Revisiting Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
One can find a quite revealing, fascinatingly candid admission by Steven Spielberg on a documentary for Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull featured on the film’s DVD release. In it, he opens proceedings by admitting that, following the end to The Last Crusade, he felt he had brought the unlikely Indy trilogy to an appropriate conclusion with a well judged shot of Harrison Ford’s erstwhile hero literally riding off into the sunset. It meant that efforts by Ford and George Lucas to revive the franchise, an ongoing struggle lasting almost all of the intervening nineteen years between Crusade and the forth in the series, were initially met with staunch refusal. Spielberg had wrapped up his fan favorite.
Considering that he moved on to Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, he seemed justified in this stance. In the 2000s, he was still rated as one of cinema’s greatest directors. By contrast, Lucas was branded an industry joke and Ford’s fortunes had soured so badly he was reduced to Hollywood Homicide and Firewall (remember them? Us neither). Eventually, after nearly two decades of insistence, Spielberg caved. It is impossible to picture the scenario that unfolded between the old buddies and collaborators without envisioning a Last Vegas style set up, aged and mellowed hotshots trying to reel back the years to partake in a grand swansong. It proved to be a huge mistake, resulting in one of the decade’s greatest disappointments and a tarnish on Spielberg’s impeccable CV, one that wouldn’t be wiped clean until 2012’s Lincoln.
There is a sense in watching Kingdom of the Crystal Skull play out that Spielberg’s lack of enthusiasm carried on into pre-production and then filming itself. Since Lucas was perhaps the driving force behind the whole project, encouraged by Ford’s desire to reprise a role that had cemented is place in Hollywood folklore, it is his fingerprints that can be found on several frames that leave much to be desired. While it would be hyperbole to suggest that Indy 4 is a terrible film, any potential enjoyment to be found within a flamboyantly entertaining nostalgia piece is always tempered by moments of unbridled stupidity and poor choices and it is this, and not an underwhelming story, that undermined the film’s potential, and almost all of them bear the Lucas trademark.
Tragically, they expose the core problem of The Crystal Skull, that of cynical marketing. Rather than unearth a relic due to an inspired take on how to bring a different take to it, the process worked backwards; the decision to make a new Indy was made before a suitable story was yarned. This crime against creativity would have been forgiven, perhaps not even noticed, with some much needed tinkering that a fully focused Spielberg would undoubtedly have enforced. One final, brutal visit to the editing suite before the film’s release would have fixed some of the damage and created a final product that, while hardly a classic, would not have infuriated to such a degree. This was not done then, so perhaps should be examined now some six years later, particularly with whispers of Part Five still audible in the wind.
Naturally one cannot go back and change absolutely everything, since by this point it becomes less a case of surgery and more a case of creating something new. To save Crystal Skull, you first have to accept it for what it is. While some baulked at the presentation of Indy exiting the realm of paranormal myth history and into the halls of 50’s sci-fi apocrypha, it is not such a huge leap. Taking the previous Indy films at face value, as such complaints demand, Raiders of the Last Ark effectively confirmed the existence of at least magic and perhaps even God Himself, Temple of Doom verified the power of ancient eastern mysticism and The Last Crusade went one further to state outright the divinity of Jesus Christ. Like it or not, these uses of dramatic license are of no greater merit than Crystal Skull’s alien/inter-dimensional being pushing endgame. This is acceptable on the grounds that since the MacGuffins of the series usually borrow heavily from genuine legend, the crystal skulls are worthy fodder and present a different angle and a different direction, as well as an interesting backdrop. Bringing in ancient aliens may be distasteful for some, but this is a subjective reaction. Their presence cannot be damned without resorting to hypocrisy since they are no more implausible than the Ark, the stones and the Grail.
Once you accept this, you start to notice that the reasons for being so bothered by the plot are symptoms of a different problem; lack of positive distraction. Although it was always meant as a loving pastiche to action serials of yore, Raiders of the Lost Ark transcended its niche by dint of superbly judged writing and perfect direction. It should be a dumb but fun action movie, but in truth is an 80’s masterpiece. Part of this is down to the atmosphere, with tension coming from quiet dialogue scenes (Indy and Marcus meeting with government agents to discuss the Ark is a perfect example of how to write and film a plot set up that while purely exposition also gets an emotional reaction, and is truly a brilliant scene) and cutaways, while the economic use of dialogue creates a sleek and slender piece that never once wastes the audience’s time.
