In Defense of “Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”

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Originally Posted February 2013

1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark introduced the world to adventuring archaeologist Indiana Jones. It leveraged the style of the serialized adventures from the ’30s and ’40s, and had a great excuse for bringing the audience along to various non-Western locales. Jones has the gumption and historical knowledge to be the only good guy who can stop the bad guys from using a powerful object for evil, but he’s still an “everyman” who can get injured, tired, and tricked. We loved Indiana so much—as in, the film made so much money—that two more films were made that decade: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).

Let’s jump ahead to nearly twenty years after Last Crusade‘s release. I’ll not defend the decision to revive the Indiana Jones franchise with 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull—because what else is Hollywood good at besides milking their cash cows—but I’d like to assert that the recent installment is pretty much a perfect Indiana Jones movie that everyone should’ve embraced heartily if they loved the first three so damn much.

Let’s first lay out the required elements for an Indy film. Then we’ll dig into how well those elements were executed. Last, we’ll talk about peripheral decisions that people criticized, such as casting choices.

Key Elements in an Indy Film

1. Indiana Jones

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Hollywood does seem to have a problem with asking their aging actors to pretend they’re twenty years younger for the sake of making money (see almost the entire cast of The Expendables). That said, we know Indy has been getting up to trouble his whole life based on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and River Phoenix’s portrayal of him as a teenager in Last Crusade. I’ll give the filmmakers a pass on using Ford again because I do like the idea of Dr. Jones growing older and still being a fucking bad-ass.

Part and parcel of having Indy in the film is his look: the hat, the whip, and (preferably) an entrance preceded by his famous silhouette.

2. The MacGuffin

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In Raiders, it was the Ark of the Covenant. In Temple of Doom, it was one of the five lost Sankara stones. In Last Crusade, it was the Holy Grail. In Crystal Skull, it was (duh) a crystal skull of an unusual shape. You could make the argument that the real MacGuffin of Crystal Skull was the location of Akator—or El Dorado.

Indy sometimes pursued stepping-stone MacGuffins, such as the headpiece to the Staff of Ra in Raiders.

3. A bad guy and their “lieutenants”

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In Raiders, it was Dr. René Belloq, Colonel Dietrich, and Major Arnold Toht. In Temple of Doom, Indy’s up against prime minister Chattar Lal, the Maharaja Zalim Singh, and Thuggee priest Mola Ram. In Last Crusade, Indy tries to outsmart Walter Donovan, Nazi Colonel Ernst Vogel, and Dr. Elsa Schneider. In Crystal Skull, Indy butts heads with Soviet agent Irina Spalko, Colonel Dovchenko, and double-/triple-crosser George “Mac” McHale.

4. A romantic interest

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In Raiders, it was Marion Ravenwood. In Temple of Doom, we endured Willie Scott. In Last Crusade, it was Dr. Elsa Schneider. In Crystal Skull, Marion Ravenwood returned.

5. Globetrotting

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In Raiders, we visited South America, Nepal, Egypt, and an unnamed island in the Indian Ocean. In Temple of Doom, we start off in Shanghai and end up in rural India. In Last Crusade, we followed Indy to the deserts of Utah, the canals of Venice, then Austria, Germany, and Turkey. In Crystal Skull, we went from Nevada to Peru to the Amazon.

6. Travel by map

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Utilized in every film. As for modes of transportation, Indiana Jones has used cars, boats, a motorcycle with a sidecar, planes, elephants, horses, and even a friggin’ airship to get from place to place.

7. Booby traps

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In Raiders, many traps lead up to the golden idol, and who can forget the famous rolling boulder trap? In Temple of Doom, Indy and Short Round are nearly crushed/skewered before Willie finds a release lever. In Last Crusade, Indy has to survive the three “final challenges” before finding the Holy Grail. In Crystal Skull, the stairs spiraling down from the obelisk at the temple of Akator slowly draw in, and anyone who falls off could land on a spike below.

