Love it or loathe it, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has earned a place in the history books. The largest release in Paramount Pictures history, twelve thousand copies covering 25 languages criss-crossed the globe while Spielberg took one to Cannes, returning to the festival with a film for the first time since E.T. in 1982. Of course, Skull’s greatest contribution is not this historic release, or beginning the deeply hit-and-miss practice of dragging Harrison Ford back into his old roles for another trip around the block – but for putting ‘Nuking the Fridge’ in the cinematic dictionary.
It’s been ten years since Crystal Skull divided fans and critics across the world, and it’s fair to say the naysayers won that particular battle. It popped up in more than a few ‘worst films of 2008’ lists, and ‘nuking the fridge’ is only one of many aspects of Skull that are lambasted to this day. Fans were disappointed, a franchise was tarnished – but does Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull deserve a place in the Citizen Kane of Awful Hall of Fame?
What’s Mutt got to do, got to do with it?
SHIA LABEOUF IS A GOOD ACTOR. Yes, he’s made some duds, and been in his fair share of real-world scrapes, but in the right role his frenetic, bottled lightning energy works. He was the best thing (maybe the only good thing) in the early Transformers movies, his McEnroe steals the show in 2017’s second-best tennis movie, and he was the perfect choice to follow in the footsteps of Indiana Jones.
Ultimately, Mutt Williams is a creative misstep – and the film knows it, choosing to end with Indy keeping his own damn hat instead of passing the mantle to his newly-discovered progeny. You just can’t replace Indiana Jones, but LaBeouf makes the best of a challenging role, pulling together the film’s only emotional thread as he comes to reckon with his new dad – and even finding some chemistry with professional grumpasaurus Harrison Ford. His energy crackles as the jumpy upstart with something to prove, and in the right film LaBeouf could have developed his own presence as a new, rough around the edges kind of archaeologist.
Need more proof that Shia LaBeouf is the natural successor to Indiana Jones? How about his new career, actually fighting real Nazis.
Indiana Jones and the Red Menace
Another good idea, poorly implemented – setting Indiana Jones in the 1950s. Spielberg revels in the time period – hamming it up with greasers, americana and the goofy sci-fi aesthetic, leading to the film’s best action sequence as Indy and Mutt are chased across Marshall College by russian spies. This scene is a return to the Indy of old, but Spielberg also takes advantage of the darker side of the decade to bring some much-needed depth to this largely simplistic franchise.
The original trilogy was more comfortable with cartoonish villains, and while ultimately Skull sticks to this template with its hammy communist spies, the first act hints at a more interesting take. Following the great ‘fridgcident’, Jones is held by the FBI and investigated as a potential spy, leading to him losing his position at the University. McCarthyism and America’s fear of itself is a new direction for the franchise, and although it’s unfortunate that Spielberg doesn’t follow this path, its refreshing to see some indication of the messier world beyond the black-and-white moralism of Nazi fighting.
You Winstone, We Lose Some
Reportedly, Crystal Skull’s triple-double agent gambit was actually suggested by Winstone to Spielberg. An interesting idea, but it doesn’t matter what team he’s on – just get him off the screen. Winstone’s hurly burly Agent MacHale makes insufferability into an artform; the film places a lot on the idea of his relationship with Indiana Jones, but when the two get thrown out of the trunk of a car together in the film’s opening scene, you could believe they’d never met. A lot of this is down to Harrison Ford’s paycheck mentality (more on this later), but casting Ray Winstone as the world’s least charming snake in the grass is just one of the many ways Crystal Skull mishandles its cast. Speaking of which…
Do you really want to Hurt me – do you really want to make me Blanch(ett)
Most of the cast signed on without reading the script, desperate to star in an Indiana Jones film and work with ‘god’ himself, Steven Spielberg. John Hurt was an exception to this, making his appearance in the film all the more baffling. Crystal Skull is a criminal waste of Hurt’s talent, sidelining him to wander the background spouting wacky nonsense, before miraculously returning his sanity in the final moments to explain the film’s ridiculous plotting in a haze of technobabble and overzealous exposition. More egregiously, Crystal Skull brings in Cate Blanchett only to kneecap her talent with a horrendous russian accent and a cripplingly stilted script of occult nonsense and arduous KG-Cliches.
“He Belongs in a Museum”
Other directors have since had greater success in coaxing Harrison Ford out of retirement, but in Crystal Skull, it’s painful to watch the film not even give him anything to do, letting him dodder along behind Blanchett or LaBeouf as someone leads him to the next set piece. This would be okay – the best take on Indy’s return the big screen after twenty years would be to acknowledge and explore the changing times, but Spielberg doesn’t commit to the idea, resolving to let the old man complain about his creaking frame every now and then, before he’s shuttled over to the next embarrassment.
Nuking the Fridge/Monkeying Around/What is this, a sequence for Ants/ Gopher Broke
Any of the above would be an appropriate title for the worst recurring motif in Crystal Skull:
- Spielberg finds an interesting idea – the viability of surviving a nuclear blast in a fridge for example, or a car-chase/fight scene set hurtling through the Amazon rainforest
- Spielberg takes this idea WAY TOO FAR – the fridge bounces across the desert, the car chase involves multiple waterfalls, badly green-screened fencing
- Spielberg adds some weird animals for the kids (Gophers, Monkeys, Ray Winstone)
- Spielberg coats the whole thing in a viscous layer of CGI
It’s important to keep in mind that the Crystal Skull’s momentous release was part of a larger scheme – convincing cinemas to join the digital/3D revolution. The above formula seems like an unfortunate consequence of the shift towards 3D filmmaking, a commitment by Spielberg to emphasise the technology and expand on the scale, to the detriment of the story he was trying to tell.
But oh well – the monkeys are still cute.
That about covers it – Crystal Skull is a misstep for Spielberg and the franchise, but it’s not any more catastrophic than the average disappointing blockbuster seq –
It’s not so much that the aliens – sorry, ‘extra-dimensional archeologists’ – are a stupid move and a bad fit for the Indiana Jones franchise. Indiana Jones dances with the extraordinary in the original trilogy – but by and large this occurs solely during the film’s climactic moments, and stays fairly vague, capitalising on well-recognised christian ideas or westernised eastern myths.
Aliens is an interesting update for the 1950s setting, and one that could fluidly enter the supernatural canon of the Indy films – if they didn’t introduce it in the first 10 minutes and then spend the next 90 justifying it, using Blanchett’s Spalko, Hurt’s Oxley and even Jones himself as the mouthpiece for explaining the appearance of aliens and the ‘magical’ knowledge they impart.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn’t really bad enough to be fun – it’s just a disappointment. The Indiana Jones trilogy, like its star, was best left in the past. It’s possible that the upcoming fifth entry in the series will make reparations for the crimes of Crystal Skull, but you’d be forgiven for skipping opening night and popping to a local museum – or maybe a nearby retirement home to reminisce about the glory days without the indignity of watching Harrison Ford pay for another plane crash.
Citizen Kane of Awful Rating: 2/5