Revisiting Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull
Simon takes a look back at the much-maligned Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystall Skull...
A few weeks' back on this site, I wrote a couple of pieces exploring rewatching Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade with my ten year old son. Since then, he's been asking about watching Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, and for one or two reasons, I've been a bit reluctant.
This past weekend, however, I bit the bullet, and sat down to watch it with him.
Now, a couple of things. Firstly, my own position on the film is that I've seen it twice. I saw it when it came out at the cinema, and had what I call Phantom Menace Syndrome (PM... oh, hang on, that won't work). This is where the sheer novelty of seeing a long-dormant franchise that you cared about back on the big screen was enough to get you through the first viewing of the film. It's only on second viewing that you become very, very conscious of the things that have gone wrong.
So, cards on the table, I quite enjoyed Crystal Skull the very first time, at least until the last 20 minutes. The second time? It was painful. Really painful. I'm not sure whether it says more about me or the film that I became aware just how massively problematic the movie was second time around rather than first, but either way, the list of things that had gone wrong was not small.
My son had asked me what I thought about the film beforehand, and I'd admitted, using carefully chosen language, that I wasn't a fan. However, I've always tried to impress on him the idea that if he likes something, he shouldn't let anyone else convince him otherwise. That it's up to him what he enjoys, not a grumpy balding man who happens to take ownership of the remote control. This has been tested a few times - Batman Forever for instance - but he's sticking to his guns now when he sees something he likes.
So we sat down to watch Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull on that basis. I'd been reluctant to do so, incidentally, because the internet is hardly short of articles shooting down Indy 4, and I'm well aware that many quite like it. But I thought trying to see the film through his eyes as much as mine would be a worthwhile exercise.
And So It Begins...
Putting aside the bizarre CG gopher at the start, which still looks fake and computerised (Caddyshack's critter still looks far more realistic), we were quickly into the opening sequence. And I'd forgotten how quietly impressive this was. That director Steven Spielberg opens with a desert road, beautiful scenery, and some 1950s music to set the mood. It works, too. It's less fun than the opening of the other films, but right from the off, there's a sense that at least they're on the right track.
There's a very obvious acknowledgement, and a playful one, that Indy has been off the screen for so long in the reveal of the character (although it's not ideal that they basically get him out of the boot of the car in which he's been held captive), and when his shadow precedes his appearance, my son almost jumped out of his seat in excitement. He only reserves that sort of joy for Batman popping up in The LEGO Movie, and to see that the character mattered so much to him was really quite lovely.
The sequence that followed was fun too. Tying back to the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark and the filing away of the Ark of the Covenant in a massive warehouse, we arrive at said place: Hangar 51. Here, we meet Cate Blanchett's antagonist, and Ray Winstone's double/triple/lost count crossing Mac. An effective action sequence follows (one that gets across Indy is an older man this time around without it becoming a problem), and whilst I was sat there thinking how selective the laws of magnetism appeared to be, my son was clearly enjoyed himself.
Then the fridge happened.
My son is ten, and has a very positive, uncynical view of the world. It took him until he was eight to find a film he didn't like - Tooth Fairy, in case you're wondering - and it's rare for him to come out against something. Watching a film remains a real treat for him. But when Indy got into the fridge, and the bomb went off? A pertinent question: "isn't that a bit silly, dad?".
Yes, son. Yes it is.
Notwithstanding the issue of lead lined fridges in the midst of huge nuclear explosions, Indy's survival also requires that he doesn't move around in said fridge as it's flung many miles into the air (which you can just about buy), but also that the organs in his body remain static too, rather than being bashed around his insides (which you can't). As Indy stumbles out of the fridge, Crystal Skull begins its descent - which it occasionally arrests - but also it began to lose the love of my son. A sad moment.
In its defence though, even after the fridge, there are moments where the film tries really, really hard to endear itself. There's are two solid chase sequences that hold out an olive branch for a start, and whilst neither, on reflection, feels like Spielberg at his action directing best (the best action sequence he's directed in a long time, I'd argue, is in his Tintin movie), it's here where the film feels very Indy.
Furthermore, the pause for reflection as we see the pictures of Marcus and Henry Jones Sr on Indy's desk is a nice touch, albeit a reminder of how much more fun the last film was. Sean Connery's absence takes away a lot of comedy bite, that Crystal Skull doesn't even try to replace.
And then you get moments like when Indy meets Mutt for the first time in the cafe.
This, for me, is a worse moment than the fridge, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there's exposition dump, and it's not very well done. Secondly, it's the weakest part of Shia LaBeouf's performance, in a film that he does few favours for anyway. Appreciating it seems to be internet sport to knock LaBeouf at the moment (and I'm not blind - he really doesn't help himself) there's little getting away from the fact that his inclusion in Crystal Skull is a misfire.
