Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), a recap (part 1 of 8)

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.

Pictured: The 2008 Samsung Galaxy 3G

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.”

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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.

After Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the Smithsonian asked if they could give the costume back.

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.

“I’m alright. Don’t nobody worry ’bout me.”

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?

“Emergency! Everybody to get from street!”

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.

“If I play my cards right, in ten years I could be an MCU villain.”

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?

Dress swords were all the rage in Milan that year.

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.

Aw, Mom, my Nazi melted.

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.

This should clear everything up.

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 AdonoiHashem… 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.

Audience! Close your eyes, audience!

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.

Jordon Davis

B.A. Political Science, SUNY Albany - 1991
Master of Public Administration, University of Georgia - 1993
Juris Doctorate, Emory University - 1996

State of Georgia - 1996
State of New York - 1997

Fields Medal (with Laurent Lafforgue and Vladimir Voevodsky) - 1998

Follow Jordon at @LossLeader on Twitter.

Multi-Part Article: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a recap

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  • William Wehrs

    What’s sad about this whole opening sequence is it is the best action scene in the movie. The swinging on lights is kind of cool, and I enjoyed the acknowledgments of Indiana Jones’s age. From here on, however, the action is pretty mundane. Therefore, as the movie goes on, you just slowly feel more and more deflated. This is also the best scene in the move, even apart from action, as there are no annoying comic relief characters like there are in the second half.

  • Greenhornet

    The “Nuke Town” scene COULD have been a whole lot better without any problem. Here’s a solution I came up with just five minutes after Indy crawled out of the Frigidaire that would have been more in keeping with it’s cliffhanger roots:

    Indiana Jones in a town that’s about to be bombed. We hear the count-down and see him running through a house, looking for a way out.
    As the count goes below ten, he opens a door and runs into a passageway.
    CUT TO: bomb, then to a long shot of the town.
    “Three. Two. One.” BOOM!
    NEXT SCENE: A couple of solders in radiation gear are checking out the wreckage. One says that nothing could live through the blast. The other says they have to check out the BOMB SHELTER built for the test.
    And that’s where we find Indy, sitting on a bunk, eating a can of beans and saying something like “About time you dug me out”.

    • Greenhornet

      Just a by the way, in answer to your “metal in gunpowder” question, in WW2, TNT was boosted with aluminum powder to make “torpex”. I’m just trying to give the movie the benefit of the doubt here, American grenades used “nitro starch” or “EC flakes”, not torpex.
      Also, they use 1950’s LEAD buckshot in this scene. Come on, movie! At least try!

  • Tyler Peterson

    Thank you for explaining fuckin’ magnets and how they work

  • PhysUnknown

    Someone far more clever than me could write an entire thesis on the way Movie Magnets work differently than real-life magnets.

    I would also love to be able to re-wire my brain such that I could swap this and Temple of Doom in my personal movie history. Temple was the first Indiana Jones movie I saw in the theater – I hadn’t even seen all of Raiders at that point (I think I was 6 when Temple came out. In the years between Temple and Last Crusade, I watched Raiders and Temple a bunch (pretty sure Temple was on HBO a lot). Saw Last Crusade in the theater, then owned them all on VHS and watched them repeatedly.

    Saw Crystal Skulls in the theater and hated it. People have argued with me that it is not any worse than Temple of Doom, and that my preference for the 2nd movie over the 4th is based on little more than nostalgia. Maybe I’m not objective enough to compare the two, but the thing is I WANTED to love this movie, and I just didn’t. It was very meh. If they took out the theme music, the whip and hat, and made this a generic 50s action/adventure movie starring Ford as an aging swashbuckler and Shia as his begrudging protege, it might be enjoyable – though still not great. As an Indiana Jones movie, though, it’s the one I am least likely to ever watch again.

  • marsden

    The thing that bothered me the most about this movie was it kept trying to remind me of the earlier movies. I thought it was a really nice touch showing “the warehouse” but then having the crate broken open to show the ark completely ruined it. In the beginning anyone who’s seen the first movie, at least, would recognize it and it’s a really nice callback, but then when the ark is partially exposed, it’s no longer a callback, it’s a distraction, it’s as if Speilberg stopped the film, walked in front of the screen and pointed and screamed “Look, Look!, See!” Ugh. But that’s pretty much how the whole movie was. Remember the time Indy was fighting with guys driving a moving truck? Remember when Indy fell over a waterfall? Remember when that fantastic thing happened at the end of the movie? It just seemed like they were trying to make a parody of an Indiana Jones movie.

    I didn’t hate the movie but it’s easily the worst of the four and very forgettable. I had low expectations going in so I wasn’t sorry I watched on tv 9 1/2 years after it came out, but I’m 99% sure I will never watch it again. I’ve seen Raiders more times than I can count and the other two several times, for context.