Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), a recap (part 1)
NOTE: This article is a work in progress.
Please check back soon for more installments!
SUMMARY: Seventeen years after his last adventure, with his heroism in World War II long forgotten, Indiana Jones dusts off his fedora to save the world from the Soviets, discover the hidden truths of the past, awkwardly face his ex-girlfriend, run away from sentient ants, survive a nuclear bomb inside an appliance, and ride in a damn spaceship. Oh, and he also loses his hat for a while.
You’re not going to believe this, so let’s just get it out of the way upfront: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out ten years ago this coming May. It was the year of Slumdog Millionaire and Wall-E and the first Iron Man. It was the year of Obama Girl. It was the year Emma Watson, Kristen Stewart, and Jennifer Lawrence all turned 18. It was the year when only the second iteration of the iPhone came out. And it was the year Samsung first started looking into maybe making any phone at all.
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was neither hated by critics nor rejected by audiences. It had a 77% score on Rotten Tomatoes, which is higher than Batman v. Superman and Justice League put together. The general consensus was expressed by David Denby of The New Yorker who famously wrote, “‘Crystal Skull’ isn’t bad.”
Financially, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a hit. It made $787 million worldwide, easily clearing it’s $185 million budget. At the time, it was the second largest Memorial Day weekend release ever. It stands today as the 58th highest-grossing film ever, which is a pretty big achievement when you consider that 42 of those movies were made after it. It made more money than Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, and Last Crusade put together.
But don’t be fooled. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was terrible. And it wasn’t terrible in the B-movie way that Steven “Here’s A Movie About a Shark That Doesn’t Work That Will Still Cause You To Wet Yourself” Spielberg wanted. It took 17 years to make. Five writers turned in drafts over the years. It took the cooperation of two studios, Paramount and Lucasfilm, just to fund it. Yet, not only did it not live up to its potential, it bordered on utterly incoherent. It actually spawned the phrase “nuking the fridge“, the phrase people use to discuss plot points so ridiculous that they ruin the enjoyment of the entire movie.
Are there worse movies than Crystal Skull? Of course there are. Are there worse blockbusters? Yes. Are there any other movies that take beloved characters and mangle them in an unforgivable way, squandering twenty-five years of goodwill in two hours? No. They killed Han Solo and it was less upsetting than what they did to Indy.
The movie opens with the Paramount logo, which dissolves into a mound of dirt. A gopher busts out of it and looks around. And if there’s a better metaphor for this movie, I don’t know what it is. Nothing quite turned a mountain into a molehill like Crystal Skull.
An open-top hotrod races over the presumably very confused gopher. There are four teenagers in it having the time of their lives, roaring across the open prairie as teenagers do. They find themselves driving parallel to a convoy of army trucks. They pull up alongside the lead car and challenge the army guy to a race… and he accepts. He races them, briefly pulling away from the rest of the convoy.
We’re ninety seconds into this movie and I already have to throw a flag, and then throw a flag on the flag. I grew up near West Point and actually got to drive on the highway with real military convoys. Do you know how fast those crazy guys go? Exactly the speed limit. Exactly. I’m pretty sure it’s a rule.
But wait, it gets stupider. We’ll find out in a second that these soldiers are actually Russians in disguise. If they’re caught, they start a war. So you would expect that they would try not to do things that would call attention to themselves, like racing a car full of teenagers. Also, nobody on either side is wearing a seatbelt.
The convoy turns down a side road and arrives at a lonely military outpost in, I guess, Nevada. Oh, a little chyron appears on the screen to confirm my suspicions: It’s Nevada and it’s 1957. The guards politely inform them that the base is closed for weapons testing. The convoy soldiers respond by opening fire and killing everybody. Did I mention they aren’t really American?
They continue down a dusty road towards some large hangar-type buildings in the distance. Arriving, they pull two captives out of a car trunk. We don’t quite see one of the men, but he does lose his hat. We watch his shadow as he puts it back on, and then the camera finally pans up. It’s our 29th President, Warren G. Harding. No, it’s not; it’s Indiana Goddamn Jones.
The Russians try to question him. Indy isn’t in the mood to explain anything. They switch to their back-up plan of beating him to death but are stopped by their commander. She reveals herself to be Cate Blanchett, wearing a black bob.
Blanchett is playing sort of a Russian version of the Red Skull. She finds some Mexican artifacts that Indy has on him and crushes them under her boot because this time it’s personal. She gives a little speech setting up her character. She’s Doctor Colonel Irina Spalko. “Three times, I have received Order of Lenin… because I know things.”
Listen, I respect Cate Blanchett, but her accent is just everywhere. The “Order of Lenin” thing was sort of stereotypical Russian, but “I know things” was straight British. It’s all rather extraordinary considering Blanchett is neither of those.