8. Bad guys die in creative and disgusting ways

  • In Raiders, Indy’s guide Satipo was skewered by a booby trap and his other guide was killed with poisoned darts. A large, bare-chested Nazi in Cairo is chopped up by a propeller. Belloq, Dietrich, Toht, and their Nazi soldiers meet their terrifying demise upon opening the Ark.
  • In Temple of Doom, one of Lao Che’s goons is pierced with a giant kebab, an assassin chokes on his own wire when the ceiling fan catches on it, a human sacrifice has his heart pulled out and is fried in a swirling pit of lava, a Thuggee is ground up in a piece of mining machinery, and Mola Ram is devoured by crocodiles.
  • In Last Crusade, Nazis at Brunwald Castle are trapped in a burning room, a bad guy crashes his plane when a flock of seagulls clogs his engines, the tank containing Colonel Vogel falls off a cliff, some poor sucker dies in the first booby trap prior to the Grail room, Donovan ages to dust in seconds when drinking from a false Grail, and Elsa falls into the abyss that opens up when she tries to take the Grail across the great seal.
  • In Crystal Skull, several Russian soldiers die in the blast from an A-bomb test. Someone trying to blow a poisoned dart at Mutt instead has it blown into his throat from the other end of the pipe. A couple of Russian soldiers, including Colonel Dovchenko, are eaten by killer ants. Spalko’s mind is fried when the interdimensional being overloads it with information beyond her capacity.

9. vermin and other dangerous animals

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In Raiders, spiders crawl onto Indy and his guide Satipo, and in the Well of Souls, Indy has to deal with snakes. Temple of Doom is chock-full of creepy critters: bats, disgusting dinner choices, and a ton of bugs. Willie, thinking a snake slithering onto her is actually the trunk of an annoying elephant, throws the snake in Indy’s direction. In Last Crusade, young Indy tries to make his escape on a carnival train and lands in a tank full of snakes. He also deals with a rhino and a lion. Adult Indy contends with rats. In Crystal Skull, some scorpions in the Peruvian cemetery crawl onto Mutt. When Indy is caught in a dry sand pit, Mutt throws him a snake to pull him out. The jungle chase scene includes monkeys and killer ants.

10. Old corpses

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11. Stereotyped “natives”

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Last Crusade was the least egregious. Raiders and Crystal Skull tie for most egregious. This is the one Indiana Jones “element” I never wanted to see again.

12. Copious explosions, even if they don’t make sense

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In Raiders, Marion’s bar erupts in flames, a truck that Indy thought held Marion exploded, and Indy blew up a ton of shit at the German dig-site when trying to sabotage the plane. Temple of Doom is the sole outlier of the series for having practically no explosions. In Last Crusade, the boat from which Indy escaped after stealing back the Cross of Coronado blows up. The catacombs under the library in Venice are set on fire, a boat explodes trying to follow Indy between two large ships, an entire room goes up in flames at Brunwald Castle, and a couple of fighter pilots meet their fiery ends. In Crystal Skull, I think the atomic bomb more than counts for the entire film.

13. A kiss (or more) from Indy’s romantic interest

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The Formula for an Indiana Jones Film

We catch Indy in action, sometimes in an unrelated adventure but sometimes bad guys carry over. Then we enjoy some downtime where we get the setup to his main adventure.

