The first three Indiana Jones movies all released within the 1980’s. I don’t remember where I read this theory from, but there’s a theory where film sequels should either be released within 5 years of its predecessor, or at least 20 years later. It’s an interesting theory, and one could say that the Die Hard franchise is a fantastic example of this theory playing out. The second released 2 years after the first, and while it’s not as good, it’s still fun. The third released just within 5 years of the second, and while I didn’t like it much on my first viewing, it’s become a close second to the original for me. Die Hard 4 released 12 years later, and its reception was mixed. Die Hard 5 released 6 years after 4, and it was panned hard. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull released in 2008, 19 years after The Last Crusade. Take from that what you will.
The fourth entry in the Indiana Jones series debuted to generally positive reviews, but it was also highly polarizing. It’s not only the only Indiana Jones movie to not earn any Academy Awards (5 Oscars for Raiders, Visual Effects for Temple, and Sound Editing for Crusade), but it wasn’t even nominated. It did however get nominated for the Visual Effects Society’s Best Single Visual Effect of the Year award (for the valley destruction sequence), among a couple others. It won Best Costumes at the Saturn Awards, and John Williams earned a Grammy for his soundtrack. Of course, it also won the Razzie Award for Worst Prequel, Remake, Rip-off or Sequel. Crystal Skull earned $786 million on a $185 million budget. It was the second highest earning movie of 2008, behind The Dark Knight.
It’s hard to measure what the general audience reaction has been over time. For the most part, this seems to be the forgotten entry in the series. I personally know people who hated it, and I also personally know people who enjoyed it. But before I get into my personal thoughts, let’s get into this movie’s backstory.
Way back in the late 1970’s, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg signed a deal for five Indiana Jones films with Paramount Pictures. However after the third film, Lucas let the series end, as he felt he couldn’t think of a good story for a fourth entry. He chose instead to produce The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV series, exploring Indy’s early years. Harrison Ford played Indiana in one episode, narrating one of his young adventures. When Lucas shot Ford’s appearance in 1992, he realized there could be potential for a film taking place in the 50’s with an older Indiana Jones.
Lucas quickly went to the idea of reflecting science fiction B-movies from the 50’s, the same way that the first three movies echoed adventure films from the 30’s. Spielberg resisted the idea of course, seeing how he directed both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Ford disliked the angle entirely, saying “No way am I being in a Steven Spielberg movie like that.” Lucas came up with a story anyway. After he learned that Joseph Stalin actively researched psychic warfare, he chose the Soviets as the villains, and the aliens would have psychic powers. Months after Last Crusade writer Jeffrey Boam wrote a script, Independence Day released, and Spielberg insisted that he wouldn’t make another alien invasion movie. At that point, Lucas decided to focus on the Star Wars prequels.
In a 2000 interview, Spielberg admitted that his children constantly asked when he would make the next Indiana Jones film, and that he planned on reviving the project soon. That same year, Lucas, Ford, Spielberg, producer Frank Marshall, and current Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy met during the American Film Institute’s tribute to Ford. They all decided they wanted to make another Indiana Jones film. Spielberg had directed a number of dark films lately, including A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report and Munich, and wanted to direct something fun movie for a change. That’s when Lucas convinced Spielberg to use aliens, when he described them as interdimensional instead of extraterrestrial. Lucas also suggested using crystal skulls, finding them just as fascinating as the Ark of the Covenant. He even planned to use them in the Young Indiana Jones series, but that was cancelled too soon.
At one point in 2002, one of the writers from Young Indiana Jones wrote a script titled Indiana Jones and the City of Gods. It was set in the 50’s, with ex-Nazis pursuing Jones. Spielberg liked the idea, as it paralleled Juan Peron in Argentina who protected Nazi war criminals. Lucas had issues with the script though, and Spielberg ultimately decided against satirizing Nazis after directing Schindler’s List. Ford added “We plumb wore the Nazis out.”
Multiple writers worked on the script, with the movie title going from “The Atomic Ants” to “Destroyer of Worlds”, until they landed on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. David Koepp ended up as the final writer for the movie, although Raiders scriptwriter Lawrence Kasdan helped on the film’s “love dialogue”.
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the only movie in the franchise to be filmed entirely in the United States, because Spielberg didn’t want to be away from his family for too long. Locations include New Mexico, Yale University (where Spielberg’s son Theo was studying at the time), the biggest movie shot in Hawaii since Waterworld, the Universal backlot, and sound stages in Los Angeles. The only shot in the movie filmed outside of the United States was of the Iguaza Falls in Brazil and Argentina, shot by a second unit director and digitally combined with a chase scene.
Fun fact – the Ark of the Covenant cameo in the movie is the exact same ark built for the first movie. They hired guards to protect the highly sought-after film memorabilia on the day it was shot.
The original plan was to use as little CGI as possible, relying on stunts, practical sets and timed explosives. During one take in the warehouse fight, an explosive failed to detonate and landed beside Ford in his truck. Thankfully it remained unexploded and nobody got injured. That said, they ended up using CGI much more than initially planned. Most usage of CGI amounted to digital matte paintings, but the jungle chase was also mostly CGI, as it would have been unsafe to film a chase scene in an actual jungle. The second unit film squad took photographs of the Amazon that were composited into the final images.
