Indy is back. Hunting aliens. What could go wrong? Grab a fridge and let’s work it out.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Shia LeBeouf (Mutt Williams), Cate Blanchett (Colonel Irina Spalko), Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), Ray Winstone (George “Mac” McHale), John Hurt (Harold Oxley), Jim Broadbent (Dean Charles Stanforth)
Flying into ignominy faster than a tumbling fridge, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who lists Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as their favourite Indy film. I’ll confess I enjoyed it in an affectionate escapist way when I first saw it. But lord, doesn’t it just get worse after every viewing?
It’s the 1950s and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is still hunting for archaeological gems. Just as he’s still getting into trouble. This time with the Russians. A secret group in America, led by Colonel Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) is on the hunt for a mysterious artefact – a secret mummified alien corpse. Spalko wants to trace the aliens to find the fountain of all knowledge. Indy is suspected of being a Commie agent – not least after his old ally Mac (Ray Winstone) is revealed as a double agent – but soon finds himself roped into searching for the secret aliens and their buried crystal skulls by Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a greaser and school drop-out and son of Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) (wonder who the father could be?). Soon they are racing to a secret alien tomb in the Amazon.
You can spend ages scooting around what doesn’t work here. But the heart of it might be this: this is a sequel trying to pass as a young man’s film, made by two older directors who had long since fallen out of touch with the passions that filled their lives 30 years earlier. Truth be told, I suspect both Spielberg and Lucas always saw Indiana Jones as a fun diversion from other passions and never really cared about it the way generations that grew up quoting it did. Perhaps that was the biggest disappointment of all about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a film that has potential but always feels like it’s being put together by obligation (and to make money).
Still, the good stuff. Harrison Ford is, of course, still Indy and there is a great deal of pleasure in seeing him inhabit this gruff mix of brains, fists and reluctant, cynical decency. The film also does a good spin on the father-son relation of Last Crusade by casting Indy as the exasperated father who finds a bond with his wild-card son (well played by Shia LaBeouf). The two have a lovely run of banter, and some neat comedy – not least a great little moment in a bar where Mutt steals a drink from a waitress’ tray, only for Indy to smoothly put it back all the same motion.
There is an exciting chase through the streets of New Haven, with Indy and Mutt on a bike escaping the Russians, including a great sight gag of Indy being pulled into a chasing car passenger window, fighting through the car and emerging the other side back onto Mutt’s bike. The opening extended fight and chase sequence (before we hit that fridge) in an Area-51 storage site is equally well done, fast paced, witty and crammed with tonnes of Spielberg flourishes. Cate Blanchett is intriguingly off-the-wall as the villain. The film even leans into Ford’s age as Indy swings over a gap and misses (“Damn I thought that was closer”) and gives Indy much of his Dad’s grouchiness.
But too much doesn’t work. And all those beats that fall on their face eventually bury the moments that do work. For starters, the original films felt real. They are shot with a grainy realism and featured practical effects. Spielberg stressed in the build-up he wanted to keep that look. So naturally the first thing we see in the film is a CGI gopher. The film is shot with a glossy, lens-smeared shininess. After a while loads of stuff looks unreal. From the fake CGI sky in the opening scene to the hideously unreal looking jungle chase, culminating in the bizarre sight of Mutt swinging, Tarzan-like, leading an army of monkeys. Like the Star Wars prequels, it feels like Lucas and Spielberg mistook making things bigger, glitzy and more exotic for making them better. Truth is nothing in this film is as exciting as Indy climbing over a real van in Raiders or riding a real horse alongside a real tank in Last Crusade. These are real and gripping. Everything here looks like it’s been built in a computer, nothing feels real or possible, and everything is bigger and heartless.
That heartlessness carries into the plot. The earlier films had clear and emotionally engaging stakes. Indy had to save his soul (Raiders and Doom), a village of children (Doom) and his relationship with his father (Last Crusade) while chasing clearly defined artifacts. Here he’s sort of incidentally building a father-son relationship with a kid he doesn’t realise is his son until over halfway through and heading into the Amazon to return a glass skull because it told him to do it. These are not well-defined stakes. That’s before we even touch on the aliens.
I can’t quite put my finger on it, but where artefacts based on the Bible or Hindu religion make perfect sense, an alien skull chase that culminates in a parallel dimensions and flying saucers feels silly. It feels as awkwardly out-of-place as midichlorians in Phantom Menace. It makes the film jar as much as those special effects filled set pieces. I know it’s supposed to mirror the 50s setting by playing with the classic 50s B-movie set-up. But it doesn’t fit with the rest of the franchise.
And you are made even more aware of this by how cynically the film has been filled with fan-bait call-backs: the opening sequence in the Grail storage warehouse, the music cues, Karen Allen, a repeat of the father-son set-up (this time flipped), a car chase through a hostile environment, horrible small animals, Commies standing in for Nazis. Killer ants standing in for snakes, horrible insects and rats. Travel and map montages. All this does is remind you of better films.
It’s not helped by how many performances fall flat. Winstone and Hurt both insisted on reading the script before they signed up. Perhaps they also read their pay offers at the same time, because that’s surely the only reason they said yes to these roles. Winstone is painfully unfunny as the ever-betraying Mac whose geezerish cries of “Jonsey!” quickly gets on your nerves. Hurt is saddled with a sort of Ben Gunnish eccentric, babbling nonsense (you won’t believe by the way he and Ford are similar ages). Karen Allen, bar the sweetness of seeing her again, is not great.
The feeling you are watching the runt of the littler is impossible to escape. Indy was a hero people loved because you could see him bleed. When he was punched it hurt. When he fell, he struggled to get back up. The Indy from Raiders would never have been hurled miles in a fridge from a nuclear blast and been absolutely fine. Christ, he was too knackered to stand up after running from that rock. That’s why the fridge moment doesn’t work: no one watching it can believe for a moment that either (a) a fridge would be hurled away like that rather than melt (b) that anyone would be utterly unharmed by it or (c) that its lead lining would save anyone from being irradiated. A mystic box that melts people’s faces when open we can buy because its “power of God” is carefully established with just enough mysterious power. Something grounded in reality like a nuclear blast can’t work. We know what that does – the fridge stretches our willingness to disbelieve too far.
But then you feel Spielberg and Lucas didn’t mind. To them these were fun home movies, a chance to indulge some childish gags. They weren’t invested in it the way we were. They had moved on and I don’t think really either of them wanted to make it. When they did, they showed they didn’t really know what people really liked about the films in the first place. They assumed it was the action. Maybe they thought they needed that with the blockbusters they were going up against. But people loved the heart and the reality. When the fridge was nuked, they knew they won’t going to get that here. That Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would have none of what made us fall in love in the first place. It was an adventure we wouldn’t want to follow Indy on ever again.