In Defence of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Wait! Don’t turn away just yet. Let me explain. Last week I was not very well. Again. Something about two bouts of tonsillitis since moving to London makes me think that the air here doesn’t quite agree with me. I’ve been confined to house rest in an effort to beat the illness properly this time. Anyway, Netflix only gets you so far and my mind wandered to Indiana Jones, the greatest of film franchises.

An Indy fan from a young age, I can’t remember when I first saw the films, but I was young enough to cover my eyes in case I was scared by Nazi-face melting. But I do remember that I was instantly hooked, by a good-looking dude who loved my favourite subject (history), had his own adventures in the 1930s (a favourite period stylistically) and wore an excellent hat (important in my book). The films themselves have such spirit and humour. They’re so quotable, and are perfect examples of cinematic geniuses working at their peak. Frequently I play the music at work, as even admin seems epic when you’ve got the London Symphony Orchestra belting out John Williams’s finest. Really, I could do a whole column on loving the films and their influence on me, but we haven’t time right now. Anyway, I was overjoyed when I heard they were making a fourth film back in 2008. I went to see it, and enjoyed the action. But I left feeling dissatisfied.

And annoyed by the aliens.

As were a lot of other people, it seems. Indeed, I’ve got friends from various places who refer to “the trilogy and that one that never happened”.

Anyway, I’ve not had much else to do and considering the news that an Indy reboot is scheduled for filming soon (which I’m not entirely cool about – everything’s a remake at the moment), I thought I’d revisit the hated 4th. So seven years later, I did, made a few notes and found some points in its favour. Buckle up; let’s start with the big themes.

It’s the same old Indy: the regular guy with a bit of brain and a lot of luck. And after all the things he saw in the 30s, he’s still appealingly cynical, saying, “There’s always another explanation,” when confronted by an alien corpse. That’s a healthy attitude (especially if you’re like the audience and think aliens are a step too far). Part of the appeal of Indiana himself is that he seems just a normal bloke; he’s no superhero, gets beaten up, makes mistakes, grows sick of fighting (who could blame him for shooting the sword guy in Raiders?). Really, to the average film goer he could be them, with a bit of luck and determination. Naturally, he’s a bit older now, grumpier, and more like a school teacher. Indy has changed, but true to life, and he’s still the hero we love.

Speaking of love, I was so happy to see the return of Marion in true bolshy fashion shouting, “Get your hands off me!” She was always my favourite of the female sidekicks because even when captured and pretty helpless she was always defiant –swearing, telling Indy in no uncertain terms she was joining his adventure, or attempting to outdrink and escape Dr Belloq at knifepoint. And she won a drinking competition against a Neapalese dude three times her size. I mean, respect. She might not always kick ass, but she will bloody well tell you she’s not happy about it. While she might not do much, or turn up for the first hour in number 4, it’s good to have her back. (An interesting aside – here’s an article on how Raiders is actually all about Marion having various addictions as a result of her past with Indiana.)

For better or worse, this hard-drinking assertive woman became one of my childhood fictional role models, alongside Tintin, Indy himself, Pingu and Miss Piggy. (And look at that lady on the left! Pic from sideshowcollectors.com)

For better or worse, this hard-drinking assertive woman became one of my childhood fictional role models, alongside Tintin, Indy himself, Pingu and Miss Piggy. (And look at that lady on the left! Pic from sideshowcollectors.com)

This leads us to the least popular character amongst my friends; Mutt, Indy’s son, played by Shia LaBeouf. Not as irritating as I remembered, LaBeouf acquits himself well (bear in mind this was well before he started acting oddly in public). The fact that Mutt is Indy’s son was the worst-kept secret of the film thanks to the pre-film publicity, but on rewatching, I have noticed some nice little nods to that non-twist. For example, when the car of baddies crashed into a statue of Marcus, Mutt looks at Indy and giggles, only to be met with a disapproving glare in the same way Sean Connery glared at Indy in Crusade. However, I think the main thing people don’t like about him is the assumption he could continue the franchise when he picks up the sacred hat in the final scene – no-one, ABSOLUTELY NO-ONE but Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones (and Chris Pratt should also bear that in mind). Quickest way to make the fans angry, right there.

