In 1989 the sun set on the Indiana Jones series as Steven Spielberg completed his three-film obligation to Lucas’ pulpy old-school franchise. They found the perfect ending as Indiana Jones rode off content and happy, having chosen his relationship with his family over his thirst for knowledge. So everyone went their separate ways, Lucas moved toward his Star Wars prequel trilogy, and Spielberg kicked into a new, more mature phase of his career. The story of Indiana Jones continued through other media, on TV through the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and various video games, novels, and comic books. It seemed that Indiana Jones as we knew him was over, but not for Harrison Ford, who maintained a strong career but yearned for another archeological adventure. His continued enthusiasm for the character eventually brought George Lucas back on board, yet no progress wasto be made until the very reluctant Spielberg signed on. Eventually, he caved, and in the early 2000s, work properly began on a fourth film – Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
For this new entry, Lucas and Spielberg knew that they had to do something different; everyone was older, and Indiana Jones couldn’t be punching Nazis on the cusp of World War 2 anymore. They had to age him up and move the timeline forward, which given Ford’s age, meant setting the story in the 1950s. But that begs the question, who is Indiana Jones in the 1950s? For Lucas, the answer to that question came in shifting the aesthetic influences from the serials of the 1930s to their 1950s equivalent, the B movie. It was the atomic age – science fiction, irradiated monsters, and aliens from outer space were in and often melded with the tales of ancient tombs and
Studios like RKO and directors like William Castle made movies that took a similar position to those serials in American culture; cheap, frivolous, seemingly disposable entertainment. These films often shared a lot of common themes; fear of communism, atomic warfare, and psychological control are three prominent examples also present in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The goal was to lean into this different era and make the story explicitly about Indiana Jones confronting a changing age. Early titles like Indiana Jones and the Saucermen From Mars made it very clear that this was always going to be a different movie.
Spielberg was unsure and was ultimately less keen on the idea of Indiana Jones encountering aliens and UFOs, but eventually relented. The film underwent more rewrites and revisions, becoming the film we know and love today, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
This switch to the 50s is immediately evident in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s opening moments, with a race between Soviet soldiers disguised in US government vehicles and some teenagers goofing off in a hotrod, clearly evoking Lucas’ American Grafitti. Now that the series is set in an era Spielberg and Lucas were alive to see, there’s a palpable sense of rosy nostalgia just seeping off every frame. Spielberg’s camera is now under the control of a different director of photography, as Douglas Slocombe had retired – instead, Spielberg’s recurring DP, Janusz Kaminski, takes up the task. Spielberg’s experience with Kaminski has given him new confidence, as Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the Indiana Jones franchise at its most dynamic and fluid. Spielberg has always been known for his oners that subtly combine multiple compositions in one shot – but here that’s pushed further than the original trilogy, with every shot flowing into the next.
There’s a lucidity and kineticism to Crystal Skull’s opening act that makes it incredibly thrilling, it’s like time hadn’t passed at all. Even Ford, who, while visibly older, hasn’t lost a step, he’s still tough and capable, but his age gives him an increased sense of vulnerability and experience. It’s the same old Indy, but it’s clear that things are also changing as he finds himself surrounded by technology he wouldn’t have dreamed of back in the 30s. Indy starts among the familiar, dusty old crates full of relics and historical artifacts, including the Ark of the Covenant. As the scene progresses though, Indy stumbles into an experimental piece of propulsive technology. We start with something relatively familiar before Indy, a relic of an older era, is literally strapped to a rocket and shot into 50s America.
What follows is perhaps the most derided scene of the entire film, with a moment that became synonymous with jumping the shark, where Indiana Jones escapes a nuclear blast in a lead-lined fridge. And you know what? It rules, and it’s not only the best sequence in the film but among the best sequences in the entire series. It’s silly and ridiculous, but that’s what these movies have always been. Indy is a pulp adventure hero – these movies aren’t even attempting realism. I just can’t understand how anyone can really hate this sequence. Desperately trying to find a place to survive a Nuke is a terrifying scenario, and Spielberg has a lot of fun juxtaposing the dusty-raged old Indy with classic 50s Americana. It’s a genuinely surreal sequence featuring colors and hues that have never been seen in this franchise, Indy may as well be an alien stumbling onto another planet.
The sequence acts as the catalyst for the rest of the film as Indy is confronted with a weapon of destructive power equal to the Ark of the Covenant, but now man-made, in the form of the atomic bomb. The image of the iconic silhouette of Indiana Jones framed against a large, foreboding mushroom cloud is one of the single greatest images of Spielberg’s career, and does so much to establish that he’s found himself in a very different world.