  1. In Raiders, Indy briefly obtains a golden idol, but it’s stolen by Belloq. In the States, Indy’s friend Brody introduces him to some government types who ask about Abner Ravenwood and his connection to a German dig-site outside Cairo. Indy tells us about the lost Ark of the Covenant and why the Nazis would want it. The States want it first, so off Indy goes.
  2. In Temple of Doom, Indy is having difficulty getting his payment from crime boss Lao Che for an artifact he agreed to deliver. We immediately meet his romantic interest, Willie Scott, and his other sidekick, Short Round. The three of them escape on a plane heading out of Shanghai, but the pilots are loyal to Lao Che and they parachute out of the plane while our heroes sleep. Indy and his group survive a crash landing (somehow) and arrive at the start of the film’s main adventure.
  3. In Last Crusade, Indy has found the man who took the Cross of Coronado from him twenty-six years ago and finally gets it back. In the States, a man named Walter Donovan shows Indy various artifacts that speak of the Holy Grail and its increasingly likely existence. He also tells Indy that the project leader for recovering it—Indy's father—is missing. When he finds his father’s study ransacked and discovers his father sent his Grail diary to him, Indy heads to Venice to find him.
  4. In Crystal Skull, Indy and Mac were kidnapped by Russians who want to find a certain crate in a military warehouse. After Russian agent Irina Spalko examines some alien remains, Indy tries to get the upper hand, Mac betrays him (that was quick), and the action sequence ends with the infamous “nuke the fridge” moment. FBI guys grill him on what happened at the warehouse. Pressure from McCarthy-era government agents forces the dean of the university where Indy teaches to put him on a forced leave of absence.

Indy teams up with one or more people to partake in his adventure and together, they complete sub-goals toward obtaining the MacGuffin.

  1. In Raiders, he has to partner up with Marion Ravenwood, who has a key piece toward obtaining the Ark. He also gets help from Sallah in Cairo.
  2. In Temple of Doom, the setup for the main adventure happens after Indy finds his companions for the film. In the Indian village, an elder tells Indy about the evil occupying the formerly abandoned Pankot Palace and how their sacred stone (and the village’s children) was stolen. That MacGuffin may be, according to Indy, one of five “Sankara stones”.
  3. In Last Crusade, Indy and Brody meet up with his father’s colleague, Dr. Elsa Schneider, to find a Grail marker. Indy learns from a member of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword where his father is. He sends Brody to meet up with Sallah in Turkey while he and Elsa head to Brunwald Castle.
  4. In Crystal Skull, Indy is about to leave town when “Mutt” Williams tells him an old friend of Indy’s is in danger. At a diner, Indy tells us about Akator (or El Dorado) and how the crystal skull Indy’s old friend found fits into the El Dorado legend. KGB agents show up to take the letter Mutt just gave Indy, but they manage to escape.

Indy seems to be one step ahead of the bad guys in finding the MacGuffin, but he often has to either fight his way out of scrapes or double-down on his goal after a setback. This results in extended fight or chase scenes.

  1. In Raiders, he fights the goons of Major Arnold Toht to save Marion and get the headpiece. In Cairo, some Nazis and their goons nab Marion—though Jones thinks she’s dead. After making progress in finding the resting place of the Ark, he and not-dead Marion have to find another way out of the Well of Souls when Belloq steals the Ark and shuts them in. When he learns the Nazis plan to fly the Ark out of Cairo, Indy sabotages the plane despite all hell breaking lose. An extended chase scene ensues when they drive it out on a truck. Indy gets the Ark onto a boat, but the Nazis catch up and take it as well as Marion. He sneaks onto the German boat and gets a ride to their secret port on a small island. He tries to rescue Marion by threatening to blow up the Ark, but cannot bring himself to destroy it.
  2. In Temple of Doom, everything seems peachy keen at Pankot Palace, but it’s all a ruse to trick a British officer, Captain Blumburtt, who is there for an “inspection” (India at the time of the film's setting was still a British colony). Indy is nearly choked to death in his room, almost dies in a booby trap, is caught by the Thuggee cult and brainwashed into nearly killing Willie before snapping out of it, frees the child slaves, has a fistfight with a Thuggee while Short Round goes after the Maharaja, and takes an amazing mine-cart ride.
  3. In Last Crusade, Elsa betrays Indy at Brunwald Castle, but he escapes with his father. They head to Berlin to get the Grail diary back from Elsa. Meanwhile, Sallah—despite his best efforts—loses Brody, who is kidnapped by Nazis in Turkey. Indy and his father try to leave Germany on an airship but are forced to hijack the plane beneath when the airship turns around. They make it to Turkey, meet up with Sallah, and rescue Brody from Donovan and his goons with incidental help from the Brotherhood after an extended fight/chase scene.
  4. In Crystal Skull, Indy and Mutt track Ox to his brief stint at a sanitarium in Peru. Carvings on the floor point them to an old graveyard where Conquistador Francisco de Orellana is buried and where they’re attacked by uh, “locals”? (C’mon, guys! It’s the 21st century!) They find Orellana and the crystal skull, but Mac, who spotted them in Cusco, has led the Russians to them. They’re taken along the Amazon River to a Russian camp. Mutt stages an escape attempt that fails. On the way to Akator, our good guys steal back the skull (and Ox); they’ll try to reach Akator before the Russians. They succeed after a long chase during which Mac convinces Indy that he’s been a double-agent this whole time. Indy and his party eventually make it all the way to the innermost chamber of Akator’s temple.

