Friday, May 23, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

SPOILERS BELOW. Lots and lots of SPOILERS. I'm serious. Don't read this unless you've seen the movie or don't care if you know everything about it before you go.

It was a good thing I knew about the aliens. It was a good thing I knew that George Lucas has gone absolutely insane and decided to make the new Indy movie a scifi flick. I had it spoiled for me a couple of weeks ago by thoughtless bloggers who made references to aliens in their freaking post titles. I was ticked at the time, but now I'm glad. I'm glad that I had a couple of weeks to get used to the idea.

My brother-in-law Dave had managed to avoid just about every spoiler, so the aliens completely blindsided him. I think he had a tougher time with the movie than I did.

I try to rationalize the aliens. The first three films were set in the '30s and were homages to the cliffhanger serials of those days. This one's set in the '50s, so a scifi theme makes some sort of thematic sense. What it doesn't make though is an Indiana Jones movie, and that's where my rationalization fails.

And unfortunately, the scifi plot isn't the only problem. There are tons of plot holes and other dropped or unexplored elements in this thing. The movie opens with Indy's having been captured by Russian spies who are looking for the body of one of the Roswell aliens. Indy escapes, but he's betrayed by a friend who's now working for the Soviets. Later, the FBI questions Indy, not just about what happened, but also about his loyalty to the country. Indy's friend's betrayal has cast a suspicious light on Indy too and the university where he teaches forces him into early retirement.

I know this is all trying to ground the movie in its historical setting during the McCarthy era of the Cold War, and that's fine (especially the Janitor from Scrubs playing one of the FBI men). What's dumb is everyone's attitude towards Indy at the end of the movie. The movie's plot is about a young greaser named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) who asks Indy to help rescue a mutual friend of theirs. There's no world-saving going on. National security isn't in jeopardy. Yet once Indy returns from the mission, everyone's forgotten that he's a suspected communist. They even make him a dean at the university.

Then there's the problem with the central plot. We're supposed to believe that somewhere in a hidden temple in Peru are twelve alien skeletons, one of which is missing a skull. When the skull is returned, the aliens will impart great power and knowledge to whomever wants to listen. What's never explained is how the skull went missing in the first place. If these aliens are that powerful, how did a Spanish conquistador and his pals manage to take one of their heads, depowering them until it was returned?

But really, that's not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the whole focus on aliens as ancient benefactors of human civilization. And not because it's silly, but because it's so unoriginal. Yeah, sure, Indy and friends may not have run across that theory yet in the '50s, but anyone who's seen Stargate sure has. Yet, it's played up as the big, central mystery in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. When someone holds the crystal skull up to a painting of Mayan gods and notices that the shapes match, it's presented as a big, revelatory moment. But it's not. It's anti-climactic is what it is.

I also don't get the big distinction between aliens from space and "interdimensional travelers." Are we supposed to think it's a more original concept because they're from another dimension instead of a different planet?

And what's with Indy's not really doing any of the figuring out, but just following John Hurt's clues? Who's the hero of this thing again?

Another big disappointment was the missed opportunity for cameos in that last scene. I really didn't expect to see Short Round show up, but how awesome would that have been? Or Willie? If no one else, they should have at least had Sallah there.

In spite of all that though, I actually really liked the movie. I wanted to get my complaining out of the way first, but honestly, pound for pound, I don't think aliens are any sillier than an immortal knight guarding the Holy Grail. And there's a lot else to like about this movie. I haven't liked any of the Indy movies as much as Raiders, and I don't expect I ever will. It's pointless to try to rank the other three. They all have things I like and dislike.

Shia LaBeouf is pretty awesome. I don't take back what I said yesterday about not being able to call a Shia vehicle Indy 5, but I do take back the tone of that post. It may not be Indy, but I'd totally be excited to watch a movie about Mutt. And his interaction with Indy was perfect. It could have been very painful to watch them try to force that character into the film, but they really did a nice job on him and making him fit.

It was also nice to see Marion again. I wish she'd had more to do, but there were already a lot of characters in the movie and there wasn't enough time to focus on them all. What she did do was cool. She reminded me why I liked her so much in Raiders and have missed her since then.

