Was the world too harsh on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Quite possibly – and here are a few thoughts.
Spoilers lie ahead.
It is becoming increasingly apparent with the passage of time that we collectively suffered some kind of mass hysteria around Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
While critical notices and box office were healthier than you might remember back in 2008, popular culture simply wasn’t ready for an older Harrison Ford, a weathered, middle-aged Indy, and the cultural advancement from the serial adventure Nazi-butt kicking derring-do of the 1930s to the atomic age 1950s, a world of rock’n’roll, B-movie science-fiction and brewing youth counterculture.
It came out, in retrospect, at a turning point for cinematic culture. 2008 was the same year Iron Man kickstarted the Marvel Cinematic Universe, giving birth to the franchise in its current form and in no small part leading Disney down a path of both reviving Star Wars, and putting a final Indiana Jones film in play beyond Crystal Skull, despite the largely negative fan response. Though flanked by superhero movies and CGI-fests, Crystal Skull is resolutely old fashioned in how Steven Spielberg directs.
Granted, there are problems. The script is flawed. Attempts at comedy and one-liners quite often falter. The acerbic, screwball, middle-aged reunion between Indy and Karen Allen’s Marion is teeth-grinding at first, and only just manages to recover. Shia LeBeouf, though not as bad as some credit him, is a bit miscast as Mutt – a character few were ever destined to like. Despite an absolute solid-gold opening 40 minutes that is up there with the series’ best (Indy swinging through Area 51 is amazing, as is the mad brilliance of the ‘nuke the fridge’ sequence), the plot then meanders as it spirals down to South America and the whole thing never entirely recovers.
Yet despite all of this, it looks fantastic most of the time. Spielberg really captures vistas – take the open Nevada plains at the beginning, the elegance of the Barnett College chase, or even the climactic Akator spacecraft launching visual. It’s not all practical, sure, but Spielberg’s canvas is epic in these moments, and he’s backed again by another memorable score by John Williams – even if it fails to hit the heights of the original trilogy.
Plus a great supporting cast – a wonderfully pantomime Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone in full cock-er-ney mode, John Hurt all bonkers quoting Milton (and I can’t get enough of him delivering in his rich tones “Henry Jones… Junior!”), Jim Broadbent stepping in for the late Denholm Elliott. It retains a visual and tonal consistency with, I think, particularly Last Crusade and an elegance we failed to fully appreciate 15 years ago.
One notable, major aspect of Crystal Skull to me is how clearly it wears its politics on its sleeve, befitting perhaps its arrival in a more polarised era, in the shadow of a Great Recession. This is opposed to the bombast of blockbuster Reaganite excess the original trilogy embodied in the 1980s, where it would touch on colonialism and fascism (who can forget Indy in the “lion’s den” of 1938 Berlin getting the Grail diary signed by one Adolf Hitler?), while never directly being about those things. Here, set toward the end of the ‘50s, Indy is painted as a suspected Communist as, for the first time in the series, the existential threat comes home. Forgive me if I delve into this a bit because I think there’s quite some riches here.
When Indy is recovered by the US Army, having miraculously survived the blast and indeed any serious radiation exposure from the fallout, he is questioned by the FBI and treated like an enemy within, given how he was forced to aid and abet the Russian officers.
It doesn’t matter if Indy served during World War II, was highly decorated and worked for the OSS on top secret missions (can you imagine how amazing a TV series set in this period could be?). He nonetheless could be a ‘Red’: “Not everyone in the Army’s a Commie and certainly not Indy.” So, claims Indy’s wartime friend and high ranking General Ross (Alan Dale), countering the suspicion of an FBI fuelled by the paranoia of their powerful leader J. Edgar Hoover and the influence of the Senator Joseph McCarthy HUAC hearings at the time. Hearings designed to smoke out suspected Communist insiders in American culture and society, a witch-hunt that saw numerous writers and academics blacklisted from working in their positions for many years, even without hard evidence. The FBI issues a warning they end up making good on: “Dr. Jones, let’s just say for now that you are of interest to the Bureau. Of great interest.”
Even despite a HUAC hearing, Indy too ends up blacklisted as the FBI target his profession and his colleagues at Barnett, associate Dean Charles Stanforth. Charles understands the bigger picture and is forced to resign: “I barely recognize this country anymore. The government’s got us seeing Communists in our soup. When the hysteria reaches academia, I guess it’s time to call it a career.” Charles laments how Indy is theoretically being ran out of America to teach in the more tolerant Europe, despite his years of service and professional record. This too seems prescient. Swop out Communists for Socialists or Activists and you could be describing the America of 2023.