At the climax, the bad guy seems to be getting what they want, but everything backfires spectacularly. Only goodhearted Indiana Jones has earned a free pass from the utter destruction.

  1. In Raiders, Belloq, Dietrich, Toht and all of the Nazi soldiers die when they open the Ark. Who can forget the separate effects of Dietrich’s flesh shrinking away, Toht’s skin and muscle melting off his face, and Belloq’s entire head exploding as well as the chain lightning that lanced the Nazi soldiers? Indiana and Marion are literally spared from the wrath of God because they didn’t witness any of the Ark’s phenomenon—Jones intelligently warns Marion not to open her eyes, no matter what.
  2. In Temple of Doom, Mola Ram and his Thuggees have Indy trapped on a long rope bridge. Indy cuts the bridge and dumps most of the men into the river below, which is swarming with crocodiles. Mola Ram tries to get the stones back but Indy uses a chant to invoke the power of the Sankara stone, one of which burns Mola Ram and causes him to fall to his death where he is quickly shredded by crocodiles. Captain Blumburtt and his soldiers show up to disperse the last of the Thuggees.
  3. In Last Crusade, Donovan shoots Indy’s father to force him to recover the Grail and then follows Indy through the disabled/revealed booby traps. Elsa tricks Donovan into drinking from a false Grail. Indy chooses the right one, but the Grail cannot leave its resting place and Elsa dies when she tries to take it past the entrance’s great seal. Indy nearly dies himself trying to get it, but his father convinces him to let it go. He and his companions escape the area.
  4. In Crystal Skull, Mac betrays Indy (again) by leading the Russians to the temple of Akator. Spalko returns the skull to the one crystal skeleton that doesn’t have its head and demands knowledge when the “hive mind” offers a gift. The temple crumbles as what turns out to be an interdimensional being opens a portal to another dimension. Indy and his friends escape, Mac dies because of his greed, the Russian soldiers are sucked into the portal, and Spalko’s mind is fried from the information overload. Indy watches from a safe distance as a spacecraft rips apart all of Akator and disappears.

The film’s final scenes show that Indy and his pals have survived their adventure. The MacGuffin isn’t in Indy’s possession for one reason or another, but said MacGuffin turned out to be very powerful.

  1. In Raiders, those government types from the beginning have taken possession of the Ark and compensated Jones very well, but Jones and Brody don’t like that they don’t know where it is or who is researching it. Turns out, the Ark has been stuffed into a crate and stored into a giant warehouse; no one plans to do anything with it.
  2. In Temple of Doom, Indy and his companions return to the Indian village with the missing children and their sacred stone. The other two stones (the Thuggees only had three of five) were lost to the river.
  3. In Last Crusade, Indy, his father, Sallah, and Brody ride off into the sunset. The Grail was real, but the immortality it granted meant never leaving its resting place.
  4. In Crystal Skull, Indy has become an associate dean at the university and marries Marion. Ox has regained his sanity. At Indy and Marion’s wedding, a convenient gust of wind blows Indy’s fedora to Mutt, and the audience thinks maybe it’s Mutt’s turn with the hat (after all, Indy got it from the grave robber in Last Crusade), but Indy takes it back before Mutt can try it on.

