Notable Festivals: Cannes (Out of Competition)
When Indiana Jones rode off into the sunset at the end of 1989’s INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, creator/producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg considered the series over and done with (despite a studio contract that originally required five films). The two friends parted ways professionally for the ensuing two decades, but they stayed close personally and would casually talk about Indy’s next adventure whenever they got together. The idea started picking up steam as a serious venture around 2000 when Spielberg’s son began to ask his father why a fourth film hadn’t been made yet, especially since all the key players (Spielberg, Lucas, and star Harrison Ford) were game to return. Spielberg then became fascinated by the possibilities of a new adventure, and the interesting ways they could take the series by acknowledging Ford’s aging. Several drafts were commissioned, including one by Frank Darabont, but Lucas in particular was very picky about what the fourth film would entail.
Despite Spielberg’s initial reluctance, he and Lucas settled on crystal skulls in the South American jungle as their maguffin, and used it as a launching pad to tell an intriguing story about ancient Native American secrets and the possibility of their civilization’s advancement being fueled by a superior race of inter-dimensional aliens. So come 2008, Ford once again stepped in front of camera wearing the iconic hat and whip for INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. There was an epic level of excitement surrounding Indy’s big return to the silver screen, fating the film to be one of the biggest hits of 2008 before a single frame was even shot.
By not making any attempts to hide Ford’s age, the filmmakers’ approach dictated that the story’s timeline had to be set forward appropriately—namely, the 1950’s. The decade saw the downfall of the Nazis as well as the transition of the ruff-and-tumble Roosevelt Americans into patriarchs of domesticated nuclear families. As the earlier films took a cue from the eras they were set in, they naturally resembled the serial, swashbuckling style of the 30’s and 40’s. Thus, Lucas and Spielberg had the logical line of thinking that CRYSTAL SKULL should resemble something of a 1950’s B-movie/sci-fi film—the type of which was popular in reaction to our mastery of nuclear power. Of all the questionable decisions made for this film (more on that later), this is one that I actually support—albeit in theory, not necessarily in execution. After all, this line of thinking was the basis for the filmmakers’ approach to the previous three films, so this way they can stay consistent within the spirit of the series while still showing us something new. Besides, aliens aren’t exactly out of place in the Indy universe—we saw similarly fantastical things like ghosts in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and phenomena like eternal life in THE LAST CRUSADE.
We’re reintroduced to Indiana Jones—now well into his fifties and quite the cantankerous grump—as he’s dragged out of the trunk of a truck driven out into the middle of the Nevada desert by Russians masquerading as American soldiers. Their leader, the stern Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) forces Indy at gunpoint to enter the warehouse we saw the Ark Of the Covenant stored in at the end of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK—now revealed to be Area 51. They track down a box containing the remains of a dead alien that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico. As Spalko starts to leave with it, Indy escapes his captors and returns home, where it’s revealed he’s living a lonely existence after losing both his father, Henry Sr, and close friend, Marcus Brody. An investigation by the FBI into his Communist sympathies prompts Indy’s dismissal from his teaching post at Marshall College. As he’s leaving town, Indy is tracked down by a cocky young greaser named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), who needs his help in finding a mutual friend of theirs: fellow archeologist and teacher named Professor Oxley (John Hurt). Their search takes them to the jungles of Peru, where not only do they find Oxley has been kidnapped and pressed into the services of Spalko, but so has Indy’s former lover and Mutt’s mother Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). At this point, Indy discovers he is a father, and Mutt is his son. But there’s no time for family reunions- the search party must seek to retrieve the coveted crystal skulls before the Russians find them and use them for world domination.
