Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by David Koepp; story by Jeff Nathanson, George Lucas; based on characters created by George Lucas, Philip Kaufman. Produced by Frank Marshall. Music by John Williams. Photographed by Janusz Kaminski. Edited by Michael Kahn. Production designed by Guy Hendrix Dias. Starring Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Shia LaBeouf, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Igor Jijikine.
The problem isn’t the fridge.
Whoops. I started in the middle of things. Well, that’s okay, because just like in the proudest tradition of its series and adventure serials, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull starts in the middle of things, as Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) runs afoul of some nasty Russian spies. Indy escapes captivity and makes his way to a suburban town that he discovers is actually a facsimile of a suburban town, one that has been set up as part of a nuclear blast test. A countdown begins. At the last moment, Indy climbs inside a refrigerator (lead-lined), and then holds tight as the ensuing nuclear blast sends the fridge (and Indy) barreling through the sky, depositing him miles away in the desert sands. He stumbles out of the refrigerator, having survived. When the film was released in 2008, numerous fans seized on this sequence as the moment that Indiana Jones “jumped the shark.” Or “nuked the fridge,” as the meme went, regrettably.
Now let us pause for a moment to acknowledge the improbability of such a chain of events. Let us agree that Indiana Jones, now in his 60s, would probably be dead or lethally poisoned by this adventure, to say nothing of the fact that his fission-powered fridge ride through the desert air probably would have broken every bone in his body on impact. But I ask you: so what? Is this any more ridiculous than Indy being thrown out of a truck and finding his way back in, or surviving for miles while outside a submarine? (Raiders of the Lost Ark ) Is this any more implausible than a mine car that runs above boiling lava and can negotiate huge gaps? (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom ) Or a stone bridge over a chasm that’s painted to perfectly align with the perspective of a thousand-foot drop? (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ). We don’t go to an Indiana Jones movie, or any adventure film, to see realism. We go to see astonishing sights, crazy stunts, and outrageous set pieces. Just don’t insult us, and we’ll want to believe.
As I said, the problem is not the fridge. The real issue is that after that elaborate opening sequence, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has no clue where to go or how to top itself; the movie is regrettably front-loaded. It latches onto a neat gimmick: moving the series forward in time to the 1950’s, and updating its formula to now be a pastiche of Cold War-era sci-fi movies. It comes up with a cracking MacGuffin: the eponymous crystal skulls, which are ostensibly humanoid but are so odd-looking that they defy Darwinian thought as we know it. And then, at first, the movie teases us with the possibilities. Could they be alien in design? We get our answer early. Yes, they are. And what does that revelation build towards? Not very much. The movie is so tickled by the conceit of introducing aliens into the Indiana Jones universe that it never arrives at a satisfactory payoff. The aliens are hinted at, then they appear, take care of some plot business, and leave. It’s a big “so what?”
The sense of discovery that thrummed through the earlier installments has vanished. It was getting pretty weary by the time of Last Crusade, in which it wasn’t enough for the climax to end with the discovery of the Holy Grail—there had to be the life of a beloved character hanging in the balance. But here the wonder is just flat-out gone, perhaps because the earlier films were buoyed by an overall reverence for differing theologies that segments of the world hold pretty seriously. But there’s a big difference between the Bible and Chariots of the Gods. Crystal Skull’s central conceit isn’t a thriving religion at all but instead a cracked-out conspiracy theory that has a low opinion of human beings in general, as it posits that we’re too stupid to have built the wonders of the world; clearly aliens did it for us. It’s not life-affirming, and it’s not much fun to be led there, especially since Crystal Skull chooses the path of least resonance for all of its sci-fi gobbledygook.
These issues, however, are symptoms of a greater problem. The major concern with Crystal Skull is not that it is off-model compared to its predecessors; at a nineteen-year remove from the others and existing in a different decade with its own myths, I’m not interested in an Indiana Jones movie that is a formulaic rehash of Raiders. If Steven Spielberg and George Lucas want to reenvision their character for the 21st century (informed now by the 50’s rather than the 30’s), then they are welcome to. In for a penny, in for a pound.