Other cool things: the car chase through the jungle, killer ants, Indy's hat, the Lost Ark cameo, the fight in the Area 51 warehouse, Indy's getting stuck at ground zero for an A-bomb test about ten seconds before detonation, Shia and the monkeys, Marion's getting the duck into the water, Indy's missing his dad and Marcus Brody, quicksand, Cate Blanchett, Indy's momentarily getting so excited by the mystery that he starts working with the Soviets, Mutt's having to rein Indy back in, and the jungle setting in general.

The plot is heavily flawed, but they still managed to make it a fun adventure full of great characters we really like and want to see more of. Bring on Indy 5.

Four out of five killer ant mounds.


Anonymous said...


Believe it or not, this is pretty much the same film they've been trying to make since 1993. The biggest obstacle has been Lucas' insistence on using aliens and turning it into a B movie- which is something that took both Ford and Spielberg a long time to come around to. (The inclusion of a son and a lost city were both later additions.)

I've actually known about the aliens for about a decade now- so I've had plenty of time to adjust myself. Otherwise, I probably would've had a big problem with the concept.

I certainly did when I first read the script for "Indiana Jones and the Saucermen From Mars". Much like this film, it was a major culture shock. But it also had several things which captured my imagination- such as the rocket sled and Indy escaping an atomic bomb. I had known about the latter for years...had read the script...and yet it was still a pretty huge shock to actually witness it onscreen. But honestly, I welcome that type of boldness in a film series.

And that's ultimately what I take away from this entry: Its willingness to go so far over-the-top, you almost can't believe what you're seeing in an Indy film. The safe thing to do was certainly not to end with Indy coming face-to-face with "Earth vs. The Flying Saucers".

But I also share many of your disappointments. I think the first half of the film is very strong- primarily because it's not afraid to embrace the changes. But the second half feels rushed, with stilted dialogue, a clunky plot, and not enough time for the audience to breathe.

There's a quiet moment in the "Saucermen" script, where Indy watches an A bomb being tested on the nighttime horizon. The army has hired him to help with Roswell, and he's taking a break at their desert base. A scientist wanders over and Indy reveals that he doesn't approve of the progress science is making. It's a brief, quiet scene- but exactly the type of thing this film needed more of in its second half.

Particularly with Marion. David Koepp has said that Marion is what Indy ultimately discovers he has been searching for in the movie- but he missed a lot of chances to drive that point home. After the frenetic pace of the jungle and ant sequences, I really wanted a quiet moment between the two of them. This could've been during the duck trip upriver, or once they reached the lost city. Hey, if you're going to put an entire lost valley onscreen, why not let everyone step back and take a moment to fully enjoy it?

The wedding also caused me a lot of mixed emotions- although I prefer it more than the one in the Saucermen script. In that one, Indy married a new love interest who was a fellow scientist. It also featured cameos from Marion, Willie, Sallah, Short Round, and Henry Sr. It was a serious case of overkill.

The wedding is a perfect ending for the style and tone of a 1950s B movie, but I'm afraid that fact will be lost on today's online moviegoers who crave 'realism' in their fiction. So ultimately, it does disappoint me to see the film being largely ripped apart by younger viewers. I had heard going in that older fans and audiences were enjoying it more, and it's easy to see why. But there's still that part of me that wanted to see Indy still regarded as the coolest hero around.

Overall, I'm pleased they didn't try to follow the current fad of making a sequel to the original movie- while downplaying the sequels in-between. It's not the well-crafted film I had expected, but I do admire its obvious love of pulp. It will probably take a few years for fans to sort it out for themselves, but I'm glad it feels like its own breed of Indy film.

Michael May said...


First of all, thank you SO much for that comment. It's full of information I didn't know and it gives me hope that as I digest the movie, I'll appreciate the scifi angle more.

I hadn't even thought about the wedding as being a typical ending to a '50s scifi-horror movie. That's very cool.

I've been wondering how much worse the movie would've been had Lucas' vision for it been untampered with by Ford and Spielberg, but now I'm thinking I might would've liked it better. Indiana Jones and the Saucermen from Mars would've been a much more honest title and let audiences know what they were getting into from the get-go.