The Russians make a logical villain for the year 1957, and in Crystal Skull they replace the Nazis step for step in the earlier pictures. Colonel Dr. Irina Spalko (a wonderfully pantomime Cate Blanchett) could be Rene Belloq or Walter Donovan (or indeed Jurgen Voller). Her aims are the same. She seeks power and secrets. She has no moral issue with working for dictators and mass murderers (she is described by Ross to Indy as “Stalin’s fair-haired girl”) and she wears her Russian decorations with honour. “Three times I have received Order of Lenin. Also medal as Hero of Socialist Labor.” There’s that word again – Socialist.
The difference with Spalko is that whereas Belloq sought the power of God, and Donovan sought immortality, she seeks pure knowledge. Blanchett probably intentionally invokes Greta Garbo as she begs the creature in the climactic moments how “I want to know! I want to know!” with a husky Russian accent. Like her forebear villains, she too is destroyed for her hubris, as the alien creature—quite malevolently—wipes her from existence before she can utilise the knowledge she gains.
What’s interesting about Spalko’s aspiration is how it tracks with the basis of collectivisation at the heart of extreme Communist doctrine. She quotes Oppenheimer’s “I am become death” from the Bhagavad Gita back to Indy, suggesting while America have created the ultimate physical weapon, she believes the knowledge from the skull will bestow the Russians with the power to control minds. Stalin dreamed of a collectivised project of labour through pure Communist doctrine, with the people given the same level of resources, while he corrupted that system to give him exorbitant wealth, power and societal control, starving millions in the process.
This is what Americans were taught to fear. This is why Indy and Mutt, fleeing KGB agents in Barnett College, drive through a counter-demonstration of nuclear disarmament students on the one hand and students with banners declaring ‘Better Dead than Red’ on the other. Spalko seeks the means of control. “Imagine. To peer across the world and know the enemy’s secrets. To place our thoughts into the minds of your leaders. Make your teachers teach the true version of history, your soldiers attack on our command. We’ll be everywhere at once, more powerful than a whisper, invading your dreams, thinking your thoughts for you while you sleep. We will change you, Dr. Jones, all of you, from the inside. We will turn you into us. And the best part? You won’t even know it’s happening.” The ultimate existential American terror encapsulated in what Spalko seeks to find. The erosion and corruption of self from within.
Remember, the very first scene in Crystal Skull is a car filled with exuberant ’50s American teenagers, careering across the desert to the sounds of Elvis’ ‘Hound Dog’ blaring from the radio, as they race the Russians–pretending to be Americans–for fun. They are the epitome of youthful American expression and individualism at the beginning of an age of counterculture.
We see it again with how Mutt stages a bar fight between his Marlon Brando-style comrades in their leathers and shades, riding their American steeds like they’re all in The Wild One, against the strait-laced college boys in their identical jackets. America breathes individualism. It’s telling that the excited young Russian driver gets a shake of the head from his older passenger when promised with the chance to race these cocky, free American kids. But he does it anyway. He feels, in that moment, the pull of precisely what Spalko is here to destroy. Identity.
In what is surely a joke by writer David Koepp, Winstone’s swarthy British spiv George McHale suggests his reasons for betraying Indy are thanks to the Russians. “I’m a capitalist. And they pay”. The irony isn’t subtle, nor lost. It speaks to how you could, kindly, suggest Spalko is some kind of extremist renegade, as we never see her receive Russian orders from a superior, but there is no suggestion she isn’t. The Russians are seeking their way to tip the balance of the Cold War, to overcome Mutually Assured Destruction, and they almost manage to harness pseudoscientific psychic warfare—something the Russians and Americans genuinely experimented in during this period—to do it.
In this sense, Crystal Skull might be the most political of the Indiana Jones films even while operating as the least historical and most secular, eschewing Christian mythology and belief in favour of red scares and the reality of “spacemen from Mars” as Indy wonders. “Inter-dimensional beings in point of fact” contradicts Dr. Oxley. Pseudoscience and pseudopolitics, it seems, are not mutually exclusive in the world of Henry Jones. Jr.
All of these aspects make Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a picture not only ripe for analysis but ripe for rediscovery. We were too harsh on it. Whether the arrival of Indy’s final adventure changes that perception, time will tell.
Also on Film Stories:
Celebrating the music of the Indiana Jones films
Indiana Jones: spoiler-filled thoughts on Indiana Jones & The Dial of Destiny
Indiana Jones revisited: it’s time for Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade
Indiana Jones revisited: 1984’s Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom
Indiana Jones revisited: heading back to Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
Podcast: In conversation with James Mangold: Indiana Jones & The Dial Of Destiny, Girl Interrupted and more
Podcast: Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008) and The Girl With All The Gifts (2016)
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