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, this is Steven Spielberg’s movie, but the creator and and co-producer that formed the Holy Indy Trinity (a.k.a. Lucas/Spielberg/Ford) is primarily responsible for everything people didn’t like about this highly anticipated and longed-for return of Indiana Jones. I guess ruining the Star Wars saga wasn’t enough.
I’ll get to this film’s backstory, 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 in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, the fourth and thankfully not final chapter for the only action hero in movie history to reach the rarified legacy once held alone by James Bond.
The first signs of trouble actually started with the announcement of the subtitle. “…the Crystal Skull” sounds more like random fan fiction than the previously inspired, and historically rooted, McGuffins. Yet sitting down to watch this again for the first time in years, that first half-hour-plus had me rethinking my mixed impressions that have long lingered about this problematic episode.
From the opening drag race to the exploits at Area 51 (Harrison Ford is far from rickety) to the campus motorcycle chase – all of which riffs off the late 1950s era quite nicely – this was firing on all of the cylinders you want from an Indiana Jones adventure. Yes, even the “nuked fridge” survival cop-out in the atomic blast was a funny bit of comic silliness, and yes, Shia LaBeouf was a great casting choice as Mutt (even if the name choice wasn’t), although I can sympathize with those who find it difficult to get past his real life “troubled artist” ungrateful punk routine.
But once this shifts to Peru forty minutes in, the Crystal Skull starts to crack, revealing a cheap imitation. For the next half hour the film seriously drags as Indy and Mutt search an old dank asylum and the farthest depths of area catacombs. Who knew the series’ most lethal booby trap would be too much actual archeologing? The slog continues as Indy and Mutt find themselves captive in the jungle camp of that red commie villainess with psychic powers Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett; well-played, 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. The climactic scenes, too, feel more like video game levels than tightly constructed set pieces, relying way too heavily on digital effects rather than the raw throwback aesthetic that birthed the series.
We’re given the return of Marion Ravenwood to assuage our growing discontent with this lackluster blockbuster, but her thinly drawn character is one of this entry’s bigger embarrassments, and it’s the biggest tell of all that the bulk of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull is little more than fan service cash grabbing.
(Even John Williams occasionally phones it in, dropping in Raiders’ Map Room theme for Area 51. Still, his “A Whirl Through Academe” cue is a highlight, and it figures that it would come from one of the fun – and entirely stunt-driven (not effects laden) – early sequences. This sounds like a classic underscore from the series because the scene itself is.)
And I haven’t even gotten to the aliens yet.
Although to be honest, as a concept, making the Alien B-Movie chapter of this saga was a worthwhile proposition, especially given the late 50s era. The problem is what they did with it, along with (and perhaps especially because of) the general lack of satisfying action for the film’s final two-thirds.
Which leads us to this production’s long troubled history, and how its issues all land at the feet of one George Lucas. To be fair (and clear), I’m going to be making some assumptions based on what is known about the film’s development, so whenever I’m attributing emotional context to events, that’s me making guesses. But it sure makes 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 went under the title Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods. Written by Frank Darabont (writer/director of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile), all versions incorporated the basic alien concept – per Lucas’s initial story ideas, and Spielberg’s sign-off – along with other elements that came and went. Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford went by a gentlemen’s agreement that they wouldn’t make another Indy movie unless all three of them could agree on a script. Through Darabont’s first two drafts, they cobbled out aspects that each weren’t keen to.
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. He rejected the script, in total, and wanted to bring in a new writer for a nearly complete overhaul. Darabont was stunned, the film was in turnaround, and the prospect of another Indiana Jones movie was suddenly in serious jeopardy – particularly since Ford had set a personal “now or never” deadline of 2008.
David Koepp, a favorite of Spielberg’s (Jurassic Park, War Of The Worlds), was brought in, and for all intents and purposes he basically transcribed a script that George would be happy with. Given Lucas’s veto power, the decision left to both director and actor was this:
Either make an Indiana Jones movie with a script that’s George-approved, regardless of how they personally felt about it, or never make another Indiana Jones movie 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, too, that Spielberg would later cop to never having liked the Crystal Skull MacGuffin to begin with. In a 2011 interview with Empire Magazine (in which he basically confirms the compromised decision I just posited), he said that he agreed to the Skull because of his friendship with George. “I am loyal to my best friend,” Spielberg reasoned. “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 has some Indy repair of his own to do. Script aside, Crystal Skull’s heavy reliance on digital technology – not just with monkeys and aliens but even comping in synthetic environments – took the series to a gaudy bloat that ran entirely counter to its stripped-down roots (its $185 million budget is, by a considerable margin, Spielberg’s biggest to date). I probably shouldn’t count on Spielberg restricting himself entirely to the limits of 1984 visual effects techniques (as I suggested in my review of The Temple of Doom), but what a marketing hook that would be!
At the very least, let’s hope – from story to character to MacGuffin to craft – that when Spielberg and Ford finally get to make the movie they want to make (and will release in July 2019), that it’s the Indiana Jones we all love and remember.
Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video.
- Due to new industry safety rules, Paramount execs wanted Indy’s bullwhip to be computer generated. Ford was indignant. Ford won, calling the request ridiculous.
- One of Ford’s requests throughout the scripting process, including to 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 but embrace it.
- Area 51 was revealed to be have the storage warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant was stored at the end of Raiders.
- Ford’s costume measurements were unchanged from The Last Crusade, a testament to the shape he kept himself in.
- 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 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 I think they were going 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.
- On Dr. Jones’ classroom chalkboard is a sketch of the Sankara Stone that Indy went after in The Temple of Doom.