What’s centrally missing from Crystal Skull, however, is a protagonist who cares a whit about the adventure that he’s on. As played by Ford, Indiana Jones is now so grizzled and weathered that he’s literally seen it all and isn’t surprised by anything, not even, say, finding a secret chamber inside a Mayan pyramid where alien skeletons stand guard. The screenplay (by David Koepp, based on a story by Jeff Nathanson and Lucas) makes jokes, most of them unfunny, about the fact that Indy is past his prime as an action hero, and you can sense the writers reflexively agreeing with critics who might suggest that Ford is—gasp—too old for the role. But the script over-acknowledges this by delivering an Indy who is so jaded and wise that he’s never allowed to be wrong, even when he is. Example: Indy is “skeptical” about the whole skull thing, but the movie doesn’t even take joy in knocking Jones down a peg when the alien theory turns out to be genuine. In fact, Indy isn’t really given a reaction to play at all. Also missing is the traditional moment where Indy looks on in wonder at an artifact; instead, Indy just doesn’t seem to care. Why should we?
Ford’s performance as Jones has two modes in Crystal Skull: sour and affable. The former is the gruff, no-nonsense Ford performance that has now settled on him like a soup skin, so much so that it permeates interviews and public appearances. He generally looks uncomfortable, wishing he were somewhere else. He’ll make sarcastic jabs from underneath his growl, like Clint Eastwood, but there’s wit and soul underneath a typical Eastwood performance, while Ford is just surly. As for affability, it feels like phony shtick, lacking the warmth and dryness that made his performance in Raiders so infectious. So desperate is Skull to recapture the Raiders magic that it even brings back Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), under convoluted means, and his reaction to seeing her, after years, is the rare time that Ford looks like he’s playing Indiana Jones. The rest is the kind of stuff that Ford could pull off in his sleep (and has). No one really works up much of a sweat in this movie, which for an adventure film is pretty unforgivable.
The emotional crux of the film is meant to rest upon the relationship of Indy, Marion, and Mutt (Shia Le Beouf), a James-Dean wannabe. The only thing this arc has to do with the crystal skull subplot is the fact that both have twists that are obvious to any and every viewer. It’s clear that Mutt’s true identity is a mystery, which makes it inevitable who he really is, and once that stuff happens, the movie settles into alternating scenes of bickering and bonding, made more complicated and dull by the presence of Marion and an unwieldy supporting cast (John Hurt shows up and embarrasses himself as a Ben Gunn figure, Ray Winstone plays a mercenary who keeps changing sides as if we’re supposed to care to keep score, etc). The screenplay breaks with the formula of Indiana Jones being a roguish loner and gives him a whole family to tow along for the adventure, but that’s not a problem. That the script doesn’t really know what to do with these characters is, however, a problem. Let’s not even mention the bright ideas that don’t even go anywhere like Indy falling under FBI suspicion.
The villain is a Russian colonel, Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett with a sub-Natasha accent). She’s really a villain in name only; she does point guns at Jones and orders soldiers to find him, and she wants to find the crystal kingdom, has a hand in Soviet psychic experiments, blah blah blah. But she doesn’t seem evil or pose much of a threat, especially since when she does take action, the film shifts into busy CGI action sequences that play like video games. She brandishes a rapier solely so she can set up a duel with Mutt atop parallel trucks tumbling through a jungle road, shortly before Mutt is whacked in the crotch by plants while monkeys attack Spalko. Both characters (and Marion, driving one of the trucks), seem mildly (mildly) concerned about all of this. Doesn’t it defeat the purpose of a big action scene if the characters can’t be bothered to be actually thrilled by events?
It’s at this point that we may ask if Spielberg and Lucas ever truly understood their own success with Raiders of the Lost Ark. That movie had tons of humor, but it was painted on with a gentle touch. After the darker-in-tone second installment, all stops were pulled to lighten up the series, and here we get the ultimate conclusion of that philosophy: the film is self-consciously jokey, and many of the jokes are killed by bad writing, bad delivery, or bad direction. Spielberg once had a gift for humor, a gift that has consequently left him as he’s matured as a filmmaker. The result here is something that tries for the middle-brow entertainment value of a Brendan Frasier-era Mummy movie, and it doesn’t succeed.