However, the primary component is an arc – no pun intended – which means that the action feels meaningful. In Raiders, it is about the hero learning to accept that he cannot always win and that some things are beyond his control; he loses control of the Ark, never fully had any at all in fact, but takes solace in the fact that he got the girl. The Temple of Doom, the weakest of the trilogy, has the slightest arc but presents the idea that Indy learns that helping people is a worthy substitute for the glory of discovery. The Last Crusade has the most concise story arc, and it saves a film that while great in patches is also largely flawed; as Spielberg himself summed up, the search for the Grail is the search for the father, Sean Connery’s Henry Sr. As a result of this, we are willing to forgive logical lapses or falls into the hokey.
Crystal Skull has no real arc as such, only throwaway lines of dialogue that do not mesh with the narrative and certainly don’t effect it. The obvious focus to take is Indy’s advancing years, but aside from almost every character telling him how old he is and a standout scene with Jim Broadbent’s Denholm Elliott substitute regarding the perils of age, it is never used for anything other than laughs. Even Rocky Balboa had a stronger commitment to the idea. Indy complains how old he now is while kicking ass and swinging through the air with his whip like his prime never ended. It’s as if the script for the film was originally written in the 1990’s, when Ford was young enough for there to be no physical issue, and the age references were an afterthought.
As a result of this lack of gel, the concluding theme that the skulls represent the importance of knowledge over brawn does not stick, and not simply because of the awful Lucas-ism “Their treasure was knowledge. Knowledge was their treasure“. We are told that old age isn’t so bad since it brings wisdom after two hours of a sixty something hero trailblazing and wiping out Russian villains without due care or trouble. It speaks not just of laziness on a writing level, but also a fear that having used Indy’s iconic status as a selling point, Spielberg and Lucas are now afraid to diminish his powers. A greater commitment to the theme would undoubtedly have presented a far more original and creative drive.
What if, instead of doing his usual action heroics, Indy is forced to alter his game in adapting to his limits? With age comes with wits, so a more pragmatic style geared towards avoiding direct physical confrontation in favor of smarter tactical thinking would make sense. Rather than have him fist fighting with a towering Soviet henchman half his age, he could use his environment to his advantage instead, thinking faster than his opponent punches. Of course, this troubles him and he feels sadly weak because he can’t win fights, and perhaps over the course of the movie, he tries a couple of jousts and realistically fails. The opening sequence in which the first skull is stolen from Area 51 could have had this as its driving force; Indy tries to stop Cate Blanchett’s KGB stooge by dint of his macho but falls short, allowing them to escape with the treasure. Thankfully, this would mean a different conclusion to the prologue, with Indy escaping on the rocket and crashing somewhere in the desert, exhausted and broken, being a suitable end point. Thus we get no nuclear test site, no nuking the fridge (the film’s most lingering, notable criticism), a sequence that in retrospect is as needless as it is ridiculous.
Our hero losing the opening battle would be a nice contrast to the opening segments of Raiders and Crusade, where he is defeated by, respectfully, lack of smarts and lack of experience. In this case, it could be lack of strength. His arc is realizing by film’s end that being youthful and strong isn’t everything, and he can still win his personal battles by dint of his undoubted mental strength. The conclusion that the aliens found their power through incredible knowledge of the world would become far more fitting. Discovering Marion again, and marrying her, also shows that while he may not to be the ultra-desirable bachelor, he can find something more fulfilling now he is more mature. Most importantly, it would lead to him hanging up his hat for good, no longer the adventurer, now an academic settling down with a truly unique legacy left in his wake. Imagine the stories he could tell. None of this means Indy decay, to suggest that it does insults the film’s audience. It is an organic, honest and memorable twist on proceedings which fully redeems the decision to bring Jonesy out retirement. Ironically, it is very Spielbergian.
This brings us very neatly to the rest of the film’s problems. With a strongly established arc now acting as the film’s pulse, we can streamline the action in a no-nonsense, Raiders-esque manner, which basically means cutting out all the crap that has populated the film. This is the Lucas factor. Running through the list presents as an orgy of evidence proving that Georgie was given far too much power over creative choices by an uninterested Spielberg. Think about the copious amounts of CGI, from the embarrassingly pointless prairie dogs and jungle monkeys to the armies of killer ants and the frankly absurd Amazon chase sequence. From the director who brought us the definitive modern cinema battle scene with Saving Private Ryan’s Omaha Beach, and who has always borne a love for practical effects, the sudden over reliance on digital effects is baffling.
