Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Movie Information

The Story: Prof. Henry Jones (aka: Indiana Jones) picks up the fedora and the whip for more adventures when an old friend is kidnapped. The Lowdown: Ridiculous entertainment that tries too hard, coasts too much on nostalgia, but offers reasonably preposterous entertainment -- as long as you don't think about it too hard -- before going haywire in the last act.
Score:

Genre: Sci-Fi Fantasy Action Adventure
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Shia LaBeouf, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt
Rated: PG-13

As someone who never really cared all that much for the Indiana Jones movies—apart from Kate Capshaw singing “Anything Goes” in Chinese in the second one—I can’t say I’m surprised that I was far from overwhelmed by this late-in-the-day fourth installment. (Hey, now it’s a tetralogy—just like Wagner’s Ring cycle, but with CGI prairie dog action!) I am, however, surprised at the expressions of disappointment—and even outright anger—I’m hearing from a lot of fans. (Not all, mind you. There’s someone running around on Rotten Tomatoes attacking every negative review on the basis of, “It’s Indiana Jones…….shut the &^%$#@! up!” And people wonder why fanboys have a bad name.)

While I agree that turning the thing into a kind of Close Encounters of the Indy Kind was a truly horrible idea, I thought that, overall, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull at least deserved an “It’s OK” assessment. But I think it’s fair to say that “It’s OK” really isn’t good enough for $125 million or so worth of movie coming from the two aging wunderkinder of the blockbuster mindset, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

A lot of the negativity seems to be directed at Lucas and his fondness for CGI effects, but let’s be honest here—this movie plays like a Spielberg checklist. From the cute animal antics to the dysfunctional family schtick (Spielberg’s the guy who turned War of the Worlds into a domestic bonding drama) to the sci-fi trappings (completely unlike Lucas’ space operas), this is Spielberg country. However, the clunky storyline, which thinks it’s surprising you at every turn when it isn’t, is Lucas-like in the extreme, while the 1957 setting is edging into American Graffiti (1973) territory. But come on, both Spielberg and Lucas are fascinated to the point of obsession with their respective childhoods. In the end, it’s probably a wash as concerns which of the two pop culture auterists is to blame or praise.

Crystal Skull accomplishes the unthinkable by both expecting too much of its audience and simultaneously insulting their intelligence. It asks viewers to grasp the idea that duplicating the look of cheesy 1950s-‘60s process work is deliberately meant as homage to films from that era and not merely bad effects work. And it does this without stopping to realize that a lot of their viewership consider Raiders from 1981 a really old film, and have little knowledge of or interest in “antiquities” from a period as remote as the ‘50s.

Then the filmmakers turn around, introduce the viewers to plainly Russian bad guys and insist that Indy say “Russians!” just in case anyone didn’t get it. Worse, the scene is set at Area 51 and the object of the Russians’ interest is clearly a vacuum-packed alien (they show us the damned thing!)—but they assume the viewer can’t guess where this is all going. Even if the audience doesn’t feel talked down to, they’re apt to wonder just how dumb Indy must be to not figure out what’s going on. This runs through the whole film. The viewer knows what Indy’s gotten himself into in that model suburban neighborhood before he does. It’s pretty obvious just who “Mutt” Williams (Shia LaBeouf) is from the onset. And on and on. Indy is surprised on every occasion.

Moving the story to the 1950s was essential to explain Harrison Ford’s age, but it’s also where the film starts to go wrong. The earlier films tried to recreate the feeling of a 1930s-‘40s serial, which gave them a template that’s missing here. The last-gasp serials of the 1950s were, to put it kindly, not very good, even by the none too exacting standards of the serial film. It’s perhaps not coincidental that Crystal Skull takes place a year after even the indefatigable Sam Katzman called it a day as concerned knocking out serial films. The simple criminal mastermind and a world stage with clearly identifiable bad guys didn’t work so well in the Cold War days. This plagued the later serials and it plagues Crystal Skull.

