Do I Like This? is a new segment where I take a film, book, video game, or piece of music and discuss its merits. Do I like it? I don’t 100% know, but the issues surrounding it keep me up at night. I may join you in championing an unsung classic, I may shit on your favorite thing, but it’s all up in the air! For a little while we’ll be sticking to cinema. This week’s article: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
2008 was weird, wasn’t it? Brad Pitt aged backwards, we got a rushed James Bond sequel that was written in the midst of a writers strike, superhero films became critically relevant with The Dark Knight, and Iron Man kicked off what would be both a blessing and a curse in cinematic trends.
And then there was my boy, Indiana Jones.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull royally pissed me off when I first watched it. From the gopher gag to the space between spaces, it just left me feeling disappointed and hollow in a way that was all too familiar to me after the Star Wars prequels. I was so goddamned psyched as well, scoring tickets to a midnight showing and having grown up wanting to literally be Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr. (I later learned that rough-and-tumble archaeology where I could fight Nazis was no longer a reality). I owned a bullwhip and fedora, and they wouldn’t let me see the film with the whip but they let me keep the hat on when I got to the theatre. Little was as disappointing to me as this film.
Now, though, I’m not a twenty-year-old angsty kid. I was a couple of years out of high school back then. Hell, I was still crushing on the same girl I had been for the duration of that awful prison (I didn’t dig high school). Maturity was occurring but the road ahead was rocky, laden with potholes and stupid decisions. Now, when I’m pulling up on thirty-two, a lot of things I liked and disliked in my youth are falling into shades of gray.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull follows the titular Indiana (Harrison Ford) as he joins Mutt Williams (Shia Lebouf) to find the last city of Akator and return a crystal skull, stolen and hidden by his friend Harold “Ox” Oxley (John Hurt), while on the run from Russian Colonel Doctor Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). Oh, and there’s also Ray Winestone and a few others like Karen Allen, Jim Broadbent, Neil Flynn, and Alan Dale. This cast is wild, just accept it.
I watched the film again a few days ago, and one of the major things I realized is that it is only steps away from being a masterpiece. The opening sequence alone shows that, an absolute blast of a setpiece for the most part and Spielberg clearly having the time of his life shooting this. It all works…right up until Indy walks into the suburban town with the nuclear families everywhere. Seriously, if you cut that shit then the film is awesome at that point. “Nuking the fridge” has replaced “Jumping the shark” in modern descriptive lingo when talking about film and television, it’s that bad. Still, it has Russians and Harrison Ford swinging around on his whip, all the things I wanted from the film before the opening night. In fact I’d go so far to say that if you cut the test site out of the film the whole intro works as a near-perfect series of action sequences that doesn’t let you rest or exhale. You get aliens, rocket tests, gun fights, a betrayal, and Cate Blanchett absolutely gnawing big ol’ bites off of the scenery.
And let’s talk about those aliens. When I was young I thought it was stupid. See, Indiana Jones hunts for religious artifacts: the lost ark, Shiva stones, the holy grail. Working on alien stuff doesn’t work for me, or at least it didn’t. As an adult, though, I could see the franchise in context and learn to love it. See, the original trilogy was built on war serials. They were meant to feature Nazis getting handed their asses (please, Indy, we need you in modern America) while they followed Hitler’s weird obsession with paranormal paraphernalia. That’s what I wanted, but those were set in the 40s. If you wanted to step up to let Indiana age you have to try something new, and schlocky sci-fi B-movies and paperbacks were in fashion at the time. This is the kind of weird nonsense that was prevalent, and I think it was to George Lucas’s credit that he pushed for it. That’s right, in a post-prequels world I think George Lucas made a cool decision to work with the fun entertainment trends of the era he was working with. So the aliens worked for me in a great way this time, silly and goofy and they looked like traditional greys. Hell, I wish their ship had looked more like something alien instead of an ancient temple but it looks like they kind of failed there. Regardless, the film works not in spite of the aliens, but rather because it embraces their era-appropriate weirdness.
We gotta talk about Shia. Look, he’s a good actor and a weird artist but he’s also kind of a douche. This was a film he wholly does not belong in, embodying the real issues with the film in ways that make it unforgivable. Look, Indiana Jones isn’t about passing the hat. That was the intention, but it blatantly doesn’t work and it’s not Shia’s fault. Regardless, he only has maybe ONE moment in the film where he isn’t obnoxious to watch. When Indiana and Mutt arrive in Peru, looking for Ox, they find his cell in a Peruvian jail. The old scholar has carved all over the walls and floor of his cell in a terrifying way, scaring the young man that looked up to him as a father figure. He tears up a bit, not choking up but visibly shaken. It is THE MOMENT he is good in the film, giving a really brutal moment of sorrow and loss of innocence in one shot. It’s great, but then there’s all the bullshit with vine-swinging and monkeys and dipping his comb in soda pop. It’s just a lot of crap with that little leaf of gold on it.
Outside of Shia the film totally works, allowing me to enjoy it. We get a jungle, something we haven’t seen a ton of in most Indiana Jones, and it looks terrific the whole time. There’s a weird hidden tribe, brutal aggressors with guns, and a villain that knows exactly what movie she’s in. Cate Blanchett is wrapped up in a slice of ham and doing all she can to get even porkier, really going for it as the villain we want to hate. There’s the opening sequence, the badass fight scene around the ant colony, and even the final setpiece where we discover that knowledge is treasure (a thing most of our country needs to learn today). Hell, even the aliens are fitting and glorious in their goofy nature. It’s all so much fun and I wish we’d gotten more after this but at the time it would have revolved around Shia. Now, though, that’s done away with and we should feel hopeful! I urge you to try the film again because living in the world we do leaves no excuses about looking for fun, glorious entertainment. Indy was back, and we should have paid attention. And Mutt Williams can screw off because he’s obnoxious.