Here’s an opinion: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is better than The Temple of Doom.
Gasp! Cries of “sacrilege!” ring out. Fights break out on zeppelins. Nazi faces melt off.
Alright, so perhaps the reaction wouldn’t be that strong, but the fourth installment of the Indiana Jones quadrilogy certainly inspires passionate feeling. Mostly negative.
And it’s true: Shia LeBeouf is about as worthy of being Indy’s son as Jar Jar Binks is worthy of Star Wars; there are too many Evil People in SS-style uniforms (because honestly, we’ve been here and done that at this point); and IT IS NOT POSSIBLE TO ESCAPE A NUCLEAR EXPLOSION BY HIDING IN A FRIDGE. Oh, and there are aliens, a plot device which pretty much crossed the line from archaeology into Scientology. If there’s a being from on high in the Indy series then it’d better be God, not E.T.
It’s not a lot to recommend a movie – but there’s charm, humour, and character dynamics in Crystal Skull that get missed in the mire of criticism. It’s no Raiders or Last Crusade – but then neither is Temple of Doom, with its brooding tone, dark colour palette, and snarling quarter-life-crisis Indy.
In a direct comparison as parts of a franchise, Temple has a better overall plot and superior action sequences – there’s nothing in Crystal Skull to beat that exhilarating chase through underground mines, and the story remains mercifully earth-bound. What Temple is is a competently-executed middle film that contains neither the spark nor humour of its bookends; though it might technically be a better Indiana Jones movie than Crystal Skull, it takes out too much of the fun.
Fast-forward twenty years. The Last Crusade restored the original tone of the franchise and with that its critical success, producing possibly the best Indy film of them all. Despite a five-film deal with Paramount, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas let the franchise grind to a halt over a lack of worthy material, focusing instead on their television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Spielberg and Harrison Ford were also resolutely against any plot involving aliens (should’ve stuck to your guns, guys).
Somehow, Lucas convinced them that aliens, psychic powers, and the flavour of a ’50s sci-fi B-movie were appropriate for the franchise. The result is an undeniable rehash of old ideas in new packaging and a sedateness which hints at Spielberg and Lucus losing their touch as much as it does Indy’s creaky knees.
So why does Crystal Skull deserve a second chance if it’s really that bad? Because IT’S REALLY NOT THAT BAD. Roger Ebert gave the film 3 1/2 stars out of 4 (the same score he’d given to Last Crusade) and captured it perfectly when he called it “goofy” action. Crystal Skull is pulpy and delightful, full of absurd car chases through the Amazon and a motorcycle crashing through a college library. “This is crazy!” shouts Indy, and he’s right. Ray Winstone hams it up as an old WWII colleague-turned -urncoat, John Hurt brings his best old man game, and Karen Allen’s return as Marion Ravenwood is a reason to celebrate on its own; she’s easily the best female presence in the franchise, with a little competition from Cate Blanchett as Crystal Skull‘s villain Irina.
Their inclusion – one old, one new – symbolises the leap the world has taken and gives a little more to a series which hasn’t really done much for its women. It’s far from perfect – Irina is too close to a femme fatale to break the mould and Marion spends too much of the film as a damsel in distress – but it’s better than the paint-by-numbers Willie in Temple of Doom or doll-like Nazi Dr. Elsa Schneider in Last Crusade. Marion and Irina have bite, at least.
Marion’s inclusion gateways the film’s personal element: a family dynamic. Paper bags over the head aside, Shia LeBeouf is both a more competent actor than he’s given credit for and absolutely the wrong casting choice for such a beloved franchise. Give him a Michael Bay explosion-fest, sure, but resting the Jones legacy on his shoulders might not have been Spielberg’s best decision. But unless you have an irrational hatred of him, he’s a good enough choice for a film that’s generally aiming at about that level (this is a second chance, after all, not an argument for a top spot in the franchise).
The father-son dynamic of Crystal Skull is one of its true delights, an echo of Last Crusade that bridges the gap and packs an extra punch with the off-screen death of Henry Sr. Indy’s role reversal from wayward son to fumbling father is a wonderful piece of growth for the character, and one which gets overlooked in amongst beings from another world. Call it schmoopy, maybe, and no one ever expected an Indy movie to finish with a wedding, but people forget how much the series has relied on family connections and just plain ol’ love. Mutt rescuing Indy from quicksand doesn’t match Indy’s race to the Holy Grail to save his father, but let it shift your perspective slightly and watch the movie through a new lens.
The same old thing, yes; unwelcome new elements, yes; retrospectively bad casting choices, yes – but go into it with the knowledge that nothing will ever top Raiders or Last Crusade and see how much more you can enjoy Crystal Skull. Pretend it’s not an Indy movie if it helps, but don’t close your eyes to the “goofy action” that Robert Ebert loved so much or the chance to see a character grow from young man to old, from adventurer to professor and back again, from single freewheeler to married dad.
Indiana Jones was cool in his thirties and he’s just as cool in his fifties. Like Indy, the franchise might have slowed a bit in its old age, but show a little patience and you might be surprised how much you enjoy it.