With recent talk of another Indiana Jones film beginning production next year I thought it might be a good time to revisit 2008's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I hadn't actually seen it since the first time I saw it on opening night in 2008. I was disappointed with it at the time but wondered if future viewings might improve my impression. However, although I've probably watched every film in the original trilogy at least five times in the past decade, I never quite got around to a second viewing of Crystal Skull. But I noticed it was included free with Amazon Prime so I thought, what the hell. I even got a bit excited, thinking, without all the burden of hype and legacy, maybe I'll watch it and find it's actually a really fun action adventure film. Unfortunately, while I do think it has some good qualities, age seems to have made it even worse. It's not that it's a bad Indiana Jones film, I would argue it's an anti-Indiana Jones film, its ideas and motives in direct opposition to the philosophy fundamental to the first three films. This might actually have made for an interesting, if unpleasant, movie if the filmmakers were truly intent on trashing their own films but the result instead is something as muddled intellectually as it is in its visuals and effects.
If I had to choose the worst problem in the film, I would say it's Steven Spielberg's lack of desire to make it. When I saw the clip of him from Comic Con talking about how all his life he made the movies he wanted to make but the fourth Indiana Jones film was going to be completely for the fans I knew there was going to be trouble. The problem with making art for someone else's tastes is that they're not your tastes--in other words, you have no idea what you're doing. And quotes I've seen from Spielberg indicate this is a problem that infected production all down the line.
Wikipedia quotes him as saying about the alien skulls at the centre of the film, "I sympathize with people who didn't like the MacGuffin because I never liked the MacGuffin." Apparently it was something George Lucas insisted on. So I guess Spielberg went ahead and shot scenes about this thing he didn't care that much about. Is it any wonder audiences had trouble caring much about it too?
Why is it so hard to care about the aliens in Crystal Skull? Probably for the same reason the return of The X-Files has felt so limp. Somewhere along the line, the aliens that seemed so cool and mysterious in the 80s and 90s lost their mystique. I wonder if Crystal Skull might have made more headway if the aliens had been more like 50s movie aliens, since 50s Sci Fi was supposedly the model for this film. If that was they case, they ought to have gone for a genuinely bizarre design like the insects from Quatermass and the Pit or the brains from Fiend without a Face. Maybe not make them exactly like one of those aliens but apply the same basic philosophy in creating new aliens--that is, use elements of earthly biology in truly weird, reconfigured ways. Maybe then the aliens might have had something approaching the effective horror of the Ark or the Thuggee cultists. But the main problem with the MacGuffin is its lack of a thematic relationship with the protagonists.
A MacGuffin is supposedly an arbitrary thing that's more important because people are interested in it than for any intrinsic quality it possesses. But the best MacGuffins demonstrate this isn't so. In Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, the identity of the MacGuffin goes unknown for most of the film, adding to the sense of anxiety for much of the story, and when the MacGuffin is revealed its clever in a satisfying way. The MacGuffins in the first three Indiana Jones films all tie in to the protagonist's story in a meaningful way. Partly this is because of how much they inherit as religious artefacts--the Holy Grail's significance is even spelled out explicitly from Marcus in a line about how it's "the search for the divine in all of us." This easily ties in with the father/son story and each character's preoccupation with whether or not he's been good for the other.
Attempts to echo this story are present in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull but without any depth. Indy (Harrison Ford) doesn't even know Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) is his son for most of the film and when he does the most we get out of it is a corny reversal of his advice that Mutt do what he loves even if it means dropping out of school. Is this meant to tie into the climax where Irina (Cate Blanchett) is killed by her desire for too much knowledge? With the idea of knowledge being the nature of the alien's treasure, it's kind of hard to make the usual theme of the perils of avarice make sense.
There are a few funny moments where Indy gets so caught up trying to piece together the puzzle with Irina that Mutt has to intervene with an action sequence but all these scenes do is make Indy seem slightly scatter brained. There's certainly no connexion to an idea of too much knowledge being dangerous. It's nothing compared to the idea of Indy potentially taking the Sankara stones in the second film for "fortune and glory" and causing the death of a village because of his failure to believe in their power. In addition to the widely maligned artificiality of the film's overuse of cgi, the fact that Indy himself never has the sense of internal conflict he has in the previous films makes the whole movie feel more like a long DVD bonus feature for an Indiana Jones movie than like an Indiana Jones movie in its own right. There seems to be an inherent resistance to the idea of giving any of the protagonists any truly negative character trait.