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is different, not just in its aesthetics, but also in the moral ambiguity of its story and characters. The opening sequence introduces us to our primary antagonists, the Soviets. Villains who could have been an easy stand-in for the Nazis, but are proven to be virtually indistinguishable from Indy’s apparent allies. As the film progresses, Indy finds his life under attack both by the Russian and American governments. First, he is fired from his job at Marshall College under suspicion of Communist allegiance. And second, he’s chased by the KGB, whom Indy initially thought was FBI. The world of the original trilogy was largely black and white; Indy fought Nazis and evil cultists, primal, pure forces of evil, he always knew who the bad guys were.
But the 1950s of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull presents a far more morally ambiguous world, no doubt representative of Lucas and Spielberg’s maturity since the last film and their frustration with the US government’s actions following 9/11. This just isn’t a story of easy delineations between good and evil anymore, most easily seen in Ray Winstone’s Mac. Mac plays on Indy’s greatest weakness, a flaw easily exploited in this new age, his naivety and willingness to trust others. Mac’s allegiance is constantly shifting, at one time working with Irina Spalko and the Soviets and the next with Indy’s crew. Indy questions if he’s a triple agent, but the truth is that Mac is just a capitalist. He allies himself with whoever will net him the most profit. In this world, Indy’s allies and enemies can switch at a moment’s notice, all for the allure of treasure and wealth.
These conflicts of ambiguity come to a head when Indy meets his son (although he doesn’t know it yet), Mutt Williams. And Mutt is also a point of harsh criticism against this film, not helped by the fact that his introduction has Shia Lebouf riding in on a motorcycle, not at all subtly evoking Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones. But that evocation is not done lightly or without intent because Mutt is in every way his father’s son. Mutt has modeled himself on a piece of 50s popular culture – not dissimilar to how Indiana Jones modeled himself on the adventurer he met when he was a boy at the beginning of the Last Crusade.
If Indy is a hero harkening back to the serial adventurers, Mutt is his 50s equivalent, or he at least tries to be. Spielberg called Mutt a boyman, a young boy trying his hardest to act cool and tough, something Indy himself points out when he tells Mutt, “You don’t have to get sore all the time just to prove how tough you are.” Mutt isn’t a greaser, he’s just a kid pretending to be a greaser. He essentially plays the role Indy played with his own father in The Last Crusade, a manchild desperately trying to seek his father’s approval, something not acknowledged until the end when Indy calls his son Jr. Spielberg clearly has a lot of fun with this dynamic, relishing the irony of Indy and Mutt being identical men, with neither of them realizing it. Indy might think he’s different, but he laughs upon learning that he chose the name Mutt, which is hilarious given his own name belongs to the Jones family dog.
The pair’s chase through campus is yet another stylish and completely thrilling set piece, made particularly fun that we get to see Indy’s alter ego join in on the action. It’s a sequence that gets to the heart of the film’s core ideas, the struggle and interplay between Doctor Henry Jones Jr., the academic at Marshall College, and Indiana Jones, the globe-trotting maverick. This sequence forces these two halves of himself to collide, drawing attention to the apparent gulf between them. A gulf that will be bridged by Mutt, and later, Marion Ravenwood.
Unfortunately, the return of Marion is where things start to go downhill. That’s not to say anything about Marion herself, she’s great, and Karen Allen’s return is very welcome as she injects the film with great joy and liveliness. But once Mutt and Indy meet up with her in the Amazon, things start to go a little off the rails. It’s clear that Spielberg was having far more fun playing with Indiana Jones in 50s America, a potent and clever clash of ideals and aesthetics. American suburbia, father/son squabbling, and 50s greasers fighting jocks (very West Side Story) are very much in conversation with Spielberg’s oeuvre. So the first act of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull works, there’s a joy and energy to it that puts it right up there with the originals but with a new, fresh perspective. Unfortunately, Spielberg seems to lose that perspective, and it feels like he begins to lose interest in the film more and more as the story progresses.
Spielberg has made it clear that he only really signed on to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as a favor to George Lucas and to have some fun with his old friends again. But he was never really on board with aliens and never seemed particularly excited about making another Indiana Jones movie. So while it’s hard to quantify, you can feel Spielberg’s disinterest in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s second half compared to the first.
Unlike the original trilogy, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was all shot in the United States, with elaborate sets built on the Universal backlots and the most location shooting done in Hawaii to stand in for the Amazon Rainforest. The reason was that Spielberg, George Lucas, Frank Marshall, and other producers wanted to remain closer to their families. These just weren’t the same people who made Raiders of the Lost Ark – who could travel to Tunisia, France, and England at the drop of a fedora. They now had families, more responsibilities, and more maturity about how they balanced their life. That maturity certainly comes through in the story’s narrative, but it’s also to the detriment of the film’s look because you can tell that they never left the country.
