By Matt Smith
When Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was released in 2008, it was met with a sort of blind hatred by fans of the series, for reasons as varied as specific monkey-related Tarzan-esque scenes to vague protestations about the series’ hard left turn into Sci-Fi. The focus has been on how to pick apart the movie as some sort of unworthy sequel that somehow ruins the integrity of the first three movies for its fans, all the while ignoring the real facts of the situation. The point is that there still hasn’t been any true consideration of the film as a continuation of the original films’ reinvention of the adventure serials of the 1930s.
For those of you who have yet to see Crystal Skull – of whom I understand there are more than a few who forsook its existence entirely – the film moves Indiana Jones forward twenty years into the 1950s, mirroring the same time off between this fourth entry and the third, The Last Crusade. The passage of time makes sense for several reasons, though it’s important to note that Harrison Ford, in his sixties at the time of filming, can no longer pull off looking like an action hero still in his prime. Primarily, though, it provides continuity without even attempting to give the illusion that Indy does not age or change over time, unlike that other great action hero, James Bond, who is reinvented with a different actor in the role every few films, making for a confusing and completely illogical timeline (particularly since many of the movies take place in the same version of the universe).
This leap into the future provides us with new villains, new technology, and a scarier set of fear-inducing times. The Cold War is in full swing, and in the very first scene our hero is captured by Soviet spies and forced to find a mysterious artifact in Area 51 – and this is where the movie starts to go downhill for a lot of people. That mysterious artifact is, of course, otherworldly in origin, and they track it down in the immense warehouse by following its magnetic pull on gun powder. In a nice flourish, the gun powder ignites as it passes underneath the hot ceiling lights on its way to the target. But before I get to the aliens, and why I think it works, and why all the silliness and unrealistic set pieces work toward the spirit of the character and franchise, I want to focus a bit more on the Cold War setting and the new villains.
Cate Blanchett plays Irina Spalko, the Louise Brooks bob-cut Soviet spy that truly lives up to being a classic Jones villain by virtue of being both a totalitarian adversary to the true blue American hero (like Colonol Dietrich and Dr. Schneider in the first and third films) as well as a mystical force of darkness intent on world domination (as in all three, but predominantly calling to mind the magical and terrifying Mola Ram of Temple of Doom). Spalko is, like the Nazis were, looking for occult artifacts that will strengthen Stalin’s grip on power in the U.S.S.R. while also paving the way for world domination. Of course, she may have designs of her own, seeking the knowledge of this particular artifact – or more precisely of the beings whom it will awaken – because of her insatiable lust for knowing the unknowable. At the end of the film when she stops attacking Indy because they’ve finally arrived at the Temple in South America where they enter the final chamber (always a great moment in Indiana Jones lore, those dungeon crawling moments!) and she simply wants to gain entry before everyone else to attain her own desired objective.
Spalko is an interesting character because I don’t feel that Jones is ever genuinely intimidated by her. Perhaps it’s because he knows that she is looking for herself more than for the Soviet state, and probably because he doesn’t quite believe the hokum she’s selling with her attempts at mind reading and other such nonsense. But her search proves fruitful anyway, despite all the things Indy has seen before (even the repeated references to the Roswell incident and his experience there aren’t enough to make him a true believer). The hive mind of the alien race is terrifying, otherworldly, and, as Indy says, “I can’t imagine” what they could tell him. “I believe, sister. That’s why I’m down here.” Spalko goes for it and pays the ultimate price for her knowledge. In the end, when she finally gains all the knowledge she seeks – and then some – she disintegrates, and Indy is left with more questions than answers, which is likely how he wants it.
The film leading up to this point has given plenty of indication that this is where it’s going, from the use of the Mitchell-Hedges skull (whose own credibility as a legitimate artifact is in question) to Spalko herself, Stalin’s lead scientist and psychic researcher. This foray into full blown Sci-Fi makes perfect sense if we take into account the spirit of the series in the 1930s and transport that twenty years into the future to 1957. The hallmarks of the 50s, aside from the Cold War and the dawn of the nuclear age, were the B-movies, often science fiction, and often featuring variations on saucer men. Also, given both Lucas and Spielberg’s obsessions with the genre itself, the first three films intention to update the types of adventure movies made during the period in which they were set, and the inclusion of nods to it even in the original series (the ending of The Last Crusade is nothing if not historical fantasy infused with the very likely existence of multiple realities or planes of existence), this progression is no surprise.
The aliens, though, as it turns out, are really among the least of the film’s problems with hardcore fanboys. There are at least two action sequences that drive the movie’s critics insane when you bring up the movie, and though one is fairly egregious, the other doesn’t bother me nearly as much. The first, and less prominent in inspiring outrage, is the “three times it drops” sequence, which is alluded to fairly early on in the movie by Professor Oxley, one of Indy’s mentors. The thing that drops these three times is a river that travels to a lost Mayan city, and the group must go over three waterfalls, increasingly large, on a raft after surviving an assault from the Russians and some really nasty flesh-eating ants. Unrealistic? Sure. But so is a similar sequence in Temple of Doom in which Short Round points out the same ridiculousness of what they’re doing.
The second, and one which I admit does not fare so well in my estimation, is a scene which directly precedes this one in which Mutt, Indy’s son, goes all Tarzan King of the Apes on us and swings from vine to vine on his way back to the party under pursuit by Spalko and her goons. I’m not a fan of this by any sense of the word, and really think it might be the movie’s sole weak point in an otherwise strong undertaking, but it by no means ruins it for me. I think the film does a pretty decent job of is keeping the spirit of the action set pieces, which were always well-executed and accompanied by a bit of silliness. Ever since Indy shot the man with the scimitar in Raiders, he’s been a bit of a comic hero, and he definitely utilizes the one-line comeback when possible. And that chase through the jungle is pretty good (and pretty long) despite the inclusion of Tarzan-ized Mutt.
All of these things are in addition to the fact that, hey, Harrison Ford actually showed up to work, and he steps back into the role with appropriate class and charm. He’s definitely the glue that holds the enterprise together, but without some really strong work from Blanchett as Spalko, whose accent is totally unrealistic, but who gives us one of the best “movie” Soviet villains of all time, there wouldn’t be much going on philosophically in this one. Blanchett and Ford are an interesting pairing onscreen, and its a shame that she had to meet the same fate of all her predecessors in the series that dared to seek what should never be found by human eyes. And Shia LaBeouf isn’t that bad, either. Actually, I like him.
So why don’t we all give Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull another look now, three years out? It’s well worth your time, and if you’re like me, you’ll probably mind the things that bothered you the first time out far less this time. It’s a charming throwback to simpler action films from the original team and written with genuine respect for not only the archaeological and real-world aspects of the original films, but also the spirit of pulpiness and updating of a specific era’s B-movies that made those first three such wonders to begin with. And please, don’t hold the fact that I think Last Crusade is actually cornier and layered thicker with cheese than this entry is accused of by fans against me.