“No you don’t, don’t you dare DO NOT TOUCH THAT HAT DO NOT BLOODY TOUCH THAT HAT YOU BASTARD I’LL FIND YOU!” – me and everyone else in the cinema. (Pic from io9.com)

“No you don’t, don’t you dare DO NOT TOUCH THAT HAT DO NOT BLOODY TOUCH THAT HAT YOU BASTARD I’LL FIND YOU!” – me and everyone else in the cinema. (Pic from io9.com)

One thing this film is really lacking is Denholm Elliott as Marcus Brody. That’s unavoidable, considering he died a while ago, but the character of Marcus was a nice counterbalance to Indy in being a more stereotypically bookish British academic. I also miss John Rhys-Davies as Sallah, but a Middle East resident can’t really feature in a film set in South America. Crystal Skull’s English academic hole is filled by John Hurt as Harold Oxley, yet he is totally wasted. You hire a guy with one of the best voices in the business and have him mumbling garbage for almost the whole thing? And it takes 57 minutes before he shows up? Pah.

So it’s the same old Indy with a selection of new and familiar secondary characters. How about re-creating the exciting atmosphere of the original films?

Well, I reckon they succeeded. Right from the start the film is irreverent and full of nice little call-backs to the originals –the Paramount mountain logo becomes a mountain/ anthill, Indy almost loses his hat once, the Ark show up in the big warehouse at the beginning – but never do Spielberg and Lucas just drop back into a lazy but no doubt tempting nostalgia-fest.

Most importantly, the spirit of adventure is still there. And the fight scenes are fantastic. The multi-car chase through the Peruvian jungle hits all the spots as exciting, and really well choreographed. It’s just what the audience wanted, and is delivered with aplomb. Wisely, they left the fighting to Mutt, the younger man, despite his daft monkey-swinging through the trees. There’s also humour, though sadly this film isn’t as quotable as the earlier ones. The closest number 4 comes is when Indy and Mutt drive out of the university campus, and Indy calls out to the students, “You want to be a good archaeologist, you’ve got to get out of the library!”

It's not exactly a "No ticket". (Gif from giphy.com)

It’s not exactly a “No ticket”. (Gif from giphy.com)

I had better take this moment to address one of the most disliked parts of the film: when Indy survives a nuclear explosion by hiding in a fridge. “Nuking the fridge”, as it’s become known, represents the least believable part of the whole film, but can we please remember that in Raiders, Indy somehow manages to surf a submerged submarine all the way to a Nazi base. At no point is he shown hiding on board. Suspend disbelief, guys, we’ve already established that this guy can survive anything improbable thrown at him. (And anyway, there’s an internet fan theory that he dies in the fridge and the rest of a film is a hallucination, if you prefer that.)

What fridgemageddon does show, spectacularly, is that Indiana has entered a very different world from what he knew. This is a new kind of warfare with total annihilation possible on a global scale. And the west’s enemy of that era was, of course, the Russians. They’re just as despicable as the Nazis, they’ve a huge army and, like any good deranged dictatorship, they’re looking for power through old legends. But… (this is one of the strangest sentences I’ve ever written) they really suffer from not being Nazis. Somehow, nobody can beat the Nazis for visual evil – you just need to see their 1930s propaganda films and the book burning scene re-created in Crusade. Chilling. The legacy of the original trilogy is that when you think Jones, you think punching Nazis over Christian artefacts. For a while, it’s what I thought archaeology in that era was mostly about (and was disappointed when looking at university applications to find that most archaeology courses don’t offer a module on “witty banter and Nazi thwarting”). It’s a shame, but unavoidable. I can’t help but feel that evil though the 1950s Russians are, they’re just an age-relevant substitute: “Indy needs a big enemy, hmm, let’s go for them.”

Cate Blanchett as Irina Spalko is a cracking villain, though. She’s icy, and scarily determined – in every scene she’s always the first up after a punch. Her single minded pursuit of knowledge is the opposite of Indiana’s, in that he seeks enlightenment to understand the world better, while she seeks to control it. Having been through university, it seems to me that part of academia is knowing when to admit you can’t learn everything. Indiana has always understood this, but Irina burns herself out – literally – not knowing when to stop: a salient lesson for all you exam students.

"I vont to know...why this film doesn't pass the Bechdel test despite having two strong and vocal female characters." (Pic from hark.com)

“I vont to know…why this film doesn’t pass the Bechdel test despite having two strong and vocal female characters.” (Pic from hark.com)

Which brings me to the aliens.

It’s a brave new world in the 1950s, and aside from Reds under the bed, UFOs and aliens were all the rage. But this is a major sticking point for me and most of my friends. It’s just too fantastic, and frankly, ridiculous. In the film’s defence, it is very well plotted so the introduction of the aliens doesn’t feel too illogical within the story. And I suppose they’re a kind of progression from the originals’ treatment of Christian legends, which are either more or less factual than alien contact depending on your view. In all events, the fantastical natures of the films were made believable in the script, and their grounding in real eras with period features.