Injecting a note of anti-McCarthyism is nice liberal lip-service, certainly germane to the era, and probably sincerely felt by Messrs. Spielberg and Lucas. Indy being unreasonably blacklisted as a commie and losing his teaching position is workable, but it’s a plot device that never plays out, especially since Indy returns from his adventures with no kind of proof of his innocence. The matter is just dropped and his name is mysteriously cleared. As a stand against 1950s red-scare witchhunting, it’s remarkably weak tea.

The hoke value is remarkably high, but that’s not the real problem, since that’s a staple of the series. The flurry of monkeys is pretty cool simian-value stuff, but Shia LaBeouf turning Tarzan is just silly. The crystal skull itself is plain awful. It looks for all the world like a bad plastic model with crumpled cellophane at the center. The action sequences try too hard and are often risible. Just who are these guards of the “Kingdom” and do they simply loiter inside those plastered-over columns on the off-chance that someone will happen by? Who plasters them into the columns anyway? Why does Spielberg end the film on the most boring image imaginable? Shouldn’t the final shot of such a film be iconic? What do we get? A dull shot of a remarkably sterile empty church? What?

Surprisingly, the main thing that I thought wouldn’t work—does: 65-year-old Harrison Ford as Indy. Yes, there’s occasionally a feeling of “Boy, they sure are giving Ford’s stunt-double a workout,” but all in all, it’s easy to forget that Ford is too old for this kind of thing. (This was something Firewall (2006) couldn’t pull off.)

In the end, if you’re willing to go with it, Crystal Skull can be an amusing couple of hours, even if it’s hardly the “event” it ought to have been. More, it’s possible to look at the way Spielberg puts scenes together, and realize you’re looking at the work of a true craftsman who understands filmmaking. At the same time, it’s impossible not to realize that this craftsmanship is at the service of a screenplay that doesn’t deserve it. Rated PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

27 thoughts on “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

  1. Sunday

    Your score is kinder than your words, which is to say it’s a similar view to mine. I had less issue with the alien plot and more with the over-the-top (even by Indy standards) “superheoic” action.

  2. Ken Hanke

    My score is, I think, fair. I can’t say this is actually a bad picture, just an underwhelming one. I’m interested to see someone who doesn’t have an issue with the aliens, since that’s been the no. 1 complaint I’ve encountered.

  3. Sunday

    I think these stories are less about the plot details, as I find aliens about as hokey and out there as non-existent religious artifacts, ancient knights guarding tombs, and arks that make people’s faces melt and heads explode.

    To me the problem lies in the over-the-top elements which make certain scenes here more akin to a Raimi Spider-Man film than Indiana Jones. Because when these films are nothing else, they’re great Chaplin & Keaton-esque physical adventures. But the cartoonish nature of the newest film makes a parody of even that already-extreme level of action-adventure.

    The funny thing is, there were ways around that. Take the vine scene. A creative way around this might have been to give Harrison a line that acknowledges the improbability, so that when Mutt lands back in his vehicle after successfully navigating the forest from vine-to-vine, Indy can stare at him, look back over his shoulder at the trees, and incredulously ask the boy, “Are you kidding me?”

    It’s a nod to the audience that even he doesn’t believe what just happened and it makes the scene charming and winky, rather than just accepted that no one would even bat an eye at such a thing, which is part of the problem throughout this film.

  4. Ok, I’ll defend the aliens.

    In previous Indy films they dealt with The Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant, so why not little green men? In Indy world it’s certainly plausible.

    Good review. It didn’t suck, could have been better… all and all a good popcorn flick.

  5. mark

    I didn’t mind the alien theme at all. Thought it was pretty interesting. However, the film lacked the emotional resonance and “soul” the other 3 possesed. Felt a little rushed and didn’t seem like the characters were in any real danger. Overall it was entertaining and just great to have Indy back! i give it a B.

  6. Sunday

    Emotional resonance AND dramatic tension. Things just happened. Nothing felt dangerous or exciting.

