We were so innocent 15 years ago. The year was 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Death Squadron had only just begun destroying the joy of filmgoing with Iron Man, various Spider-Mans and X-Mens were hanging about, Harry Potters and Missions Impossible came and went, that very summer we got what is still one of the best super hero flicks in The Dark Knight, and we were still a blissful seven years away from our childhoods being exhumed, punched in the spleen, and set on fire with The Force Awakens and its doddering, ancient cast of mummies re-enacting the plot of Star Wars.
That a new Indiana Jones movie was coming out, starring a 64-year-old Harrison Ford, seemed absurd, but what the hell. We were intrigued. I remember well seeing the worrisomely named Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It left me apoplectic with rage. For a good three days I was simmering, aghast, insane with hate. Why? What did I have invested in a series the previous two films of which had done nothing for me?
For the first time since ’08, I rewatched it last night, and my reaction may be summed up in one short word: ehh. I mean, what’s to hate? It’s just—a lousy movie. Blowing one’s top, fuming for days, damning it to hell for all eternity, it’d make as much sense to go nuts with anger over Ant Maniac, or Jurassic Whatever, or Fast and Furriness 19. Is it any good? Good god, no! It’s some dopey flick about cliche aliens, with bad CGI and old man Harrison Ford just kinda goofing off and having a laugh, while Cate Blanchett eats the scenery and Shia LaBeouf does a Brando impression. I’m pretty sure Spielberg directed it from a deck chair in his green-screened backyard.
When it ended, Mrs. The Supreme Being and I were silent for an unusually long beat before I said, “Honestly, I think The Last Crusade was worse.” She agreed, grateful I’d been the one to admit it first. Gun to my head, if I had to watch one or the other again—and I can think of few worse fates—I’d watch Crystal Skull.
The problem with these sequels, this one in particular, is easy to see. Spielberg and Lucas and Ford liked the idea of making another one, without actually having anything in particular they wanted to make. Wouldn’t it be fun? they thought, if we did it again? It is most often the case that great movies come about because people are inspired to make them. There’s a story they want to tell. They’re driven. See, for example, Raiders of the Lost Ark. But in this case, it’s not that anyone wanted to tell a particular story. It’s that they wanted to want to tell one. Which one, though?
A first script was commissioned in…. 1993. Guess it didn’t take. They figured it would be set in the ’50s. Say, maybe aliens would be involved! What a great idea! So great, it took fifteen years of rewrites to cobble together a story deemed inoffensive by a large enough number of interested parties. Notable is the fact that Spielberg, writer David Koepp, and really most everyone except Lucas would later say that the one thing they disliked about the movie was the aliens. So, the entire plot, then? Fantastic. Glad they went ahead with it.
Because as it turns out, the worst part of the movie is indeed the entire plot, which is aliens.
For one thing, they’re just kinda dumb. They don’t do anything, don’t mean anything, and, per Spielberg’s wishes, they’re boring “grey aliens,” the laziest, most ubiquitous alien design of all time. Spielberg no doubt felt this was fitting, given the setting in the ’50s, but that’s not much of an excuse for what comes across as a lack of imagination.
For another thing, having the Inca and their culture defined away as the result of aliens is beyond culturally insensitive. It erases an entire people and their history. In movies one and three, we get the power of the biblical god made manifest. In two, we have mythic (well, make-believe mythic; so, yeah, almost as bad as aliens) Indian stones with genuine powers. Here, rather than taking a deep dive into Inca mythology and granting it the same real powers, we’re told it was aliens. The Inca have nothing to do with it. This is the same racism fueling the whole industry of bullshit alien speculation about the Inca, Maya, Aztec, etc. cultures, how any societies so advanced, with art on such a vast scale, could only have come by way of alien influence. It’s simple-minded imperialism. And anti-archaeological to boot! Not that one expects any actual archaeology in these movies, but still. This is worse.
The Inca were amazing! Imagine if we’d learned a single thing about them. We might have had a real movie.
Yes, I hear you saying, aliens shmaliens—what about the fridge? And it’s fabled nuking? Turns out—I didn’t mind it. Running into the faux city, watching the atom bomb go boom, this is pretty good stuff. What’s more annoying is the actual opening, where a hot-rod full of young ’50s troublemakers races the “army” trucks. One keeps waiting to see where the scene is going, only to find its only purpose is to say, “Hey look! It’s the ’50s!” One would almost think the atom bomb to come would clue us in, but in anything written by Koepp, every single moment must be explained (hence dialogue later on like, “That sound! What is it?”, and so on).
The warehouse opening is rough. Ford’s demeanor as we meet Indy for the first time in 19 years might be called “mildly bemused.” He looks and feels old, then goes ahead with the same old stunts and fights. I always thought he gave up trying to act somewhere in the ’90s. He’s a pro, of course, he shows up, says his lines, but mostly I think he got tired of trying to care about something as silly as blockbuster movies, so instead he just has himself a fun time. Not the worst attitude in Hollywood. And for this deteriorating series, why do anything else?
The first half of Crystal Skull plays like anything else we’d call “entertaining” these days. Even better. It’s like they’re actually telling a story. After that, once Indy’s tied up in the forest while the Russians dance jigs around the campfire, the movie goes into an hourlong nosedive.
It all played so much more offensively in ’08, I think, because of what movies like this have since become. Thanks to Marvel’s comics and Disney’s Star Warsing, plus everything downstream from those behemoths, storytelling is out the window. Everything is built to play in self-contained ten minute segments, stories neither begin nor end, and little is developed in between. Crystal Skull might have seemed empty at the time, but now it’s almost a throwback in terms of how its story unfolds. It’s told classically. It’s dumb, but classically dumb. For instance, what’s the point of Indy being fired in the beginning? This leads nowhere, it causes nothing to happen. His son was coming to see him regardless. Then at movie’s end, Indy’s mysteriously rehired. Why? Because it’s the end of the movie, and he’s just had a successful adventure. Logically it makes no sense at all, since nobody knows about his adventure, about the aliens, about any of it. Back home, nothing has changed. But the movie’s over, so he’s got his job back.
He’s got his job, he marries Marion, and their son is Marlon Brando. Yippee. Another jolly happy ending, just like the precedent set by Raiders. Oh, wait. Four movies into the series, and it’s clear that the outlier is Raiders. The other three feel something of a piece. The “first,” Temple of Doom, being the muddled but fun “original,” with the next two taking its silliest elements and making movies bigger, louder, and older out of them. Folks, I can’t wait to see how this series wraps up…