There's a bit in that original cafe scene where he has to stand up in a huff that still stands out. Yet he does it in a way that feels like he's just walked out of the school play. "Shut up, that's my mother you're talking about" he says in mock rage, shooting to his feet as if he's trying to break the world record for doing so. The scene, sadly, just doesn't work. It feels forced. It should be sowing the seeds for the father/son reveal later in the film, but instead it leaves you wondering who the pillock in the leather jacket is.
LaBeouf has had some good moments in front of the camera. He was solid in Lawless, and the film Disturbia wouldn't work at all if he wasn't capable of turning in a decent performance. But here, his character just doesn't work. Had Harrison Ford actually let him end the film with the infamous hat on his head, then it would have been as swift a kick to the metaphorical testicles as cinema had ever generated.
This all went over my son's head. As did the moment when Ford uttered the line "nice try kid, but I think you just bought a knife to a gunfight". He's a bit young for The Untouchables, though. We'll wait until he's at least 12 for that, as part of the upcoming Costner 101 course I have planned for him.
As the film progresses anyway, so does the exposition. Indy has always done a fair amount of storytelling through dialogue, but with the previous films, I could ask my son what he thought was going on, and he'd tell me. The balance of showing and telling was pretty much on the money.
It's way off-kilter here though, with lots of conversations as things are explained. He lost the story as a consequence, occasionally buoyed by hints that we were going to see the mysterious cities of gold (we've done the TV series, natch). And whereas the previous films have had him jolting in his seat, he was pretty still for the bulk of this one. Puzzled, at times.
There were exceptions. The point where Indy and Mutt find themselves under attack from people waving poison darts get him interested, and this is one of the few sequences in the film that feels very much like the work of Steven Spielberg. It's no secret that the Indiana Jones films are a union of Spielberg and George Lucas, that requires both of them to sign off. Spielberg has said in the past that he yields to Lucas, who came up with the character, but there are clear moments in Crystal Skull that feel owned by Spielberg. And that's one on them.
There are clear moments that feel owned by Lucas though, and you know where this is heading. So, let's do the ending.
Aliens had been discussed as a possibility for Indy before, and - even though this isn't a popular view - there's no reason in theory they couldn't work in an Indiana Jones movie. The key proviso being that they're not shit.
Raiders Of The Lost Ark, after all, ends with supernatural elements, and we don't question it. It feels logical, it feels like part of the world, and so when the movie asks you to go with it, it doesn't jar at all. The same too for the ending of Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, which is arguably just as far fetched to some as the whole alien ending here.
Where Crystal Skull slips up is in not convincingly gluing its aliens to something you have any chance of believing. Had the crumbs leading up to the moment where the film pretty much collapses been more carefully laid, then Indiana Jones And The Crystal Skull could have got away with its interdimensional beings claptrap. But this time, it's a leap of faith that just doesn't work, and instead, feels utterly, utterly ridiculous. My son turned to me and asked what was going on, and I was at a loss to give him an answer he could do anything with. I just got him another Capri Sun instead.
On reflection, John Hurt's character, Ox, is supposed to sell the idea of these aliens to us. But he turns up quite late, is given mumbly rubbish to say, and there's not much the great actor can do. Conversely, the three tests at the end of Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade were sold to us by Sean Connery and his grail diary, set against the backdrop of his life being in danger. It meant even if you weren't buying the leap of faith, you could see why Indy was - he wanted to save his dad. We get nothing relatively close to that here.
Even on that first viewing of Crystal Skull, when novelty and nostalgia was pumping around like cinematic adrenaline, the ending stood out as desperately bad. Time has not been kind to it. This time, my son just looked at me, disappointed. It was almost heartbreaking to see.
For me, though, there's something worse than the ending, although this isn't something that my son picked up on: when did Marion Ravenswood become so two-dimensional? When did this strong, three dimensional woman become someone who would drop everything when a man who left her behind decided to walk back into her life? She's gone from the feist of Raiders to damsel in distress here, and both Marion and actress Karen Allen deserve a lot, lot better.
That said, there are other things that I minded that my son didn't. The ravenous creep of CG in a series that had been defined by so much practical stunt and effects work and the lack of a good antagonist (sorry Cate) weren't things that he blinked an eyelid at. Conversely, when I laughed when, mid-motorbike chase, Indy stops to dispense some tutorial advice to one of his students, he didn't. We've been roughly in union on the things we liked and didn't like about the earlier films. Not so much here.
When the credits eventually rolled on Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, I asked my son what he thought, and it seemed to me that he didn't quite know how to express his general disappointment. After sitting and thinking for a minute or two, he simply turned around and said "it's not as good as the other three, is it?".
And whilst this article really hasn't been intended as a kicking of the corpse of Indy 4 (and I hope it hasn't been), the disappointment of a 10-year old seems an oddly appropriate place to leave it. Because, ultimately, how can you argue with it?
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