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Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls (spoilers)

I have to admit I doing my best to keep expectations down to a minimum with this film. I still bear the scars of the Star Wars prequels. On the other hand, this film had two things going for it that those films did not: firstly, the setting is (literally) more down to earth – meaning there was less scope for going completely green screen; secondly, with Spielberg at the helm there was a good chance he would be able to keep Lucas’ worst excesses under control. At least that was the theory.

The truth of the matter is, Indy IV is less of a travesty than Star Wars I-III, but by as much as it should have been. One of the biggest problems was the lack of any surprises. For about the last fifteen years it has been rumoured that if a new Indiana Jones film were to be made it would involve UFOs and tie together the Roswell incident with the theories of Erich von Daeniken. And so it turned out to be. But this in itself is very old fedora. We’ve had the X-Files. We’ve had Stargate. And Steve? Remember Close Encounters of the Third Kind? There was no point in going to all the expense and effort of making a film that had nothing new to say. Surely the reason for all this delay and all these screenplays was that they were looking for a decent twist in the tale. If that was the case, they clearly failed.

The other main plot thread is equally badly handled. You don’t need to have read the internet rumours to have figured out that “Mutt” Williams was going to turn out to be Jones’ son, so why leave it to halfway through the film for the revelation? This was hardly an Empire Strikes Back-style twist – we knew from the titles who the mother was and they even continued the joke from the Last Crusade about being named after the dog. Yet, while the Last Crusade spent a fair amount of time exploring the father-son relationship, in Kingdom it is all-but resolved in a single scene.

That was a shame because at the start I really thought they were going to take this in a more interesting direction. The first part of the film seemed to be concerned with exploring how this 1930s pulp action hero would be a fish out of water in the atomic 1950s and that all his achievements would be forgotten in a country dazzled by science and gripped with Cold War paranoia (and at this point can I just ask: what was the point of the first five minutes of the film except to give Lucas an opportunity to wank over his American Graffiti glory days? It slowed down the film interminably). In comic-book parlance, this is a case of the Golden Age crash landing into the Silver Age. Yet that theme is completely forgotten within half and hour.

In place of all this promise is a very by-the-numbers adventure which, having flirted with the idea of exploring something deeper, recoils and retreats into safety. The problem is rooted, I think, in the fact that Spielberg and Lucas got their fingers burnt so badly with Temple of Doom while winning high plaudits for Last Crusade. In truth, neither of those films were the respective disaster or triumph that legend makes them out to be (although I don’t disagree that the later film is the superior). Temple of Doom is undeniably sexist and racist, something which cheapens it. But as an exploration of the lead character it is the most interesting of the lot. A prequel to Raiders, at the start Jones’ ethics are rather closer to Belloq’s in the first film. Doom is about why he ultimately rejects that way of life and turns instead towards a purer form of archaeology.

The theme running through the series is the tension between wisdom and knowledge. In Temple, Jones lacks wisdom and is nearly destroyed. In Raiders, he has learned enough to know that there are times when too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing. In the Last Crusade, lesson learnt, he doesn’t merely avoid getting himself destroyed but gets to save his own father in the process. But there was already a sense that the Last Crusade was merely retreading Raiders ground. Kingdom just repeats the same tired formula. Wouldn’t it have been better if this had been an attempt to redo Temple, without the flaws, rather than simply remake Raiders imperfectly once again?

This also comes with plot holes as well. Big gaping ones in fact. The film ends with Dr Jones reinstated at the university he teaches at and getting married to Marion. All very well, and in common with all recent Spielberg films to end so happily. But hang on: if US intelligence were paranoid about to what extent Jones was conspiring with the Russians at the start of the film, how did he explain the fact that almost immediately afterwards he vanished into the Amazonian rain forest with the same group of Russians, apparently got them all killed and all evidence of what happened has been destroyed? And how come it isn’t just him that gets reinstated but Jim Broadbent’s character?

The aliens and their behaviour don’t seem to make that much sense either. How come the crystal skull’s “stare” works on Jones and Oxley but not the apparently psychic Spalko? And yet it seemed to work very well indeed on the all-but brainless giant ants. And if the aliens were so concerned about getting their thirteenth skull back, what about the alien recovered from Roswell (apparently sitting in a Russian truck somewhere in the jungle)? For that matter, since the aliens are clearly visiting earth still, and that damned skull was so magnetic, how come they didn’t simply recover it themselves? None of it sadly made much sense; worse, if these questions had been answered they probably would have resulted in a better film overall.

Oh, and a word about CGI. I expected some CGI. You can’t get away from it these days. I don’t begrudge the decision to depict a nuclear explosion – it was well done. What I really hated was the fucking ewoks. Well, okay, they weren’t actually ewoks, but it did almost feel as if Lucas and Spielberg felt they had to do something to twist the knife after watching that South Park episode.

So it is that in the Nevada desert, Jones encounters a bunch of CGI prairie dogs (is this some kind of obscure Caddyshack reference that I’m missing?). Later, Mutt decides to become Tarzan and in so doing befriends a bunch of CGI monkeys. Neither of these elements adds anything to the film except to give the effects department more to do. They pissed me off so much in fact that I almost expected the gray alien that appears in the finale to say “how wude!” before eating Cate Blanchett’s brains.

This isn’t to say it’s all bad. Some (but not all) of the action sequences are what you’d expect from an Indiana Jones film. When Karen Allen switches on that smile, it’s like a day hasn’t passed since 1981 (the lack of screentime for Karen Allen overall is another crime for which Spielberg and Lucas must be made to account for). It certainly could have been worse and the fact that it resists the temptation to try to compete with the Mummy franchise is no small mercy. But after 19 years, this needed to be something very special indeed. As it stands, it only succeeds in making Temple of Doom look good.