How well did Crystal Skull actually utilize these elements and execute the plot formula?

Crystal Skull certainly has its problems, and I wholeheartedly agree that Last Crusade was the most competent of the four films, but Crystal Skull offered better plot, acting, and motivations than most gave it credit for. It gave us all the critical elements, it followed the expected formula, and any negative responses to the film boiled down to people’s nostalgia getting in the way of enjoying a new Indy adventure. Let’s pick at the biggest criticisms.

Nuking the Fridge

OverThinking It has already done a bang-up job of explaining, scientifically, why our beloved Indiana Jones would’ve died like, four times over when he chose to take shelter in a refrigerator to survive an A-bomb test explosion. Indy has been in some crazy stunts before, such as trying to survive a plane crash by jumping out of the plane on an inflatable raft (they were not over water), but this stunt took the cake—and nuked it.

It’s pretty inexcusable, but I will say this: Indiana Jones has literally been spared by God before and has literally drunk from the Holy Grail. You guys wanted more “religion” and less “alien” in this film? I think this stunt is about as ridiculous in the “magic” department as the mass-murdering-Ark scene or the dissolving-bullet-wound scene.

Casting

Mostly due to him being associated with Transformers and the Wall Street sequel, Shia LaBeouf was the casting choice most disliked, even more than an older Harrison Ford and Karen Allen. LaBeouf said he “dropped the ball” regarding how well he handled his part and that the film “misinterpreted what we were trying to satiate," but I think he and a lot of fans don’t remember the previous Indy films the way I do.

Like Belloq’s over-the-top villain laugh after he has stolen the golden idol. Or the eyepatched bad guy with an evil monkey. Or the which-basket-is-Marion-in scene. Or the truck filled with explosives for some reason. Or the killed-by-kebab scene in Temple of Doom. Or the inflatable-raft scene. Or the snake-surprise dinner scene. Or the brainwashed-creepy-smile Maharaja. Or pulling out a heart without killing someone or acknowledging the rib cage exists. Or hell, all of Temple of Doom. Or the giant tank of snakes in Last Crusade. Or the autograph-from-Hitler scene. Or the “no ticket” scene (seriously, wouldn’t another staff member find out what he did?). Or the passed-by-a-dewinged-plane-through-the-tunnel scene. Or the 700-year-old knight.

These films are incredibly campy. They enjoy asking insane “what ifs” and then concocting jaw-dropping answers. The character of Mutt Williams was well characterized and well motivated, and LaBeouf’s performance was perfectly sufficient. I can name lauded actors who have phoned it in for a paycheck (Kingsley, I’m looking at you for BloodRayne), and despite what LaBeouf said, the scenes he was in that people disliked most should be blamed on the writing, not his performance, which brings me to…

Overall Writing

The dialogue is pretty great. It’s punchy, funny, and efficient at relaying plot. Often, a lot of visual gags were going on in the background (as in, most of the diner scene between Mutt and Indy, especially the jocks versus greasers fight), and I found the plot easy to follow. The only legitimate criticisms would include the lack of delivering “undead guardians” at Akator (do those guys just hang out in the walls until someone shows up?) and the way Soviet Russia and the Peruvian people were portrayed.

Whining about the interdimensional being is the dumbest criticism. You’re okay with the Ark of the Covenant, but an alien is out of the question? Yes, the previous Indy films explored religious themes, but so did this one! The alien was worshiped as a god and, for all intents and purposes, was about as powerful as one. The most famous bits of religious dogma rely on some pretty fantastical stuff, so a slight step to the side into something with a sci-fi flavor is not out of bounds.