  7. Sunday

    I’d surely rank it last amongst the four. Yes, even behind Temple Of Doom, which while also over the top and silly, felt like an Indy film more than Crystal Skull.

  8. Steve

    Personally, I think this film really demonstrates the blessing and the curse that is CGI. In space films, or movies that aren’t rooted in reality, it’s great. But in movies that are supposed to happen in the “real” world, or even a semblance of one, I think they encourage directors to stretch the suspension of belief to the breaking point. I am not a huge fan of the action genre, but I did enjoy the earlier Indiana films, and didn’t laugh out loud unless it was intended. I have to say, I did laugh at this one.

    The ants and the monkeys were really fake looking to me. Could these effects have been done without CGI? Probably. But I think the ease with which they are now rendered can stop the director from asking whether or not they really pay off. I think having to train a bunch of real Macaques or golden tamarins might have led to a lot of second thought on that gag. It’s kind of like genetic engineering. We’re spending a lot of time thinking about what CAN be done, and not enough thinking about whether or not it SHOULD be done.

    That said, I really enjoyed the movie for the most part. It was a good popcorn flick, and I had only a few eye-rolls. The fencing match between the two cars, with all the driver swappage, was the stupidest part to me. And really, who couldn’t see that ‘boat-car’ going into the water from a MILE away? Also, I believe that last set of falls they supposedly went over was Angel Falls in Africa if I’m not mistaken. I had a hard time going along with that.

    But ooooh I just love mean, strong women! Cate Blanchett’s character was pretty sterotypical, but she was spot on it. You could tell she was invested in the role and her intensity never wavered. The woman was HOT. Where was she when they were making Aeon Flux is what I want to know…

  9. Ken Hanke

    I’m reading with interest here, but haven’t all that much to say — not being all that invested in the films.

    I do rather like Mr. Sunday’s idea for owning up to the preposterous nature of it all. My biggest qualm is that it might have made it a little too jokey. It slightly reminds me of Bob Hope in Son of Paleface telling a couple of reappearing vultures, “Beat it or you’re gonna make the whole thing unbelievable.”

  10. artdude71

    Oh, come on! Aside from Raiders, I wouldn’t consider the Indiana Jones films classics. Watching Temple of Doom and Last Crusade, I was struck by how dates they really are. The films are only as good as the action sequences and the relations between Jones and his allies. The second film was distasteful with it’s portrayal of child slavery, but the friendship between Short Round and Indy really was touching. To hell with Willie Scott…..the back and forth between Connery and Ford in the third entry is hilarious, even if the film plays like back slapstick most of the time…..the villains are just a rehash of enemies from Raiders.
    So, with Crystal Skull we have a psychobabbling Communist villain and a truly bizarre alien subplot, an angry greaser kid, a double agent and the grizzled Indiana Jones……
    Does this plot make any more sense that a cult that rips living hearts out of people or Nazi’s going after the lost Ark of the Covenent for it’s supernatural powers. This is not Fellini, this is not Bergman…..Indiana Jones films have always embraced the absurdity of the situations the characters find themselves in.
    As for no emotional resonance……well some themes should have been given more time to develop, but the relationship between Indy and Mutt was fun to watch and the scene when Harrison Ford tells Karen Allen that “there was just one problem, they weren’t you, honey”, really was heartfelt…and who didn’t want them to have a happy ending…..and Mutt’s reaction to Ox’s mental breakdown was as much emotion as you’re gonna see from a supporting character…..
    the Russian were able enough enemies to prove Jones still has the moves…All in all, having seen this one twice I still put it as the second best in the series. It suffered from a dense plot, but it excels at letting Indiana Jones show that he’s not just some useless muscle. He’s also a professor of archaelogy and generally a genius, capable of interpreting dozens of languages and navigating the world while fighting off hordes of villains……Ford carries this movie and overcomes any hokeyness Spielberg or Lucas inject into the plot

    and remember something, these films aren’t made for smart ass critics. They’re for kids and teens. The 10 year old two seats from mine could barely contain his excitement and when I watched that chase through the Amazon jungle, I could barely contain my happiness either.