Until you consider who was standing beside him, the man who made green screen his favorite toy. Removing these groan inducing tidbits are essential, with the prairie dogs, monkeys and ants utterly disposable to the plot. This edit should be undertaken even if it is only to replace the opening shot, humorously and accurately summed up by Cinema Sins as “Turning mountains into molehills”. A reworking of the South American big action scene to closer follow the laws of physics is also needed, with emphasis placed on the gang of heroes slipping away from the Russians rather than trying to outgun them with rocket launchers and mind boggling sword fights.
Problems in the script can also be ironed out. The FBI agents who accost Indy after the Area 51 incident seem included purely to make political points and never show up again, despite their assurances that Indy is of “great interest” to them. This should be addressed, especially since Jones promptly leaves the country without explanation a few days later. Marion arrives and is of importance for ten minutes only to be a passenger for the rest of the film until she marries Indy, when really she should be providing the information on their quest. She knows more about the skulls through her friendship with John Hurt’s Ox than anyone else, thus is the natural guide rather than the boat car driver. There is room here for some sparky banter as Indy, for once, finds that he isn’t the know-it-all and is displeased. This kind of juxtaposition is far healthier for inclusion than constant visual references to the earlier films that are less loving tribute than they are desperate audience pandering (including the use of the iconic warehouse from Raiders, promptly destroying its mystery).
Blanchett’s villain Irina Spalko needs to be shorn of her faux-psychic shlock, since is has no bearing on the story and adds further cringes to a narrative that will end with a UFO. The set-up at Akator also needs reworking, particularly in light of partisan locals hidden in walls for an undisclosed amount of time and booby traps, puzzles and hidden entrances which do not match up to the revelation that conquistadors have already broken in and stolen an alien skull. That same skull also needs to decide where it stands on its own inconsistent magnetism. While the 1950’s setting provides some interesting background, it is overly egged in the early stages and this needs to be toned down. No greasers vs. jocks fights in cafes or egregious use of classic rock n’ roll as pop soundtrack would be ideal. The McCarthy Witch trials and nuclear age backdrop are a nice touch but are wasted and lose resonance after the first act, so either need to be cut or given greater purpose. This leaves the two remaining sticking points, Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt and Ray Winstone’s Mac.
The former is a tricky one, since the deployment of a hithero unknown son is a cheap trick but one that almost works, and the apparently now not famous LaBeouf actually does some decent work with an underwritten character. With Indy’s new arc, the role becomes more important and should therefore be retained and given more work, picking up much of the physical labor Indy is unable to carry out. His skills with a knife and a bike should be used in the action scenes rather than an uncharacteristic and frankly boring affinity for fencing, and Indy passing to Mutt the baton should be more prevalent than a tease with a fedora. Building a bond between the pair and using the second and third acts as a test of Mutt’s action mettle, which he passes, pulls the character off smartly. Mac, however, is a redundant figure, badly written, as Red Letter Media star Harry S. Plinkett attests to with much credence. As well as being all over the place in terms of allegiance and useless to the plot, he exists in a film that has more than enough characters already. Excising him entirely, or killing him off in the prologue, actually helps the film. Streamlining; it works.
With these changes, you suddenly have a far different product that, while not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, becomes far stronger both as a blockbuster and as a final chapter in the Indiana Jones story. A stronger emphasis on character in the writing stage remolds the narrative into something more cohesive and encompassing, removes much of the most infamous segments, and builds on the emotional resonance of The Last Crusade. It also makes the plot necessities more forgivable since you have something grounded to focus on. Ruthlessly cutting out the redundant filler and CGI tomfoolery provided by Lucas’s anti-creativity also prevents the viewer from becoming alienated and taken out of the picture. In short, you have a film that is worthy of the name and even more notably is worthwhile, not just money making. Perhaps, had he not been so disinterested, Spielberg could have done this himself. But then again, nineteen years of badgering and nagging would make anyone weary.
– Scott Patterson
Editor’s note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.