You Call this Archaeology? Part 4 Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

So now, it is time for the last, at the present, of the Indiana Jones movies, the much-maligned Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I know a lot of people don’t like this movie and think it is a crime against the rest of the franchise if not cinema itself. Those people are wrong, and probably stupid. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, while not without its foibles and a few sour notes, is an excellent continuation of the series. It takes the impossible task of making a sequel after 20 years that still feels like the earlier films and not only succeeds, it turns the time gap into one of the films greatest strengths. I have two goals in this review. The first is to show why I like the movie so much. The second is to show how wrong you (the hypothetical you that dislikes this movie, because I‘m sure most people reading this are smart enough to see how awesome this movie is) are for hating it. Sounds easy to me.

Like with the rest of the movies, we can look to the opening scene for a statement of intent. In Raiders it was the Indy/Belloq rivalry, in Temple ‘Anything Goes’ and in Crusade it was Jones Sr./Jr. The opening scene in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a statement of intent for the rest of the film. Only it seems that most viewers were too distracted by CG prairie dogs to notice. The first sound heard is Elvis Presley’s Hound dog. That is important. It is one of the most famous songs from the ‘50’s and the film is trying to establish setting. It is the same as the shot of the mushroom cloud in a few minutes. This is Indiana Jones in the nuclear age. By this time, the pulp heroes of the ‘30’s that he is based on had disappeared. In their place rose Sci-Fi movies and creature features. Concerns over the dangers and opportunities presented by new science trumped interest in mysticism and the occult. Indy no longer belongs. The world that exists in 1956 is not the world of 1936. Seeing the mushroom cloud in Indy’s brave new world moment. Such people fill this world as Mac, Indy’s treacherous supposed friend and the villainous Irina Spalko with her interest in pseudo-science. We also get the message that while the world has changed, Indy hasn’t. He is still quick with a supposedly witty quip or an opportunistic escape.

The sticking point for people seems to be Indy’s escape from a nuclear explosion via refrigerator. It is patently ridiculous. Much like him being drug for a few miles behind a truck on rough terrain. Or escaping a crashing plane in a life raft. Judging an Indiana Jones movie on realism is flatly refusing to entertain the film on its terms. I can only assume that the people who decided that this scene was where suspension of disbelief was irrevocably broken has never went back an examined the plausibility of the previous films. The unbelievability is a feature, not a bug and it has been that way since Raiders of the Lost Ark. I agree that in some cases, it crosses the line of acceptance, like most of Temple of Doom, and I’ll agree, grudgingly, that the fridge scene fits that bill. It is but a small thing, and an unimportant one to boot. (Also, the fridge was lead lined, what more do you want?) The important thing is the mushroom cloud. That is the image that should dominate Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

One of the biggest reasons I like Kingdom of the Crystal Skull so much is that it is the only Indian Jones sequel. It is the only one of the movies to pick up on theme’s and characters from previous movies and advance them. In fact, it plus Raiders and Crusade tie together to make an effective trilogy. Temple of Doom can safely be ignored. Raiders of the Lost Ark is the story of Indiana’s romance of Marian Ravenwood, but neither appears or is mentioned in Last Crusade. Something must have happened to them in between, and the films’ chronology places 2 years between the two movies. It also has Indy chafing against the bureaucracy of government agencies. He is willing to risk life and limb to help them and they are more than willing to deny him his prize. The Last Crusade is about Indy fixing his relationship with his father, about both of them realizing the importance of family. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ties those two ideas together. While Indy was preserving one family, he was ignoring another. The lessons he learned in the third movie help Indy resolve his problems from the third.

And we get a stupendous motorcycle chase with Shia LaBeouf looking exactly like Marlon Brando in the Wild One. Now an old man, Indy’s backseat dialogue mirrors his father’s. It is also why the reveal that Indy is Mutt’s dad is not much of a surprise at all. The movie could be any plainer about what was going on. For the next hour of so the adventure is as fresh and pop-y as it ever was. A breathless rush around the world, with only the most tenuous claim archaeological research.

Sticking point number 2 for many people is that the maguffin leads to aliens and not some religious mystical discovery. Frankly, this complaint is asinine. As I alluded to earlier, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is deliberately echoing the zeitgeist of ‘50s, which means aliens and monsters. Indy is still the pulp hero from the 30s, but it is not the 30s anymore. The early parts of the film use a hammer to establish the time period, with popular music of the time and references to greasers and McCarthyism. It is brilliant, placing the pulp hero in a different milieu. Drawing the line at the existence of aliens, period, in the world seems a strange choice, since no one had problems with the veracity of Hindu death cults, the powers of the Ark of the Covenant or meeting immortals thanks to drinking from the actual Holy Grail. The Sci-Fi twist is one that makes perfect sense for what Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is doing. Same goes for the giant ants. They fit in perfectly with a crazy sci-fi adventure. This is why the Mutt as Tarzan scene fails so terribly. That obvious reference flat doesn’t fit in the rest of the movie. It is jarring and definitely strains suspension of disbelief. Luckily, it last all of 1 minute.

There are several one those jarring moments in Kingdom. Not as many as in Temple of Doom, but enough that it doesn’t rise to the level of Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Last Crusade. Those are two the best adventure movies of all time, Kingdom isn’t near that level. But it is not the unholy abortion that people want to make it seem. It is a good, very good even, adventure movie. It is certainly better than any entry in the genre since the Last Crusade. (I would love to be proved wrong about this, by the way. Just don’t say National Treasure or I’ll laugh in your face then push you down.) All that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull needs to be enjoyed is a willingness to engage it on its own terms. A willingness not to go in wanting exactly Raiders of the Lost Ark again. An open mind. Too bad that seems too tall a task to ask of most viewers.