We’ve raided the lost ark, escaped from a temple of doom and even embarked on what now transpires to be the penultimate crusade. Now we consider the final (for the time being at least) entry in the Indy canon, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
1957. After he helps a group of Russians who are pre-occupied with “psychic warfare” break into a secure military facility in Nevada and locate, then make off with an alien artifact, Indy’s loyalties are questioned. The FBI debrief him, after which he ventures to Peru, to try to track down the eponymous skull, which is believed by the Russians to hold the key to accessing vast resources of alien knowledge and power.
Looking back on this film, which is of course altogether more recent that any of the other films in the series, is a problematic and at times almost painful experience. It is difficult to overstate the precious place the Indiana Jones films hold in my affections, affection which has doubtless come through clearly in the course of my articles on the previous films.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Indiana Jones films are as important to me as the original Star Wars films are to any devoted fan of that series and so it was with almost breathless anticipation that I sat down in a darkened auditorium to enjoy my first big screen Indy experience in almost two decades.
Two hours later I staggered out into the world outside, shell-shocked but not in a good way. Something had gone very badly wrong but it took a considerable amount of time before I was able to unravel precisely what it was. The frustration was that for all but the last few minutes, Crystal Skulls had me. When Indy is dragged out of the boot of a car in the first few minutes and thrown to the ground, only to arise in silhouette and put his fedora on, I smiled and smiled. I was then thrown into an exhilarating set piece as Indy clambers over crates, swings into jeeps, punches evil Russians and even gets a ride on a rocket sled. It was everything Indy should be and they even put in a shot of the Ark, with the Ark theme from Raiders thrown in for good measure.
After that excellent opening, the globe trotting sets in and we get a good solid dose of dark and cobweb ridden catacombs, trap doors, Indy back in his leather jacket, a motorcycle chase, quicksand, Shia LaBeouf swinging through the trees like Tarzan, giant flesh-eating ants, waterfalls, booby traps, sword fights, fist fights and John Hurt acting bonkers. As with the best entries in the series, the set pieces are pretty organic, flowing smoothly and feeling like a natural part of the flow of the narrative. Harrison Ford is clearly getting a bit too old for this, but he doesn’t seem to be noticeably struggling to the same extent as, say, Sly Stallone in The Expendables. The script is sadly a little weak, certainly in comparison to the high water mark of Raiders and Last Crusade and in particular there is very little in the way of memorable quotes, save perhaps for Indy’s “not as easy as it used to be” at the outset.
The overarching problem here, however, is not the script, nor Harrison Ford’s age. It is the story and more to the point, the MacGuffin. Considering how long it took to put together a new story for Indy (18 years) it is inconceivable that no-one could have come up with a better idea than the skulls of inter-dimensional aliens. Indy’s throwaway line of “they’re archaeologists” when finding their stash of artifacts from across human civilization and history rings hollow and Ford seems to struggle to find a way to make it sound meaningful. The reality is that Indiana Jones is not and never has been about science fiction. Of course there are fantasy elements to the films, but they are rooted in Earth’s mythology, religion and history, not those from other worlds.
I can stand the CGI gophers at the beginning. It is preposterous that Indy could survive a nuclear blast inside a fridge, but it was kind of funny. It didn’t quite sit right with me watching Shia swing through the trees, but the films have built up so much good will with me that I was prepared to let it slide. What I could not and still cannot forgive, was the undermining, nay, the betrayal of the fundamental essence of the Indiana Jones films. To have to listen to John Hurt say that they have gone to “the space between space”, as Indy watches a flying saucer take off was more than I could bear and I still feel angry when I think about it.
In all honesty, it is not a bad film. Crystal Skulls is full of excitement, laughter, great set-pieces and top-drawer special effects. It is well acted and if the rest of the Indy films did not exist it would perhaps be rightly hailed as an excellent action-adventure film. I’m inclined to lay the blame with George Lucas, as I understand he had final say on the script and story, but no-one forced Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg to make the film. It didn’t have to be an Indy film, it could have been a globe-trotting sci-fi adventure based around a different character and left Indiana Jones safely within his proper parameters. Or they could have gone with a different story, as I understand Frank Darabont’s pass at the script was excellent, but ultimately rejected by Lucas.
It is therefore not quite an out and out violation of some of the most cherished film memories of my childhood, but it is a serious mis-step for the series and if another Indy film is made they simply must get back to Indy’s true essence, or else suffer the ire and indignation of myself and many others whose enjoyment of the series has now been at the very least a little blunted.
I hope you have enjoyed this trip back into the Indiana Jones films. Please feel free to share your own thoughts on the films, your favourite scenes and quotes and your memories of meeting Indy for the first time in the comments section below.