Special Effects

The heavy usage of CG in Crystal Skull was criticized, as though it was “worse” than the effects in the previous films. I think the only good obvious effect (as opposed to subtle effects) in the whole franchise was Donovan’s death. Yes, the death effects during the final Ark scene were memorable but definitely not realistic-looking. Some people prefer effects done with minis or other physical props, but they’re about as fake-looking as CG to my eyes. I can tell either way, but that doesn’t mean the visual information isn’t equally valuable for both. I can tell Belloq is dying in a horrible way just as I can tell Spalko is dying in a horrible way.

Stunts

Mutt and Indy being chased by KGB agents was my favorite action sequence of Crystal Skull—and hardly any CG! The super-long action sequence in the Amazon was fun and had about as many chuckles thrown in as the action sequence in the desert in Last Crusade. What people hated most was the vine-swinging section, but…why? Why balk at swinging on vines when Indy has used his whip to swing across a pit of spikes, a ravine full of lava, or into a window? Swinging on vines seems like one of the most plausible things characters do/survive in this film. As for the killer ants, species do exist that are very aggressive and that can build on each other to reach things, but they also don’t tend to drag entire human beings into their colonies, so yes, the filmmakers tested the audience’s suspension of disbelief, but you did read the rest of this post, right? Testing suspension of disbelief seems to be the thing to do in an Indy film.

Conclusion

My personal gripes with Crystal Skull boil down to poor writing choices and one editing choice. It’s a given that Indy will be betrayed (by Satipo in Raiders, by the pilots in Temple of Doom, and by Dr. Elsa Schneider in Last Crusade), but when Mac betrayed Indy like, three times in Crystal Skull, you had to wonder if Indy had taken one too many punches to the face. Indy, you are the good guy, but don’t be the terminally stupid guy.

Also, one scene still baffles the hell out of me. Indy and Mutt have just kicked Colonel Dovchenko unconscious while being transported through the Amazon. The filmmakers established that Mutt carries a switchblade, which he manages to toss to Indy’s shoulder. Indy wiggles to make it drop into his hands, which are tied behind his back. We hear the blade open up and then a sound like cloth ripping. Indy’s expression amounts to “oh shit”, which Mutt says out loud, and we assume something went wrong. Did the blade cut into Indy’s pants? Did it fall through the canvas that lines the back of the truck? Then Indy is free and he goes to untie everyone else. No one tells the audience what the hell just happened.

I liked that the film was set in the Cold-War/McCarthy-era ’50s, and I do appreciate that they gave Spalko a reason to pursue the crystal skull and the “power” waiting at Akator, but “Soviet Russians” does not equal “Nazis.” As I’ve said before, the entire franchise has been unfair in its portrayal of non-Western people and I’d have liked to see Crystal Skull rise above that racist urge. The Akator guardians would’ve been way cooler (and hopefully less problematic) as an army of skeletons.

Lastly, the theater version of Crystal Skull used a different take for one of Indy’s lines than what we heard in the trailer. The trailer version sounded fine but the theater version was just…a weird way to say it. At the Peruvian cemetery, Mutt has finally witnessed Indy’s badassery and asks him, “You’re…a teacher?” Indy replies, “Part time.” In the trailer, it’s like a nonchalant way of saying it, but in the theater version, it’s an annoyed way of saying it—and it doesn’t work.

Despite these criticisms, the film is quite entertaining. It’s well acted, well paced, and the writing is so-so (good dialogue and a plot that suffers a few flaws). Temple of Doom is still the worst of the lot—its appeal has only increased because of nostalgia—and Last Crusade is still the best of them, so I’d put Crystal Skull in a close third place behind Raiders.

Overall, film critics gave the movie a thumbs-up (78% at Rotten Tomatoes65 of 100 at Metacritic), and the movie received several award nominations, but there also pervaded among the media and audiences an unwarranted negativity, which seemed to culminate in a South Park episode that used extremely offensive hyperbole to convey the creators’ displeasure with the film. (Aw, is someone still upset over the Star Wars prequels?)

Well, they’re wrong. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is about as flawed as the rest of the films in the franchise—and yet it’s still a good fucking movie. I’ve seen it more times than I’ve seen the South Park movie, which does suck.