Returning actors Ford and Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood are clearly having fun returning to their roles. Their chemistry is just as strong as in the first movie, where they clearly love each other, but they’ve got issues to work through. Sean Connery was offered to cameo as Henry Jones Sr. but turned down the role as he found retirement too enjoyable. Connery later stated that he enjoyed the film, calling it “rather good and rather long.” Because Marcus Broody’s actor (Denholm Elliott) passed away in 1992, they addressed both their absences by implying both characters died between films. On that note, Michael Sheard, who portrayed Adolf Hitler in the third film, expressed interest in appearing again, but he passed away in 2005.
The most prominent new cast member is Shia LaBeouf as Mutt Williams, a motorcycle-riding greaser who is later revealed to be Indiana’s son. LaBeouf was so excited to be in the film, he signed on without reading the script or knowing who he would portray. I know LaBeouf has a reputation for being both an annoying actor on-screen, and being an idiot in real life, but he’s not bad in this movie. I also like how he has the same kinds of issues with his father as Indiana had with his own. He injured his rotator cuff while filming a sword duel – an injury that worsened over time. That was actually his first injury in his acting career. He also pulled his groin.
Cate Blanchett plays Irina Spalko, the main villain. Blanchett had wanted to play a villain for a couple of years, and enjoyed being part of the Indiana Jones legacy that she enjoyed in her teenage years. She’s clearly having fun in her role, and Spielberg even described Irina as his favourite villain in the series, noting that Blanchett came up with a lot of the Irina’s characteristics herself. Of her performance, Ford noted “There’s no aspect of her behavior that was not consistent with this bizarre person she’s playing.”
John Hurt plays an old friend of Indiana’s and a surrogate father to Mutt, and his performance as someone who’s completely lost this mind is entertaining. Jim Broadbent plays the dean at the University Indiana is teaching at, essentially replacing Marcus Brody. His role is fairly dignified, and you buy that he and Indiana are fairly close.
Anyway, it’s time for my thoughts, and this is going to be hard to sum up. I get why a lot of people don’t like this movie, but personally I think it’s alright. I enjoyed watching it when it first released, and although I’ve only seen Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a couple of times since, I still enjoy it now. Crystal Skull does a good job at capturing the general spirit and tone of Raiders and Last Crusade, with a good mix of action, adventure and comedy.
I’m not bothered one bit by this movie’s science fiction angle, as opposed to the mostly religious artifacts in the earlier films. Not only is that a reflection of what was popular in the decade the movie is based in, but Indiana even states at one point in the movie, “It depends on who your god is.” The interdimensional alien angle is weird, but it has little bearing on the story itself or the characters within.
The action feels similar to the first three movies. There’s a mix of more down to earth fight scenes, sillier moments that are meant to be fun, and some over the top stunts in some of the more tense moments. It strikes a similar balance as The Last Crusade, in that there’s always at least a little sense of danger in each fight scene, mixed with comedy bits to lighten the mood.
With all that said, this is easily the silliest movie in the franchise, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Most of the weird comedy in early movies involved clumsy villains, unexpected weapons and tools, and Indy’s nonchalant attitude. This movie throws in a bunch of CGI animals for reaction shots, and there’s even a completely out of place moment where Mutt is swinging on vines, with dozens of monkeys joining him. The fire ants don’t bother me, except when they start climbing on each other to build towers.
At the same time, I’m not really going to complain about the “nuking the fridge” scene. Yes, getting thrown that violently will most likely break a number of bones in your body, and yes, standing that close to a nuclear explosion so soon after would kill you from the heat alone. But all four Indiana Jones movies feature at least one moment that would be impossible to survive in real life. In Raiders, he apparently survives hundreds of miles underwater while holding onto a German submarine. In Temple of Doom, there’s no way the inflatable raft would have survived that big of a drop, let alone the three people on the raft. Mythbusters said in a 2005 episode that it’s scientifically implausible to survive such a drop. In The Last Crusade, hanging on the gun on the tank wouldn’t actually be a problem. He’d merely need to let go of the bag, drop off, and then climb back onto the tank from behind. He was also way too close the boat explosion in the second part of the prologue.
By comparison, Lucas assembled a dossier of research data, with the help of scientists, and apparently the odds of surviving a nuclear blast in a heavily led-lined refrigerator is about 50-50. I’m not sure I buy that, but I find the fridge scene easier to accept than the raft scene in Temple of Doom. Both Lucas and Spielberg claimed they came up with the “silly idea”, Spielberg even stating he was proud of it. “I’m glad I was able to bring that into popular culture”, referring to the “nuking the fridge” term that went viral for a while. They both possibly took credit to defend the other.
Regardless of whether you enjoy this movie or not, most people tend to agree that the odd-numbered Indiana Jones movies are the better two, making this series the reverse of the Star Trek movies. Personally, I enjoy it, and I don’t have any major problems with the story direction this movie took. It’s my least favourite of the Jones movies and it’s the one I’ve seen the least, but it’s still got enough charm to override its faults for me. Like Temple of Doom, I’d give this a cautionary recommendation for those who haven’t seen it yet.
There is a fifth movie in the works. It was originally planned for a 2019 release, but was delayed to 2020, and again to 2021. I hope two things. One, that they make this fifth movie, and two, it follows the same pattern of the odd-numbered movies being better than the even numbered. It’s been confirmed that Mutt won’t return, and considering how LaBeouf’s reputation has gone way downhill lately, that’s probably a good thing. But considering how Spielberg’s been making a lot of great movies lately, chances are the fifth Indiana Jones should at least be entertaining.