After being away from the role for nearly twenty years, Harrison Ford slips effortlessly back into the fedora. However, he changes his temperament to reflect an older, wiser, and more stubborn version of his iconic character. He’s now a decorated war hero, having risen up to the rank of Colonel after his service in World War 2. Despite being in his mid-60’s, Ford is in incredible shape, and he very quickly regains his mojo as the Indy we all know and love. Ford famously didn’t want to hide his aging with hair dye, makeup, stunt doubles, etc. The end result is noticeably creakier than previous installments, but it does add a particular geriatric charm that suits the character.
Cate Blanchett plays the rare villainous role as the stern, cold Soviet Irina Spalko. As the first female antagonist in the series that isn’t also a love interest, Blanchett turns in a somewhat cartoonish performance with a stereotypical Russian accent.
Shia LaBeouf has a lot of his dad’s stubbornness in the highly controversial role of Matt Williams. LaBeouf received a lot of flack when he was cast, and rightfully so—a lot of people straight up just don’t like LaBeef. I wouldn’t say his casting was “inspired, since he already had a high profile in Spielberg’s universe thanks to his role in the Spielberg-produced DISTURBIA and TRANSFORMERS (2007). However, his casting might have been the right choice at that specific moment in time, given his (albeit pudgier) semblance to Ford and his rising star in the industry. LaBeouf portrays Mutt as a stereotypical greaser ripped straight from THE WILD ONE (1953), as its only natural that Indy’s son would rebel against the style of his dad like Indy himself rebelled against bookish Henry Sr.
Karen Allen reprises the role of Marion Ravenwood from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, but she’s older here, and not as feisty or independent as she was before. Besides serving as Indy’s love interest, she doesn’t necessarily need to be in the film. I think her inclusion, while welcome, owes more to nostalgia than an actual story need for her presence. Her participation is also incongruent with the series’ notion that Indy would have a different love interest for each film. Sure, one would argue he’d want to settle down in his old age, but is settling down truly in Indy’s nature?
Ray Winstone plays Marc, Indy’s Ernest Hemingway-esque companion and war buddy with an Australian accent. He’s duplicitous, constantly double crossing his friends and enemies. Winstone does a great job playing a despicable character that values money more than friendship. And finally, John Hurt plays the frail sage and Indy’s old friend, Professor Oxley. He’s a little bit batty with dementia, but he achieves clarity when his friends need him the most at the end of the film. Hurt turns in a serviceable, entertaining performance for a serviceably entertaining film.
CRYSTAL SKULL adheres to the established aesthetic of the Indiana Jones in that it was shot on 35mm film, but it doesn’t have the same texture and patina that its predecessors had. It feels noticeably glossier and digital, most likely due to the heavy implementation of CGI techniques. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski found himself in the unenviable position of having to emulate prior series DP Douglas Slocombe’s aesthetic, right down to the broad lighting style and sepia-hued, earth-toned color palette. Spielberg was initially adamant about utilizing old production techniques as much as possible, but he quickly realized it would be easier and cheaper to go digital in several instances. However, this approach hurts the very reason we like Indy in the first place: the fact that the action was dangerous and exciting, and never looked fake. Indy’s globetrotting exploits to exotic locales suddenly don’t have quite the same impact when you can tell it was shot on a studio backlot or rendered in a computer. A perfect example is the creepy crawlies aspect of the series—previous entries did it for real, heaping thousands upon thousands of snakes, rats, and bugs on our heroes. The fear on their faces was palpable and real. But in CRYSTAL SKULL, their tormentors are killer ants rendered digitally, and it all looks so fake that the end result is hollow and disaffecting.
Maestro John Williams proves the most adept at slipping right back into the iconic Indy style. It’s exciting to hear that theme once again blare through theater speakers after a twenty-year absence. He doesn’t really evolve the music or explore its potential, but then again he doesn’t really need to. He’s giving us exactly what we came to hear. He even manages to have a little bit of fun with in-jokes, like a brief reprisal of the Ark theme from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK when the destructive action inside the Area 51 warehouse exposes the Ark’s hiding place. Spielberg uses source music to show the passage of time in Indy’s world, incorporating a little Elvis in the opening hot rod sequence as not only a nod to the 1950’s, but also to Lucas’ Eisenhower-era set film AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973).