One of the worst things you can do when doing comedy is to underline a joke, and the absolute worst thing you can do is explain a joke. Crystal Skull does both, often. In an early moment, Indy asks some unfriendly troops for a compass: “You know, north, south, east…” Mac, still under the guise of a friendly, helpfully adds “west…” Indy gives a rueful smile, as if that was really funny, when of course it wasn’t. Or how about when two KGB agents match Mutt’s challenge to a knife fight by brandishing pistols, and Indy quotes the Untouchables line about knives and gunfights. Because telling the joke visually (as is done moments before) is certainly not the province of, say, a motion picture. Perhaps the worst gag in the movie is where a whirlwind chase through Indy’s college campus is punctuated by a student who asks a question mere moments after he was nearly run over by a sliding motorcycle but inexplicably failed to move out of the way. This set-up and pay-off isn’t funny, because humor typically comes from specificity and understanding, not from contriving a sequence where the people in it do things that doesn’t remotely resemble human behavior. Then again, how much literacy can you expect from a screenplay with this climactic line: “Their treasure was knowledge. Knowledge was their treasure.” Yikes.
The film is a hodgepodge of lazy technical credits. A Jones film can typically be counted on for superior craftsmanship, but here the production design is chintzy and cheesy; the earlier films used a lot of sets and you couldn’t necessarily tell, whereas here you can’t think of anything else. The film looks cheap, having used a lot of green screen to approximate places rather than going on location, and the shortcuts show. It’s not helped by the harsh lighting of DP Janusz Kaminski (a Spielberg collaborator since Schindler’s List). Kaminski steps away from the beautiful work that Douglas Slocombe did on the original trilogy, going for garish, overexposed shots that abuse his fondness for backlighting. His style, so artificial, is not welcome in an Indiana Jones movie. Even less inspired is John Williams’ score, which recycles the classic “Raiders March,” recalls a few brass rhythms and wind flourishes from earlier, better Williams scores, and then calls it a day.
There are things I like in Crystal Skull. I like how the Russians make serviceable bad guys; maybe not as evil as Nazis, but in a pinch, they’ll do. I especially enjoy how, when they make camp, two jokers start dancing, because of course they do. They’re Russian. (That kind of goofy stereotyping is part of the fun.) I like the shot where Blanchett, holding the skull like a baby, smirks at Indy while standing in a jeep, smiling as she makes a bumpy getaway. And I like how the movie takes pains to preserve the careful iconography of Indy’s hat. And there are other things. The movie’s not awful. Just deeply flawed.
Much of the blame for Crystal Skull has been shuttled to George Lucas, who conceived the story and then valiantly fought for it for years against Ford and Spielberg, who act as joint guardians for the character. And yes, Lucas’ fingerprints are all over this mess. But Spielberg isn’t blameless. As one of cinema’s most populist directors, his career has reached a point where he alternates between mature, thoughtful dramas of varying quality (Munich, War Horse) and blockbusters that suffer severe identity crises (Minority Report, War of the Worlds, or the depressingly mercenary The Lost World: Jurassic Park). Spielberg made his mark as a director of supremely successful entertainments, but his attempts to recapture his youth after pointedly leaving it behind in Schindler’s List have been unfruitful, and have only proved that he doesn’t have it in him to make this kind of movie anymore (see also last year’s Tin Tin, which also had an adventure without stakes and a tin ear for comedy).
I don’t begrudge Spielberg for growing up. I just wish he would leave that sensibility out of Indiana Jones. He tries to give Crystal Skull depth by playing up the family elements, but this franchise has always had knowingly shallow character development, and his attempts to add frivolous weight and phony legitimacy have only made the whole enterprise schizophrenic. What should end at emotional catharsis ends with dramatic white noise, because the whole thing is just unforgivably trite. I just don’t think Steven Spielberg believes in escapism anymore, and yet he just can’t get away from telling stories about escapism. There’s an irony buried in there, but it would take an Indiana Jones to dig it up. No, the young Indiana Jones. Or older Indiana Jones. Whatever.
NOTES: Michael Kahn’s editing is fine, except there’s one really weird moment in the beginning where he spoils what’s supposed to be a shocking reveal through careless shot selection. Pay attention during one key moment to who is pointing a gun at whom.