There’s an artificiality to many of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s still very impressive sets that strain credibility. Several establishing shots of new countries are obscured with props and set dressing to disguise that they never really went anywhere. A large part of this could be handwaved as a way for them to replicate the look and artifice of B movies, but the truth is that it just feels more contained than Raiders, Temple, and Crusade. In those movies, you always felt you could explore each location if the camera stopped rolling. Here though, it’s always obvious that the back wall of a soundstage is just out of frame.
This is made even worse by an overabundance of CGI, which completely smothers a lot of genuinely great sets and impressive stunt work. The massive jungle chase oscillates between exciting moments of back-and-forth reversals between characters and a limp feeling of weightlessness. Just one look at behind-the-scenes footage reveals a lot of practical stunt work, such as real vehicles in a real jungle. Unfortunately, it’s all coated in a garish, digital sheen that makes it look so artificial, and many greenscreen shots used to stitch the sequence together stick out like a sore thumb, with glaring differences in light and atmosphere. It’s still an enjoyable set piece, but it never comes close to the grit and viscerality of the first three.
Thankfully it’s not all bad, and the film does still find its moments. The inevitable creature set piece rather brilliantly brings in man-eating ants, an animal that, for some reason, was a staple of the 50s B movie. And while they are CGI, the sequence feels tense and scary, and comes the closest to aping the feel of the movies Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is emulating.
I think the main fault of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s second half though that there are just too damn many characters. These movies seemed to gradually be adding more and more characters as they went on. Raiders only ever had two at a time, Temple of Doom had the trio of Indy, Shorty, and Willie, and Last Crusade had a duo for most of its runtime before adding Marcus Brody and Sallah. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull adds one more, with five in the group by the final act. It would have been totally fine to focus on the core family with Indy, Mutt, and Marion, but adding Oxley and Mac makes the final act feel completely overcrowded. Half the characters just stand around, and Indy himself is given less and less agency in the narrative.
Ultimately though, I do think the film comes together in its final moments, spinning flying saucer and all. The Indiana Jones movies have always had an interesting interplay between Indiana Jones as a family man and Indiana Jones as a graverobber. Indy keeps ending these movies seemingly with a new sense of domesticity. In Temple of Doom, he finds a surrogate family of sorts in Willie and Short Round. Both of whom are never seen or heard from again. In Raiders, he grows up and recommits himself to a relationship with Marion, who is again gone in The Last Crusade, which itself ends with Indy patching up his relationship with seemingly his only living blood relative. Indiana Jones then is a man who keeps hearing that alluring call to adventure and who finds himself continually running from a strict, suffocating domestic lifestyle.
So, Indiana Jones is a man who has constantly had to choose between these two sides of himself. To be the adventurer or to be the family man. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull interrogates this directly, literally destroying the nuclear family in the atomic fire in the film’s first act. Indy’s life is upended, and thanks to his experiences with his newfound family, he’s forced to make the ultimate realization that this series has ultimately been building to, that he doesn’t have to choose – he could always be both. Traveling the globe in search of treasure and living a life with those he loves aren’t mutually exclusive. This is juxtaposed wonderfully with the death of Cate Blanchett’s delightful villainess Irina Spalko, a character who herself seeks knowledge and the answers to the universe, which ultimately leads to her destruction. Indiana Jones meanwhile chooses to escape, resting in the warm embrace of his family, looking on to a beautiful sunset.
The Indiana Jones series ends with our hero having married the love of his life, donning the hat one last time as he walks out into a future full of both love and adventure. It’s a beautiful ending for the character, one I would argue is effectively earned by the the film, even with all of its faults. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a messy, scattered, tonally muddy film, but its heart is always in the right place. It would have been easy for Lucas and Spielberg to phone in another Indiana Jones adventure, play the hits, have a couple of whip cracks, punch a couple of Nazis and send the audience on their way. Instead, they chose to do something bolder; they brought Indiana Jones forward into a new area with new sensibilities and radically different ideas than seen previously. It’s not a safe movie at all, and the ways it polarized audiences is surely a testament to that. Despite another great ending for the character, and another prime opportunity to hang up the whip, Indiana Jones has made one final return, with The Dial of Destiny. An Indiana Jones movie without Spielberg and Lucas, how does the series continue after tying the bow so neatly with its last two films? Can the series work without its two creators at its center? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.