Friday, August 27, 2021

August Archaeology: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

With the 40th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark this year, the release of the 4K box set (finally!), and the franchise’s omnipresence on Showtime the past few weeks, The Cinema King has come down with a bad case of Indy Fever. Having already reviewed the films some time ago, let’s try something a little different this month. In the tradition of the “Grand Marvel Rewatch,” let’s dig around the Indiana Jones franchise and see what comes up.

Finally, from 2008, it’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. After an unfortunate encounter with Communists at Area 51, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) meets up with Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), who asks for help following the mystery of a crystal skull in South America. An old mentor (John Hurt) and Mutt’s mother (spoilers!) have gone missing, and Indy’s Soviet foe Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) may be responsible. 

  1. Color me interested. If you’ve had a conversation with me in the last few months, you’ve probably heard me say that the 4K transfer of Crystal Skull fixes the film’s color palette and in so doing remedies a lot of the problems with the theatrical release. In 2008, everything in the film had a green/yellow tint, which made all the digital effects look a bit fake. For a franchise founded on practical effects, that’s no good, so fortunately the 4K version color-corrects so that the film takes on a warmer, more natural visual tone. The digital effects aren’t as noticeable, and it finally looks like a proper Indiana Jones film, not a tint-rinsed nostalgia trip.
  2. Nothing wrong with nostalgia. Steven Spielberg was born in 1946, and it’s pretty clear that he looks back on 1957 with fondness. The earlier films were all set before Spielberg was born, and so they inhabit a kind of timeless past without many particular historical markers. The first act of Crystal Skull, though, is all about the late 50s, with greasers battling straightedges while Bill Haley blares from a jukebox; meanwhile, Indy declares, “I like Ike” before implying he was present at the Roswell crash. Spielberg is closer to this material than he was to the preceding trilogy, and it shows; Crystal Skull is very much of its time.
  3. Passing the torch. Flash back to 2008, and you’ll recall that there seemed to be an anxiety that Indiana Jones would retire and cede the franchise to Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt Williams, who (spoilers) everyone rightly predicted was actually Indy’s son. (Like his father, Mutt too named himself after the dog.) The film does seem to be walking away from the earlier ones, with allusions to the deaths of Marcus Brody and Henry Jones, Sr., in the interim, but all the same it keeps an eye on the past when it revisits Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), the only possible and eminently welcome choice for Mutt’s mother. The film’s closing gag, in which a gust of wind tempts Mutt with donning his father’s fedora, becomes a beautifully self-aware moment when Indy snatches the hat at the last possible second. We don’t want that, either.
  4. Up in the sky! Fans are so torn on the extraterrestrial McGuffin, with many (rightly) pointing to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind as an influence. I’ve always liked the idea that Indy’s adventures are themed around the pulp stories of that day, and having him chase aliens during the sci-fi Fifties feels almost inevitable. An alien is a far cry from the deep and preexisting mythologies of the Ark and the Sankara Stones, but the fact that Indy never makes contact with the aliens (“interdimensional beings, in point of fact”) keeps the film from verging too far beyond the realm of the plausible. Put another way, if Indiana Jones never meets an alien, does it really exist?
  5. Some Indy is better than no Indy (or: Toxic Fandom, I hate these guys). It’s not necessarily a new phenomenon – Star Wars had been through it a decade earlier (and a decade later) – but Crystal Skull was marked by scads of online discourse about how terrible this movie is, what a betrayal it was for the fans, and how “real” fans can’t love it. And while I don’t love Crystal Skull, I don’t think it’s as bad as people claim. It’s certainly not an appropriate reason to start gatekeeping fandom, either; it’s not Raiders, but so what? Few films are. This one is plenty fun, with enough exciting action to justify its own existence. It’s always amusing to see armchair critics insist they know Indiana Jones better than Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford.

Sound off in the comments, and tell me your favorite part of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. If there’s a moviegoer more excited for the fifth Indiana Jones film (set for July 2022), I’d like to meet that person. But I promise you won’t need to wait that long for the next review on this site. The Cinema King will return!

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