  11. Sunday

    Regarding dramatic tension, here’s another example of a problem I had. The water fall scene simply becomes about our group taking not one but three (!) consecutive plunges, all while doing nothing to attempt to save themselves except experience it like a water ride at Six Flags. Why not nix the other two water falls from the story board and have them use the bull whip and other means to try to desperately prevent the first plunge for a few minutes, even if they fail and ultimately go over anyhow? Indy often fails, it’s part of his charm. Maybe even after all of that, it’s a short drop…adding a bit of comedy into this scene. All that work for nothing. But instead we’ve no time to appreciate their peril or react to it (hey look, a water fall…woosh!) and that happens three times, no less. It’s visually cool with some nice wide shots, but not viscerally compelling because there’s no time spent fearing it. There’s a lot of that going on in this film. We always know Indy will get by and with hardly a scratch, but they don’t need to rob us of the thrill of that inevitability as well…

  12. Ken Hanke

    Oh, come on! Aside from Raiders, I wouldn’t consider the Indiana Jones films classics.

    I’ll up you one because I’ve never considered Raiders a classic. I still don’t. It’s a pop culture milestone of some sort, but that doesn’t make it a great film.

    and remember something, these films aren’t made for smart ass critics. They’re for kids and teens.

    That’s pretty hard to swallow when you’re talking about a movie that’s riding heavily on nostalgia for something started 27 years ago that hasn’t been revisited for 19 years in terms of a new movie. And in this instance, the critics have tended to be more enthusiastic about the film than the public at large.

  13. Ken Hanke

    But instead we’ve no time to appreciate their peril or react to it (hey look, a water fall…woosh!) and that happens three times, no less. It’s visually cool with some nice wide shots, but not viscerally compelling because there’s no time spent fearing it.

    An excellent point. This is also another instance of where it’s too easy for the viewer to be ahead of the characters. Weren’t you completely expecting the next two waterfalls based on the gibberish John Hurt’s character had been spouting?

  14. artdude71

    Good points….OK, Raiders in not a “classic” among all films, but it is a milestone for modern adventure movies. It’s a classic for all the amazing stuntwork that went into it.
    Now, all we get is CGI bullets and CGI fistfights :(
    Think about all the movies that have tried and failed to be the next “Indiana Jones” or the original “Star Wars”.

    And as for predictability,….yes, I guessed every single twist ahead of time….as a viewer I sometimes felt smarter than Jones….how he fell for Mac’s bull a third time is hard to swallow.

    Then again, there was that monkey in Raiders and the Austrian doctor in Last Crusade.

    Apparently, Lucas and co. just followed their formula to a tee and if you like that formula, you’ll dig the film. If not, then this old fashioned kind of story is not for you.

  15. Ken Hanke

    I think having to train a bunch of real Macaques or golden tamarins might have led to a lot of second thought on that gag.

    An excellent point that I missed earlier. The odd thing is that the night before Crystal Skull I ran the monkey stampede climax of William Thiele’s The Jungle Princess (1936) for Mr. Souther — in part to demonstrate my pet theory that any film ever made could benefit from a climax involving stampeding simians — and that silly old Dorothy Lamour vehicle (her first movie) actually does use real monkeys. It uses lots of real — and apparently pretty aggravated — monkeys. They are ever so much more satisfying than the computer-generated variety. See also: Charlie Chaplin beset by a bunch of monkeys while walking the tightwire in The Circus (1928). Both cases suggest that CGI is simply laziness.

  16. Terry

    This movie was a dissapointment from the start. It felt like it was a ‘plastered’ together, cookie cutter that ‘jumped the sharp’ several times. I nodded off a few times. It just did not have the feel of the other IJ movies. I cannot believe that Spielberg did anything else but let them put his name on this one. The movie-goers, in the packed theater I viewed this at, were lethargic at the end of the movie and waiting for it to end…Me too. If you must see it, wait to rent so you don’t feel ‘plundered’. I rate this ” A bit of a stinker “

  17. Ken Hanke

    Think about all the movies that have tried and failed to be the next “Indiana Jones” or the original “Star Wars”.