Spalko then tries to read Indy’s mind. He laughs at her when she gets nowhere with her pretend superpower. She gives up. “We will do this… what is expression? Old fashioned way.” For a highly decorated doctor colonel, she really hasn’t gotten the hang of the word “the”. Also, Spalko isn’t in a US military uniform like the forty guys with her who somehow snuck across the border because that used to be a thing that happened. She’s wearing a gray jumpsuit with big, black electrical gloves and a sword. That’s how people dressed in the ’50s, right?
Spalko’s men bust into the military building. Guess what? It’s a huge warehouse filled with endless rows of crates. This is the first time in this movie that I’m really excited. The Ark of the Covenant is in here! Let’s melt some Russians!
The Russians want Indy to help them locate a box. According to them, ten years earlier, Jones was one of the people who examined it. Ten years would have been 1947, long after the events of Raiders. So, they’re not looking for the Ark. That’ll make it all the better when their faces fall off.
Everybody starts to wander into a matte painting of the warehouse. Indy suddenly demands a compass or, failing that, gunpowder. His reason is that the content of the box is “highly magnetized.” Remember that. Highly. Magnetized.
Indy throws a bunch of gunpowder in the air and it all takes off in one big cloud down the warehouse. Hey, just for fun, guess how much metal is in gunpowder. Did you say, “Absolutely none”? Because that’s the answer: Absolutely none.
Guess what else? That’s not how magnets work. The strength of a magnetic field drops so fast that at just 1 meter away, it’s one-trillionth of what it was at 1 millimeter.
Here’s a question I don’t have the answer to: Why is Indy helping them? He just told Spalko to go to hell and now he’s leading the entire field trip. I bet he’s secretly taking them to the Ark so he can melt their bad guy faces with the power of
Adonoi… Hashem… Jew God.
Sure enough, they find a big crate which they pry open to reveal the avenging hand of… it’s just a box. It’s not the Ark. All the metal in the warehouse starts following the box around, including the soldiers’ dog-tags and Spalko’s sword. On the back of a flatbed, they open the box, cut into some rubberized covering, and reveal a mummified hand.
I’d like to learn more about this hand, but Steven “I never apologized for A.I.” Spielberg has other ideas. Indiana makes his move, punching a Russian and starting the movie’s first action sequence. He even uses his whip to grab a rifle out of somebody’s hands. He threatens to kill Spalko if they don’t drop their guns. They choose not to because Indy’s friend, Mac, has put a gun to Indy’s back. You remember Mac, right? He was in the trunk at the beginning and has sort of been off on the side up until now.
Indy asks Mac why he’s helping the Russians and the reason, unsurprisingly, is money. I don’t know what they paid him for. He didn’t know anything. And the fact that he steps in now is due more to chance than any sort of planning. In any case, there are now forty-one guys aiming weapons at Harrison Ford.
The only other Russian with a speaking part tells Indy to throw down his gun. When he does, it goes off. This startles the Russians so badly that they all scramble and begin shooting wildly. They don’t hold their positions. They don’t just shoot the one guy who’s not on their side. For spies on a top-secret mission deep inside US territory, they appear to have had very little training.
Anyway, there’s a big chase scene with the Indiana Jones music and everything. Spalko is driving the truck with the mummy things through the warehouse. Indy runs across crates, swings from his whip, and fails to catch her. Instead, he falls through a windshield and has a fistfight with the driver of another truck. So, this is basically what Indiana Jones calls a Wednesday.
Indy briefly gets control of a truck long enough to crash it into a wall of crates. Out of one of them spills the Ark! It’s the Ark! Get ready to have your faces melted, Russian scum… What? That’s the whole Ark cameo? It doesn’t do anything and the Russians never even notice it? Well, this is just great. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull played me like a piano.
Jones and a second big Russian fall through a skylight [?] in the back of the warehouse into what appears to be some sort of control room. Indy kicks the Russian into a panel and accidentally activates a 30-second countdown. The two men end up fighting atop a rocket-sled on railroad tracks. That’s what the US army was working on in 1957: the land speed record. Just as the other Russians get there, the countdown hits zero and Indy and the Russian dude go rocketing out across the Nevada desert.
The sled comes to a stop and Indy runs away. That’s all that happens. That’s the whole things the sled is about. It took five writers 17 years to come up with this.
Whatever. Spalko uses the opportunity to drive away with that mummy. By the way, it’s taking a break from being magnetized for now. It isn’t pulling her sword anymore, let alone interfering with the truck engine or anybody’s guns. And this is basically how the whole movie is going to go: Everything that happens is sort of okay but you can see—you can actually see—the better movie that could have been.
Coming up next: I have no idea. I’m watching the movie for the first time in ten years. I hope it’s not the ants. Please, Jew God, don’t let it be the ants.