We have now reached the end, at least of the Indiana Jones films. I’ll still be continuing with Retro Reviews. But first, I had to see perhaps the most infamous Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Was it as bad as I’d always heard? I was about to find out.
The Background World of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
image via Paramount Pictures and LucasFilm
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull takes place about twenty years after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That’s a good thing, since that’s basically the length of time that separates the movies in real life. It would have been wild as hell if they’d shown us Indiana Jones twenty years older, while trying to pretend it was like, five years after Last Crusade. And as it is, the movie is wild enough.
If you’ve done the math–you have not–then you’ve figured out that the movie is set in 1957. (You didn’t.) WWII was long over and America had a new enemy by then. (Also, as we discussed last time, after making Schindler’s List, Spielberg didn’t want Nazi cartoons as the villains again.) Anxiety over post-war American tensions with the Soviet Union, which would last over 40 years, made their presence known in art.
In particular, the “Red Scare” and its efforts to root out supposed Communists, like the infamous House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities, were influential. For example, you could see the influence in plays like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. You could also see it in sci-fi. Fears of invasion and nuclear warfare played out in movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Them! (The latter was surely an influence on this movie.)
So, as the adventure stories of the 1940s gave way to 1950s sci-fi, so it goes with the Indiana Jones movies.
What’s It All About?
So it’s 1957 and Indiana is archaeologing in Mexico with his pal Mac (Ray Winstone). Soviet colonel Dr. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, absolutely hamming it up) and her men kidnap them, though, and take them to a Nevada hangar. Alright. They force Indiana to locate a MacGuffin from the Roswell incident. Through a series of increasingly implausible events after that, Indy ends up in Peru with greaser Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a friend of…let’s say, a friend. They’re looking for the real MacGuffin, the crystal skull that Indy’s old friend Ox (John Hurt) found.
Well, they find it. They also find Ox, Marion, and the real real MacGuffin. But before that last thing, things get bananas. And then the last thing happens and it goes nuclear bananas.
Indiana’s in Refrigerators
As this is a Retro Review™, I should say that I try to approach this and each retro review in a modern way. That is to say that I try to go into each movie the same way I’d go into a new release, with limited information. That’s harder to do with movies like this, of course, that have saturated pop culture. But surprisingly, all I knew going in to this film was that there was some controversy over a fridge.
Specifically, in the opening scenes, Indy survives a nuclear blast by climbing into a lead-lined refrigerator. This scene caused no end of kerfuffles among die-hard fans, apparently. But I just can’t care that much. It’s not that I don’t care about accuracy. It’s that I have already reserved the space for caring about things like that. It belongs to the microwave scene in the 2009 reboot of The Last House on the Left. Below, me watching that movie:
In addition, there have been a ton of ridiculous things that have happened in this franchise so far. But this is where y’all draw the line? In the movie where groundhogs have reaction shots? I mean, I guess. “But he couldn’t have survived that!” Did he or did he not DRINK FROM THE HOLY GRAIL?
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Retro Review
image via Paramount Pictures and LucasFilm
However, perhaps I didn’t have a problem with the fridge scene because it was in the only palatable part of the film. Indiana Jones doing his archaeology work in the field, lecturing in the classroom, even careening through a nuclear test town–all this is good stuff. Classic Indy. Even when he meets Mutt, whom I did not hate, and they go speeding around the Marshall campus on Mutt’s motorcycle, it was typical Indy fun.
Then they go to South America, and it all goes to crystal hell. And I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what makes it go wrong. Maybe that’s because, as the Horse ebooks Twitter account once famously tweeted, “Everything happens so much.” There’s a sword-fighting car chase through the jungle, Mutt swinging on vines, a monkey fight, giant ants, THREE waterfalls, and that’s all before the interdimensional reveal. The cumulative effect of it all is just exhausting and the fact that so much of it is CGI makes it feel like it doesn’t matter, anyway. No stakes, man. And all that CGI just makes it feel like any other aughts action film with any other action hero. But this isn’t any other action hero, it’s Indiana Effin’ Jones, and he deserves better than this unnuanced mess. There is a good to great movie in here–perhaps something that examined the Red Scare beyond surface level–but it’s buried beneath a collapsing alien city. At least Marion was a gift, though, as usual.
Do you disagree with my findings? Do you actually love the movie and the crystal skulls and the way everyone says “Ox” every few seconds and the groundhogs and the double triple double secret agent and the siafu and the–I could keep going. But if you do love it or have other thoughts you’d like to share, I’d like to hear ’em. Comment below or on social media.
featured image via Paramount Pictures and LucasFilm
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.