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull also has a very different attitude about sex compared to its predecessors. It's certainly the least sexual entry in the series with no hint of physical chemistry between Ford and Karen Allen. The worst scene in the movie is their marriage at the end which, in opposition to the James Bond inspired format of a new girlfriend for every movie of the first three films, seems to insist on Indy's moral obligation to settle down with the mother of his child, a dull enough intended idea for an adventure film, given the turgidity of creepy orthodoxy for the unintended lack of chemistry between the stars. Allen had long since lost the feistiness that made her effective in Lost Ark and her forced smiles to emulate that lost spark are consequently depressing. Her big moment being the plan to drive off a cliff with the boat/car, one of the film's most gratuitously false cgi moments, emphasises her lack of impact in the film.
I feel like maybe, in one of the script drafts, there was a plan to use Irina to make a commentary about sexual repression. The film's single most sexual moment, which may not have even been intended to be sexual, is the moment where army ants pile up to reach her where she's dangling from a tree and she crushes one between her thighs, causing an improbable quantity of ropey goo to fly towards the camera. I suspect the army ants were inspired by the 1954 Charlton Heston film The Naked Jungle in which Heston's character is a South American plantation owner who must overcome his conservative disinterest in his sexually experienced mail order bride, played by Eleanor Parker, while a mass of army ants threatens to overwhelm his land. The concept of nature overriding starchy, patriarchal morality is clear enough even if the film didn't have "naked" in the title.
In Crystal Skull, John Hurt's character, a professor named Oxley, has seemingly lost his mind and ramblingly quotes literature, including a masque by John Milton commonly referred to as Comus. The masque is about a virginal girl who's abducted by Comus, a mythical being and son of Bacchus and Circe, who tries to tempt her to break her chastity and join in with his animal headed retinue. If we take the biblical implication of "knowing" as sexual experience maybe at some point, on some level, the ascetic Soviet officer Irina was tempted by Indy's decadent Capitalist sexuality. The line Oxley quotes is from the beginning of the masque, spoken by Comus' moral adversary, a mysterious "Attending Spirit" who accepts the duty of protecting the girl and her brothers from going astray.
Yet some there be that by due steps aspire
To lay their just hands on that Golden Key
That ope's the Palace of Eternity
The lines would seem to refer to good people finding their way to heaven. One might read a sexual connotation into the lines with the key being a phallic symbol and the Palace of Eternity being an orgasm. Well, it makes more sense than the words being a clue for Indy to bash an Incan carving with a rock.
Just what are Irina's motives? Spielberg's instincts with the villains were again leading him in the wrong direction. He felt he couldn't make the Nazis adventure villains after Schindler's List, presumably choosing the Soviets because he felt less personally attached, again insuring that the audience felt less personally attached. Certainly Stalin was no lightweight when it came to perpetrating atrocities--there's a fascinating and horrifying story and collection of photographs from Masha Gessen and Misha Friedman in The New Yorker to-day about Soviet Gulags. But Kingdom of the Crystal Skull never quite seems to know its position regarding the U.S.S.R. The first line Indy has is "Russians" as he stands up among a group of Soviets pointing guns at him, the line an oddly flat footed place holder for the more strident "Nazis. I hate these guys." The film also has to negotiate with the Red Scare, which the film reminds us wasn't limited to Hollywood and Joseph McCarthy but was an hysteria on American university campuses as well.
So the movie has to make the Soviets villains and deal with the fact that the Soviets were the subject of irrational fears in the U.S. all while, for some reason, tying neither of these things into the main plot. It isn't that the Nazis were more obviously evil but that the motives of the Nazis were easier to tie into the MacGuffins of the first and third films. Hitler's interest in the occult and possession of the Old Testament power of the Ark has far more interesting thematic implications than Irina wanting to harness alien technology for psychic warfare, a motive that isn't even talked about very much.
Anyway, I'll keep an open mind about the next film. Hopefully Spielberg has learned his lesson.