Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has no shortage of detractors. Whenever a beloved film or film series receives a new treatment or installment, most people – myself included – are bound to vocalize their qualms. We said why can’t they leave well enough alone? We said why does everything have to be CGI? With the fourth Indy flick, we said a whole bunch of stuff that shouldn’t be reprinted. So yeah: Crystal Skull is the weakest Indiana Jones for a few reasons. But let’s find something nice to say about it for a change, shall we?

Harrison Ford returns to one of his most famous characters after a quarter-century hiatus (he appeared in one or two movies in the meantime) and most of the old crew returns with him: Steven Spielberg directs from a story by George Lucas, composer John Williams scores the film, and Karen Allen revives the role of Marion Ravenwood. Cate Blanchett plays (ahem, overplays) the primary antagonist Dr. Irina Spalko, and the best things about her are her hair and her name. Among the other new additions to the Indy legend is the consistent use of CGI, which was used sparingly in the first three adventure films in favor of practical effects. It feels at times as if somebody wanted to cram as many CG shots into this thing as possible, and many of those instances are very unfortunately unconvincing. Also: aliens.

None of these players (besides the aliens) are performing in a way that they singlehandedly cripple the movie or anything of the sort, but only John Williams seems to actually be setting his sights on improving his prior work rather than simply rehashing it with a knowing wink. He does that, too, of course: the Raiders March is heard again and again, and in certain sequences it comes very close to recreating that old Indy magic. The opening scene in the famous last-shot-of-Raiders warehouse is stiff for a while, but there’s one quick segment where Indy attempts to swing from the rafters into the back of a truck. He fails, but the sequence and his reaction to it – “Damn, I thought that was closer…” – is probably the most Indyesque moment in the entire movie.

Though he reused both Indy’s and Marion’s themes, Williams crafted new motifs for Mutt Williams (played by Shia LaBeouf), Spalko and even one for the eponymous skulls, which feature as the MacGuffins of the movie. Mutt’s theme at times incorporates parts of the Raiders March, which makes sense given that Mutt seems to be “inheriting” the adventures of his father (did we mention Indy’s his father?); he sort of inherits the adventure theme song along with the adventures themselves. The kid from Even Stevens walking in the footsteps of one of the greatest adventurers in cinema history makes me cringe too, but it doesn’t change the fact that Williams’s nods to the story in his compositions are brilliantly conceived. The best of the new themes is Spalko’s, which fittingly recalls 1950s sci-fi B-movies and meshes seamlessly with the overall soundscape of the film.

As our brains churn in vain to come up with more good things to say about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Computer-Generated Imagery, let’s not forget that everything the movie didn’t do deserves no small amount of praise. An actor named Andrew Simms is listed on IMDb in the uncredited role of Young Indiana Jones, but there are no flashback scenes to be had in this fourth installment. While I suppose it can’t be said for certain that the addition of such a scene would do a disservice to River Phoenix’s time in the role in the prologue of Last Crusade, it’s more of a sure bet that a flashback just wouldn’t fit in this movie at all. It would be yet another wink to longtime fans of Indiana Jones, sure, but there are plenty of those here. Likewise, Mutt’s move to don the famous fedora at the end of the film could have put the entire Indyverse into a tailspin, spawning atrocious unwanted Mutt Williams spinoffs or Indiana Jones/Transformers crossovers. Indy snatches the hat at the last moment, and an audible sigh of relief emanates from viewers everywhere. That Spielberg and Lucas showed at least some degree of restraint (ignore the aliens) is, again, probably something that Indy fans should be thankful for.

I remember going to see Crystal Skull when it came out in 2008, sitting in the theater as the lights went down, excited to see Indy on the big screen for the first time. I was fairly young and a relative neophyte when it came to all things Indiana Jones – not brimming with unbearable anticipation at the prospect of a new Indy movie, but excited as anyone with a tangential knowledge of the Indy legend could be. Crystal Skull let me down, but it didn’t let me down in quite the same way that the Star Wars prequels did. Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones had clear guilty parties (Jar Jar, Hayden Christensen, CGI) that you could point to and say let’s just have a selective memory where this thing is concerned. You could say Darth Maul and podracing were pretty sweet, you know, so f*ck Jar Jar. With the new Indiana Jones, this wasn’t the case. I expected it to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle of Raiders, which I now realize is an impossibility (like, as impossible as aliens). Kingdom of the Crystal Skull undoubtedly leans on Raiders like a crutch, but it has enough newness to warrant the callbacks. Part of the point of Indy is to escape from the flat, everyday, meanwhile unimaginativeness of 90% of Hollywood, and Crystal Skull is made in that tradition – so let’s go ahead and think happy thoughts.

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