    There probably are better adventure films post-Indy and better sci-fi since Star Wars, but I can’t think of anything really comparable, because there’s a particular kind of regression at work with both. Both are essentially serial films with bigger budgets and (sometimes) better acting. Has anybody else actually made that attempt? If they have, I’m forgetting who they were and what they made.

    if you like that formula, you’ll dig the film. If not, then this old fashioned kind of story is not for you.

    I think part of my problem with the whole thing — the whole Indiana Jones and Star Wars business, not this film specifically — is that they’re not truly old-fashioned in the way a Flash Gordon serial is. Instead, they’re somebody’s post-modern idea of old-fashioned. Given the option of watching Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938) or Star Wars, I’ll opt for Flash Gordon. Its naievete and quaintness is real, not carefully calculated. But in the end, I’d probably rather watch Bergman’s Persona than either, if it came right down to it. Then again, being the mass of contradictions that most film lovers are, I might very well opt for one of those “embarassing” titles I mentioned in last week’s Screening Room. Bottom line for me, though, is probably that I own copies of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, Persona and all but one of those “embarassing” titles, while I’ve never felt any desire to own a Star Wars or Indiana Jones title. That’s not really a quality judgment so much as it’s a simple statement that I don’t find them very interesting. Now, how much of that is born of a degree of resentment over what the whole blockbuster mentality did to filmmaking overall (sorry, but filmmaking from about 1964 through 1975 with the advent of Jaws was just a lot more adventurous) is a point to consider.

  18. Ken Hanke

    The movie-goers, in the packed theater I viewed this at, were lethargic at the end of the movie and waiting for it to end…Me too.

    You and they must not be alone. On Friday analysts were all in agreement that Crystal Skull could not be dislodged by Sex and the City for box office supremacy this weekend. According to Box Office Mojo earlier this afternoon, Skull is projeted to end up with an additional $46 million for the weekend, which Sex is likely to end up with $55.7 million.

    Now, I’m not saying this is a good thing. I’m not the one reviewing Sex and the City, but I did see it and it made me realize what a fine movie Crystal Skull was on a relative basis. Still, I think it’s funny when the analysts are wrong. Plus, it strengthens their character.

  19. Louis

    No one anticipated the manner in which SEX evidently “speaks” to female moviegoers. I don’t think it’s early box-office success is so much indicative of the movie per se, as it is what it represents.

    That is, throughout the course of the show the men came & went, but the bond between these four central female characters remained constant. Female audiences are making it their “own” moviegoing experience.

    This is a somewhat unique event, because it’s not just a so-called “Chick-Flick”. To call it that is unfairly dismissive. This time around it’s something different. To my astonishment, women identify with these characters–without much regard for the staggering shallowness of their behavior. The only characters that I can think of from recent vintage that were on this shallow a level are the SEINFELD gang. Though, that was obviously by design–“No Hugging & No Learning”–and central to the running schtick. Not sure here that’s the case.

    This looks to be more related to women finding your inner-Id. Letting their psychological defenses down and letting pleasure rule.

  20. Ken Hanke

    This is a somewhat unique event, because it’s not just a so-called “Chick-Flick”. To call it that is unfairly dismissive.

    And yet because its audience is about 85% female, it deserves that accolade more than any romantic comedy the term’s ever been applied to. Actually, I think dismissing it as a chick-flick might be a kindness.

  21. Sunday

    Did not My Big Fat Greek Wedding accomplish much the same sort of thing? It took longer to build (since it didn’t have the benefit of being a hit TV show) and will SURELY have longer theater legs than Sex will likely have (I see significant drops here the next couple weeks), but that was a movie experience also made up of mostly female viewers, no?

