While Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull retains many of the qualities that raised its predecessors to legendary heights, it takes things a step or two beyond the line of credibility.
It’s 1957. Upon arrival at a secret army base in Nevada, Indiana Jones is pulled from the back of a car where he’s confronted by the nuclear age’s answer to the Nazis—Soviets. Leading the Soviets is the rapier-wielding Irena Spalko. She represents a speculative arm of Soviet muscle, implying an inclination to telepathy in her service to the Motherland. Her men have commandeered the base and they want Jones to help them find a secret weapon hidden inside the base’s warehouse. It’s something they say he’s seen before, something very powerful, and not of this world.
Everything that follows from this moment bears resemblance to the universe of Indiana Jones much the same way the Star Wars prequels bear resemblance to the original trilogy. This is a film that plays light with the integrity of its story and more heavily on its fantastic elements. Story’s like this breach the line of credibility all the time. Usually, the strength of the story’s characters help the audience have an easier time crossing over. Call it “suspension of belief” or what have you, but the point remains: the film has to create the illusion of truth or reality. Crystal Skull carries all the magic of its predecessors, it just fails to cast a spell.
In the intervening time between the mid 90s and the new century, the machine responsible for producing Indy’s adventures went through a period of … flux. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg grew into very different men from the ones who sat around a table with Lawrence Kasdan to figure out Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg’s films have lost the sense of play that seemed to fall into just the right places in the tales he told. Most of his films since Schindler’s List have landed on a more mature, serious plain. Even The Adventures of Tin Tin, which looked like a call back to the Saturday matinée thrills of yore, kept that sense of play at arm’s length.
Returning to the world of Indiana Jones should have felt like coming home. Parts of it do. When Karen Allen emerges, you can’t help but smile. Marion Ravenwood was Indy’s first, best partner. Bringing her back just feels right, even if she seems to have lost the biting edge that was the best part of her charm. The film even includes a nice spin on a charming moment from Last Crusade. Indy earned some modest disapproval from his father as he eliminated two Nazi thugs riding motorcycles. When Mutt (Shia LeBoeuf) levels a part of the college campus in Crystal Skull, it’s Indy’s turn to play the wisened old man casting disapproval toward destructive youth. It’s a great moment.
The world of Indiana Jones plays right into Spielberg’s strengths—the seriousness, the awe and profundity of the supernatural. Harrison Ford owns this character. There will never be another Indy. Ford was born to play the role more than Christopher Reeve was born to play Superman. Yet this fourth adventure lacks the spark that even the weakest moments of Indy’s previous adventures seemed to kindle. And it’s not for lack of trying. When Indy emerges from that refrigerator and looks up at the mushroom cloud blooming above him, we know adventure has a name.
So what’s the problem? The short answer: the script. Not Shia LeBeouf. Not the Soviets. Not the nuked fridge. Not even the aliens. Crystal Skull suffers from a poorly developed story.
Previous Indy films always did go a little over the top. Best (worst?) example would be Temple of Doom‘s Willie Scott. But Spielberg found ways to reign in the more fantastic elements by elevating the human drama at play. He could stretch the incredible just far enough past the edge without breaking the tension of belief suspension. Aristotle wrote in Poetics that, “the probable impossible is always preferable to the improbable possible.” Crystal Skull leans too heavily in the direction of the improbable possible. When Nazis unearth the Ark of the Covenant only to have their faces melted off, we can accept it. For some reason, however, it’s harder to believe a guy can swing through the jungle like Tarzan and catch up to a jeep traveling over 40 miles an hour. It’s harder to believe this same kid can get into a sword fight whilst balanced precariously between two such jeeps. And it’s much hard to believe the kid’s mother can drive said jeep over a cliff and onto the truck of a tree, avoiding capture and leading her friends to safety.
Any serious-minded viewer could look at any action movie and say “yeah right.” So why don’t we? When Bruce Willis jumps off the top of Nakatomi tower, why aren’t we laughing? When Indiana Jones is dragged behind a truck after getting shot in the arm, why aren’t we throwing rocks at the screen? Because we believe it’s happening. It matters. Shia LeBeouf swinging through the jungle doesn’t matter, it just looks silly.
Aside from the ridiculous set pieces, the film betrays its own internal logic. After escaping the evil Soviets at the close of the film’s first act, the American government suspects Indy could be a spy. He’s placed on a leave of absence from the university, professionally defeated. We assume he goes on this adventure to clear his name in some respect. That never occurs, however. Indy returns home and his position has been reinstated, the government’s suspicions allayed by some unseen miracle.
The film that became Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull spent years in so-called development hell waiting for an opportunity to breathe. Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile) spent a year working on a script under Spielberg’s guidance called Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods. That script bears some similarity to the final film. For whatever reason—another in a long list of strange and vexing creative decisions—George Lucas rejected Darabont’s script.
No one can really say Darabont’s script would have nailed the movie everyone had in their heads. This is the movie business. As William Goldman said, nobody really knows anything. Filmmaking is a world of enormous pressure. Fan pressure, studio pressure, maybe even talent pressure, all pushed to get this film made. So Spielberg went to his reliable closer: David Koepp. Koepp did his job—he did what he was told, wrote a film that satisfied the man signing his paycheck, and he did it quickly.
The final moments of The Last Crusade saw Indiana riding off into the sunset, a fitting end for a hero. This is a sequel no one needed. But we asked for it. The good news is that even the empty magic of the crystal skull can’t extinguish Indy’s longevity. Adventure still has a name.
Just ask Disney.
Story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson
David Koepp (including uncredited material by Frank Darabont)
Directed by Steven Spielberg