Spielberg has stated in interviews that returning to the world of Indiana Jones meant a swallowing of pride on his part. He had to emulate his directing style from the 1980’s, which was considerably less mature than in his post-SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) days. As a result, CRYSTAL SKULL channels the swashbuckling approach of the pure, old-school Spielberg we saw in earlier Indy films. It’s visually consistent with his previous work, featuring silhouettes, low angle compositions, lens flares, and the requisite awe/wonder shot (a trope that’s particularly well-suited to the series). The narrative also allows Spielberg to indulge in his fascination with aviation and Americana/suburban imagery. The fake town constructed for the atom bomb test is a perfect representation of the suburban dream of toaster ovens and white picket fences that characterized the 1950’s.
The exploration of the father/son dynamics that were so well realized in THE LAST CRUSADE are expanded upon in CRYSTAL SKULL while having their polarity flipped. Indy is now the stern father trying to reign in his rebellious son. It’s a touching way to acknowledge Sean Connery’s mark on the series when Indy calls on him for patience and strength in dealing with his own son. This subplot culminates in Indy feeling comfortable calling Mutt “Junior”, just as his father did to him.
CRYSTAL SKULL’s legacy is very much like George Lucas’ STAR WARS prequels, in that an enormous tidal wave of impossible expectations were met with rage and disappointment upon arrival of the final product. Make no mistake, the film was a box office hit, but the critics and audiences alike were quick to cry foul. A lot of the ire centered on preconceived notions about LeBeouf’s legitimacy as an actor, as well as the perceived over-use of CGI effects. Vitriol was thrown at the cartoonish gophers that open the film, the infamous monkey-swinging treevine sequence, and to a lesser extent, the presence of aliens in the narrative entirely.
But what made the critics really sharpen their daggers was the sequence in which Indy survives a nuclear explosion by locking himself in a lead-lined refrigerator. Even for a character as fantastical and bigger-than-life as Indiana Jones, the scenario was well outside the boundaries of suspending disbelief. Some were so riled up over its inclusion the film that they claimed Indiana Jones had officially “jumped the shark”. Indeed, “nuking the fridge” has now become just as popular a derogatory term to describe when a popular TV show or movie crosses over into the realm of irrelevance, un-believability, or self-parody.
After the combined disappointment of CRYSTAL SKULL and the STAR WARS prequels, frothy-mouthed fanboys understandably felt betrayed by Spielberg and Lucas. They were disillusioned to see their former idols show fallibility in their old age. The sentiment was best captured in the notorious SOUTH PARK episode “THE CHINA PROBREM”, where dastardly cartoonish depictions of Lucas and Spielberg literally rape Indiana Jones, DELIVERANCE-style.
For Spielberg, INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL marked his first high-profile disappointment in over ten years. It hurts more, because it was for the series that helped to make his name, not some unknown property that he took a gamble on. He had intended to make the film as a gift for those who propelled him to his success in the first place, but they burned him for the effort.
For all its faults, CRYSTAL SKULL is still an enjoyable entry in the franchise. Will I rush to watch it again? No. Am I okay with its existence? Sure. It is, in effect, the act of two aging men letting their nostalgia get the better of them in a bid to recapture the glory days of their youth. Looking at Indy’s journey in this film as a reflection of his two creators taking stock of their legacy adds an intriguing angle—but not intriguing enough to reappraise its quality. Ultimately, CRYSTAL SKULL is a story that didn’t really need to be told. Riding off into the sunset at the end of THE LAST CRUSADE was about as satisfying an end to the Indy series that we could ask for.
INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Paramount.
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, George Lucas
Written by: David Koepp
Director of Photography: Janusz Kaminski
Production Designer: Guy Hendrix Dyas
Editor: Michael Kahn
Music: John Williams