  22. [b]This movie was a dissapointment from the start. It felt like it was a ‘plastered’ together, cookie cutter that [i]‘jumped the sharp’[/i] several times.[/b]

    Sorry to be a stickler (what can I say, I’m an editor), but I think the phrase you’re looking for is “Jumped the shark,” which refers to the bizarre [i]Happy Days[/i] episode where Fonzie literally water-ski jumps over a shark in what appeared to be an attempt to boost ratings.

    Here’s the Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jumping_the_shark

    But, yes, the Indy franchise seems to have jumped the shark.

  23. Ken Hanke

    Did not My Big Fat Greek Wedding accomplish much the same sort of thing?

    I don’t think the two are really comparable. At least, I don’t remember Greek Wedding being any more heavily skewed in terms of viewership of women than any standard romantic comedy fare. I remember that locally it was jump-started by the distributor setting up a special free showing for the local Greek church. (I doubt that was just an Asheville approach.) And like a lot of movies of a similar genre — Bridget Jones’s Diary is a much better movie that comes to mind that fits — a huge portion of the box office that kept it going consisted of women going to weekday matinees.

    I think the surprise here lies in a collection of unusual factors starting with the sharp divide in gender, but also including the R rating (Greek Wedding was a mere PG, by the way) and the simple fact that it dethroned the supposedly unassailable Crystal Skull. Of course, the R rating may have helped figures slightly, since R rated films traditionally do better at night when ticket prices are higher (I don’t know if anyone has tabulated money vs. actual attendance). It’s also necessary to factor in the rather shrill and shallow tone of Sex and the City, making it a very different proposition than Greek Wedding (not that Greek Wedding wasn’t shallow; it just didn’t advertise the fact).

    The legs question is an interesting one. I’ll be surprised if there’s not a sharp drop off almost at once — not that Kung Fu Panda or You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (this week’s releases) are in anything like the same target audience, nor for that matter are the following week’s, The Incredible Hulk and The Happening. Greek Wedding had an advantage by being pushed out in limited release in the spring where it wasn’t trampled in the rush of summer movies. Also, that limited release approach worked to build an audience (though that’s a type of release approach that’s worked less and less well in recent years).

    All this will doubtless get more attention when Justin’s review (I saw it with him, but I didn’t review the film apart from some comments on the radio last Friday) of Sex comes out tomorrow.

  24. TigerShark

    You pan everything about the movie except Harrison Ford, and yet you give it 3 and a half stars?

    Why even have a rating system if it’s this meaningless?

  25. Ken Hanke

    No, I don’t pan everything about the movie except Harrison Ford. Read again.

    “While I agree that turning the thing into a kind of Close Encounters of the Indy Kind was a truly horrible idea, I thought that, overall, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull at least deserved an ‘It’s OK’ assessment.”

    “In the end, if you’re willing to go with it, Crystal Skull can be an amusing couple of hours”

    “More, it’s possible to look at the way Spielberg puts scenes together, and realize you’re looking at the work of a true craftsman who understands filmmaking”

    That’s not exactly panning it. It strikes me as being about right for 3 1/2 stars. I’m sorry it doesn’t satisfy you, but then you seem strangely compelled to find fault whenever you think you can.

  26. Louis

    “You pan everything about the movie except Harrison Ford, and yet you give it 3 and a half stars?

    Why even have a rating system if it’s this meaningless?”

    It’s simple arithmetic–With a 5-Star system a
    3.5 is the equivalent of about a C+/B-. With the level of talent–and limitless budget at their disposal–a C+/B- is deserving of a panning.

  27. Ken Hanke

    It’s simple arithmetic–With a 5-Star system a
    3.5 is the equivalent of about a C+/B-. With the level of talent–and limitless budget at their disposal–a C+/B- is deserving of a panning.

    That’s kind of the way I look at it when doing the five star approach — 3.5 is not approaching rave status or even a recommendation. It merely means it’s not without some merit and interest. In other words, it’s okay, but not exactly world-class stuff. I don’t really envision anyone seeing a 3.5 and thinking, “Boy, he really liked this one, it must be good.”

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