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull misleads you into thinking it's another, typical Indy adventure. And as much as I love lost cities and jungles filled with killer ants and quicksand, I don't think that mixing the two genres was the right thing to do. At least, not the way it was done here. Again, the alien influence over ancient civilizations is just too familiar.

And amen, amen, AMEN to wanting a quiet moment between Indy and Marion. It really needed that.

Anonymous said...

Good point about the title. I've always liked the boldness of "Indiana Jones and the Saucermen From Mars". It not only would've prepared the audience upfront, but Indy was a bit more skeptical throughout- which could've also helped.

The only problem with that original concept is that the 'Macguffin' was a generic alien doomsday device. The whole plot was essentially a race to return it to the desert before it went off. So I do think the crystal skull was a clever addition- to an extent.

But the film's attempts to imitate the spelunking of the original films largely falls flat. And the crystal skull isn't *that* interesting, which is why I think the focus should've been more on Indy re-discovering Marion.

Grant Gould said...

I agree with most of what ya said... :)
But duuuuude... You liked Shia and the monkeys?? Really?? o.O

Grant Gould said...

(Just to clarify -- I liked Shia just fine. I thought the monkey scene was retardo.)

Michael May said...

You know... I almost did too. I watched it and was kind of stunned and was waiting for them to actually play the Tarzan yell so that my indignation at it could be complete.

But they didn't and as I kept watching I went from "that's dumb" to "that's the most awesome thing I've ever seen."

Anonymous said...

There's a scene in a Weissmuller Tarzan film where Tarzan falls from a vine, and is revived by a treeful of spider monkeys. (I can't remember which it is offhand, but I believe it's one of the RKO films.) The scene in Kingdom immediately brought that to mind.

So on that level, I really enjoyed the reference. But at the same time, I do think Spielberg took it a little too far. I would've preferred for the focus to have remained on the physical reality of Indy jumping between vehicles, and punching his way to freedom against Russian baddies.

But speaking of Tarzan, I actually find myself more open to the idea of Mutt returning now. Prior to this, I was 100% against anyone but Indy returning for a 5th movie. Now I'm not so sure, and here's why.

I could see a 5th installment that evoked the style of something like Weissmuller's Tarzan or the Thin Man series. Those were both franchises that allowed the characters to age and develop over a significant number of years (especially for the time).

Of course, I'd still have to have the film centered around Ford as Indy. But I could see Mutt and Marion both having a place- provided they were relegated to supporting characters.

However, I'd also like to see a final Indy movie where Ford is basically playing Allan Quatermain. I could see him wearing a beard and going out on one last great quest. There would be a nice irony to see him headed for the same fate of both a real-life inspiration (Quatermain) and a fictional one (Abner Ravenwood).

Anonymous said...

*Oh, and by "real life", I mean a fictional character that inspired Lucas and Spielberg in "real life". :)

snell said...

You know, the one thing that's gone mostly unremarked on, and I think bares further examination, is the revelation that Indy worked for the OSS.

Really? For how long? Which branch? Where (besides Berlin)? You can't just throw that out there and not follow up, man...

Also, regarding Mac...his betrayal was really ineffective, given that we had known the character for less than 5 minutes. For that to have worked dramatically, it either a)had to be someone we already knew (Sallah?), or b) happen much later in the movie, after we got to know Mac.

As it was, we (meaning I) were going, "OK, this is Indy's friend. Oh, no he's not. Oh, yes he is. Oh, no he's not. Oh, who really cares." Terribly underwritten part for someone sorta kinda pivotal.

Anonymous said...

I thought Mac's betrayal was a nice callback to the opening of Raiders, and allowed us to see that Indy still wasn't the greatest judge of character. However, Mac's constant betrayal throughout the film was really hard to care about. I'm not even sure the character should've survived past the Nevada prologue.

When Mac first turned his gun on Indy, I initially thought we were going to learn that Spalko had taken control of his mind. Perhaps a quick shot of Spalko in some type of altered state. In hindsight, I think it would've made the threat of a Russian psionic army a lot more tangible for audiences.

