch this installment again for the first time in years, I have to say: that first half-hour-plus had me rethinking my mixed impressions about the whole thing, ones that have lingered since the release of this problematic episode in 2008.
From the opening drag race to the exploits at Area 51 to the campus motorcycle chase (sequences that play quite nicely with 1950s era iconography and culture), Crystal Skull was firing on all the cylinders that you’d want from an Indiana Jones adventure.
Plus, the 66-year-old Harrison Ford is far from rickety.
Yes, even the much-maligned “nuked fridge” during the atomic blast was a funny bit of comic silliness.
I’ll even go so far as to say that Shia LaBeouf was a great casting choice as Mutt, even if the name choice wasn’t. I can certainly understand why he was cast; the breakout star of producer Spielberg’s Transformers franchise, LaBeouf and the director had a positive working relationship; he was also a box office draw. (Even so, I can sympathize with those who find it difficult to get past LaBeouf’s real life “troubled artist” routine; he can often come off as an ungrateful punk.)
But once this shifts to Peru forty minutes in, the Crystal Skull starts to crack, revealing a cheap imitation.
For the next half hour, as Indy and Mutt first search an old asylum followed by some abandoned catacombs, the film seriously drags. Who knew that the series’ most lethal booby trap would be too much actual archeologing?
The slog continues as Indy and Mutt find themselves held captive in the jungle camp of a red commie villainess with psychic powers: Irina Spalko. She’s well-played by Cate Blanchett, who’s criminally underused.
The film doesn’t construct another legitimate action sequence until well into its second hour, and even then we have to put up with digitized vine-swinging monkeys.
Worse yet, the climactic scenes feel more like levels in video game than they do tightly constructed set pieces. Each sequences relies way too heavily on digital effects, a gaudy kind that makes one nostalgic for the raw throwback practicality (and spirit) that birthed the series.
To assuage our growing discontent, we’re given the return of Marion Ravenwood. Unfortunately, her thinly drawn character is one of this film’s bigger embarrassments, and yet another element that makes Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull feel like fan service cash-grabbing.
Even composer John Williams seems to be phoning it in. His only inspired cue in the soundtrack is “A Whirl Through Academe”. The college-set action sequence that is underscores is the film’s one set piece that’s almost entirely composed of practical stunts rather than digital effects. That must be why Williams’ music for it also feels classic.
But then come the aliens.
As a concept, an Alien B-Movie adventure is a worthwhile proposition, especially for late-50s era. There’s potential in it. The problem is what they did with it, including a general lack of satisfying action for the film’s final two-thirds.
Which leads us to this production’s long troubled history and how all of its issues land at the feet of George Lucas.
To be fair (and clear), I’m going to be making some assumptions here, but ones based on what has been reported and confirmed about the film’s development. I’d wager, though, that my hunches (which theorize motives and attitudes behind the reported facts) make sense, particularly when you consider that George Lucas will have nothing to do with the upcoming Indy 5.
In the early 2000s, various script drafts were developed under the title Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods. (That’s already an improvement.) Written by Frank Darabont, the writer/director of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, all versions of The City of the Gods incorporated the basic alien concept that had been conceived and worked out by Lucas.
After Darabont’s first two drafts, there were aspects that Spielberg and Ford weren’t keen to. Some weren’t satisfying for Lucas, either.
These conflicts put the possibility of an Indy 4 at risk, especially given the gentlemen’s agreement that Lucas, Spielberg and Ford had struck. They made a commitment to each other that they wouldn’t make another Indy movie unless all three of them could agree on the script.
Finally, Darabont submitted his third draft – and Spielberg was thrilled! According to Darabont, Spielberg said it was “the best script he’d read since Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and that he wanted to begin shooting in July of 2004. Ford was also onboard.
Then Lucas chimed in.
George rejected the script. The whole thing. He wanted to bring in a new writer for a complete overhaul of the concept.
Darabont was stunned and the film was put in turnaround. Suddenly the prospect of another Indiana Jones movie was in serious jeopardy, particularly since Ford had set a personal “now or never” deadline of 2008.
David Koepp, a favorite go-to screenwriter of Spielberg’s (Jurassic Park, War Of The Worlds) was brought in. According to reports, Koepp played it safe and essentially just transcribed a script that George would be happy with. (In other words, don’t blame Koepp. He’s probably the last person who should catch your grief.)
Given Lucas’s veto power, the decision left to both director and actor came down to this: either produce an Indiana Jones script that George will approve (regardless of how either of them felt about it) or never make another Indiana Jones movie ever again.
Four years later, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull was the result of that compromised choice.
(To read much more about the whole saga behind the saga, click here to read the page entry at the Indiana Jones Wiki.)
It should be noted that Spielberg later copped to the fact that he never liked the Crystal Skull McGuffin to begin with, a revelation that ran counter to the high praise he’d given to Darabont’s third draft at the time.
In a 2011 interview with Empire Magazine (in which Spielberg essentially confirms the compromised decision I just posited), Spielberg admitted that he agreed to have the Skull be the McGuffin because of only one reason: his friendship with George. “I am loyal to my best friend,” Spielberg said. “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.”
Still, Spielberg is responsible for some of this film’s other key problems.
Script aside, Crystal Skull’s heavy reliance on digital technology gave the franchise a gaudy bloat. Digital monkeys may have been the easiest target to mock for disgruntled fans (with the aliens being a close second), but the synthetic environments added to the disingenuous fakery, too, even if on a subconscious level.
One only need look at the budget to get a sense of how far Crystal Skull strayed from the franchise’s stripped-down roots: $185 million dollars. That was Spielberg’s biggest budget to date, and by a considerable margin.
It’s probably naive to think that Spielberg might actually restrict himself to the limits of optical VFX techniques from the 1980s (as I suggested he should in my review of The Temple of Doom), but what a marketing hook that would be!
For now, hope springs eternal for Indy 5 even if the clock for it is ticking. (Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s now not slated for release until July 29, 2022.)
When they eventually get around to making it with new director James Mangold (Ford V Ferrari, Logan) and without George Lucas (who will have zero involvement), Indy 5 may prove once and for all that it’s not the years, honey, it’s the writing.
- Due to new industry safety rules at the time, Paramount executives wanted Indy’s bullwhip to be computer generated. Ford was indignant, thankfully. He won, calling the request ridiculous.
- One of Ford’s requests throughout the scripting process, including to screenwriter David Koepp, was to have more jokes and references to his age. Contrary to other opinions, Ford didn’t want to avoid or minimize the age issue; he wanted to embrace it.
- For all those who wondered where the secret warehouse was that the Ark of the Covenant was stored at the end of Raiders, Crystal Skull finally revealed the location: it was Area 51, the government site allegedly dedicated to UFO research and evidence.
- In a testament to the great physical shape that Ford kept himself in the two decades since the previous Indy film, his costume measurements were unchanged from The Last Crusade.
- Spielberg asked Sean Connery to return as Henry Jones, Sr., but Connery declined because he was enjoying retirement too much.
- It should be noted that the aliens in Crystal Skull weren’t actually extra-terrestrials. (If you haven’t seen the film I won’t spoil it for you, but it didn’t quite land as the awesome mindbender that I think George Lucas was hoping for.)
- This is the only Indy film in which Jones does not fire his gun.
- This is the only Indy adventure to be set entirely in the Western Hemisphere.
- In a clever little callback, there’s an interesting sketch on the chalkboard in Dr. Jones’ classroom: it’s a drawing of the Sankara Stone that Indy went after in The Temple of Doom.