But…aliens. Sorry, “inter-dimensional beings”. I’m afraid I just can’t get over them. It feels flat, a cop-out. Deus ex machina in a modern sense, because a lot of different TV shows and films have introduced “Oh, aliens did it” as an explanation for a plot hole they can’t resolve (even Tintin in the book Flight 714.) This is what lets the film down. The power unleashed by and associated with the Christian artefacts in Raiders and Crusade is never explained – there’s no need. In all the originals, Indiana goes after a religious artefact and stops it from being used as a modern weapon unleashing ancient human fears. While the skull itself is an old artefact, the aliens are too modern a concept, in a way. With religion, you try to make sense of the world and mysterious forces you can’t comprehend; here, the aliens are too literal an explanation. There they are, you can poke them. There’s also a blurring of genres here that I don’t think a lot of people liked. Indiana Jones is Adventure with a capital A. He’s not sci-fi.

Also, the aliens are massive douchbags. Fair enough that Irina insists on being told all their secrets, but Indy and co were the ones returning the skull, so there’s no need for the aliens to punish them by taking off and almost killing them. Imagine if Oxley had got the skull back on his own in the first place? That’s no way to treat a guy who’s helping you out.

It could all be an elaborate advert for Crystal Head Vodka anyway. (Pic from amazon.)

It could all be an elaborate advert for Crystal Head Vodka anyway. (Pic from amazon.)

So in conclusion (and after much burbling), I think we’ve been unnecessarily hard on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Yes, it is the weakest one in the series, but that’s due to the 19-year gap. In that time, the original films have been cemented in people’s hearts and imaginations as specific things. As with any new version of something people love, we’re going to be very critical in the hope it lives up to the standards of the originals, particularly if we watched it when young and impressionable (like me!). After 19 years, it’s got to be something pretty spectacular to recapture the original freshness and excitement of something new and the storytelling of two great cinematic geniuses at their peak. Spielberg and Lucas were stuck in a situation where they couldn’t remake the originals, but couldn’t depart too much from them either, lest people felt alienated since it was not quite what they expected and remembered. I think they did pretty well. The film is good fun (until the aliens rock up and Mutt picks up the hat) and delivers the Indiana Jones excitement: perhaps in 20 years we’ll look back on it as fondly as we do the originals. But in terms of knowing what classic Indy is, it can never live up to the sheer amazingness of the originals. And in a way, that’s a good thing, because Spielberg and Lucas created something so great the first time around they are going to be held to their own high standards, and then some.

Ray Winstone serves no purpose in this film other than to hammer home the message that material greed is deadly, just as Irina’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge leads to death. Perhaps this is a message that Spielberg and Lucas should have paid more attention to: just because you can make a good film and people will pay to see it, doesn’t mean that you should. Sometimes the originals are best left alone as a complete work. There’s no need to go back and poke them, and risk tarnishing the memories.

And here are some other things that I noticed.

  • The THX sound credits are only slightly less terrifying at home than they are in the cinema.
  • The US government really doesn’t seem to have that much security on its top secret warehouses.
  • There’s something glorious about a milkshake bar brawl just bursting out.
  • I have never seen any of my university professors riding a motorcycle through the library, and for that I am eternally disappointed.
  • Shia’s not as good at knife flicking as Chloe Grace Moretz.
  • Surely Indy learnt in the first 10 minutes of Raiders that he should be prepared to meet many armed people when he exits a tomb he’s just been in?
  • If the only way for these tribal guards to get out of their hidey-holes is to demolish them, then how do they use the bathroom or swap guard? Are they just sat in there all day?
  • Good job these hidden underground temples have their own light sources.
  • John Hurt is unrecognisable now he’s had a haircut.
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2 thoughts on “In Defence of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

  1. Thanks for a thought-provoking post! I too am a big Indy fan but after watching the Crystal Skull I was left thinking “did they REALLY have to do THAT?” followed by “oh well, it is Harrison Ford after all, and that offsets a lot”. I had not heard about the ‘reboot’ but then again I was just looking forward to SW7 in December. And as a former (original) Trek fan back in the day, I had qualms about the Chris Pine et al. series but was very pleasantly surprised. So you never know.. but as you say: only Harrison Ford can ever be any incarnation of Indiana Jones. It’d be like having someone other than James Stewart in a remake ‘Harvey’, ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’ or ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. It’d be “Inconceivable!” LOL

    Like

    • I know! I’m really looking forward to SW7 too, can’t believe it’s not out till December! Some reboots do work – like Star Trek, I loved that – but some things work so well the first time there’s no point.

      Like

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