Michael May said...

I totally agree. Mac was interesting at first, but he became a cliche by the end. He was just Elsa from Last Crusade. And Spalko was just Belloq.

Michael May said...

"However, I'd also like to see a final Indy movie where Ford is basically playing Allan Quatermain. I could see him wearing a beard and going out on one last great quest."

Yeah, I'd love to see that too. And let Mutt and Marion be in it and pass the torch to Mutt. Then call the series done and start a new Mutt Williams series. I'd totally dig a Mutt Williams franchise and it's mostly because I saw him swinging on vines.

Anonymous said...

One other thing I forgot to acknowledge about your review...I feel the government suspicion wasn't intended to be an entire "blacklist" subplot- just a way to set Indy's character arc in motion.

At the beginning of the film he has no family, he loses his beloved teaching post, and is so disillusioned he is leaving the country. He's also just been betrayed by a friend, which leads him to doubt other longtime friends such as the Dean. This makes it far easier to believe that he would later wed Marion, the mother of his son.

Indy also finds Oxley. And each of them in turn discovers the remains of Francisco de Orellana. Orellana actually disappeared while searching for the lost city of El Dorado, and would be a find of major archaeological importance. This would be enough to get Indy his old job back, and enough acclaim to make him a popular US hero again. (Even if the government still wanted to keep an eye on him.) Technically, they also discovered the location of the lost city- albeit destroyed and buried under the Amazon.

And speaking of Orellana, my theory is that when they attacked El Dorado, they encountered only one of the aliens. It's logical to assume that they were a peaceful race, or less powerful when apart from the group. The alien would've been too tall to carry, but Orellana would've wanted to keep the strange head. Eventually, the others would've returned his body to the inner chamber. They then waited, and channeled their collective thought to the 13th skull- willing whoever possessed it to bring it home.

Michael May said...

You've reminded me of something that I'm ashamed I'd forgotten: with a little thought and imagination, a lot of plot holes can be filled by the audience.

I don't know if you are/were a fan of Marvel comics, but they used award something called a "No-Prize" to folks who could find apparent inconsistencies in a story and then explain how they really weren't inconsistencies at all.

I never wrote to the company or anything, but I've always liked coming up with my own explanations for these kinds of things. It made me feel like I was participating in the storytelling. I must've been feeling lazy this time around.

I'm glad you weren't though. All your explanations make sense. Lucas and Spielberg owe you a No-Prize. :)

Anonymous said...

"Lucas and Spielberg owe you a No-Prize."

Haha...that would be awesome. :)

You raise a good point, because I do think the internet tends to make us a bit lazy. If you're confused by a plot point, you just rush online and ask someone to tell you the answer.

I've seen a lot of criticism leveled at this film online for two primary reasons: 1) It isn't EXACTLY what some fans expected it to be and 2), It wasn't created/filmed EXACTLY the same way the previous entries were.

They're both valid points- to an extent. But the art of pulp and imagination does seem to be a little less important today than how "realistic" something is. Can you imagine if they'd applied this type of limitation to pulp characters like Doc Savage or Conan? How about when Tarzan was shrunken by the ant men, would readers have screamed, "The first book was fantasy- but at least it was grounded in realism!!!" LOL

All I can say is thank God for giant ants that eat bad commies. :)

Michael May said...

HA! A-freaking-men!

Anonymous said...

Just a quick follow-up to my earlier Tarzan comment...

The scene I was thinking of is in "Tarzan Triumphs". As Tarzan approaches his hut, the Nazis shoot out the tree branch he is perched on. A treeful of spider monkeys then quickly causes a shower of leaves to fall upon Tarzan- effectively concealing him so the Nazis won't find him when they come looking. (It's a pretty awesome scene.)

I have a feeling Lucas and/or Spielberg must be a fan. You've got Tarzan and his son fighting Nazis, a lost city, and a lost tribe of sun worshippers. There's even a scene where a Nazi airplane crashes because a flock of birds flies up into its propellers (ala Last Crusade)!

Michael May said...

I'd forgotten about that monkey scene, but man, I love that movie.

I reviewed it on the blog a while back.


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