Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the lowest point of its franchise, but it’s not the horrendous insult its reputation suggests it is.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Maybe not regarded as one of the worst films ever made, but definitely one of the most disliked films of the 21st century. According to fans, it betrays everything the original Indiana Jones trilogy stands for, exposes Steven Spielberg as having lost his touch, and showcases everything wrong with modern blockbuster filmmaking. The film takes place in 1957, 19 years after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is back, and this time he’s up against Soviet Russian agents led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). The Soviets are on the hunt for a mysterious crystal skull with strange, supernatural abilities, and their search takes them to Peru and ropes in Indy, his son Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), his colleague Professor Oxley (John Hurt), and his old flame Marian Ravenwood (Karen Allen).
Throughout this past week, I’ve been catching up on all the Indiana Jones movies I had yet to see, those being Temple of Doom, Last Crusade, and now Crystal Skull. I never grew up with these movies, and even now that I’ve seen the treasured original trilogy, I don’t love them. I like them all, but none of them stand out to me as masterpieces outside of their technical craft, and Last Crusade is the only one to which I felt any emotional attachment. I think that’s important to keep in mind, because it means I didn’t go into Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as a die-hard fan who sees the original trilogy as sacred. On the contrary, when I sat down to watch it, I had a gut feeling that I’d finish it saying, “This isn’t that bad.”
… This isn’t that bad. It’s definitely not good, but it’s not that bad. I’m not about to sit here and pretend there aren’t several major downgrades in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when comparing it to the original trilogy. But I feel like this film is an easy target because of how disappointing it was and how beloved those other movies are. Despite the film’s many poor choices that range from mildly distracting to hugely damaging, I found plenty to like in Crystal Skull, and I don’t think it completely goes against the spirit of the Indiana Jones movies … the key word there being “completely.”
The two big surprises for me, given what I’d heard about them, were Shia LaBeouf and Cate Blanchett. Say what you will about LaBeouf as a very … troubled person, but I think he’s a perfectly fine actor who does perfectly well here. The second he showed up, I was absolutely ready to watch the movie truly tank, but it didn’t happen. I honest-to-God buy him as Indy’s son who’s inexperienced but tough enough to hold his own on a crazy adventure like this. I can at least take him way more seriously than Short Round in Temple of Doom. As for Cate Blanchett, she plays my favorite villain in this franchise. Belloq and Donovan are alright, and Mola Ram is … entertainingly racist. But Spalko is the only one who really hams it up in a way that gives her genuine screen presence, and her plan is interesting despite how silly it is.
While on the subject of performances, Harrison Ford didn’t lose an ounce of his charm or grit as this character since the 80s. He sells Indy as older and more weathered but still capable of keeping up with the action. I even like Ray Winstone as George McHale, someone who served with Indy in World War II but constantly flip-flops between him and the Russians for money. It’s as hollow a motivation as you can get, but it’s played up in a way that gave me some laughs. Plus, at least he’s not even pretending to have any sense of dignity, unlike … certain real-world capitalists.
The whole idea of having the villains this time be Soviet Russians is pretty smart, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull does a great job in capturing the mood of the Cold War in the United States. People are getting paranoid over the Red Scare, which has a big effect on Indy’s profession and morale. It’s just a shame this is only really focused on early in the film and not incorporated into later beats. Still, it works nicely with the villains’ motivations of using mind control to convert the world into Soviets. It’s ridiculous, yeah … but isn’t that par for the course with this franchise?
I guess I’m a bit more lenient with how goofy Crystal Skull can get because from the very start, the Indiana Jones movies have been dumb stories with dumber moments. Fencing on cars, skulls that can control minds, and even the existence of aliens all feel fitting in a series that had given us rafts surviving 100-feet drops, faces being melted off by an ark, mishearing “Don’t go between the boats!” as “Go between the boats!” and Kate Capshaw’s entire performance as Willie Scott. That doesn’t excuse how dumb surviving a nuke inside a fridge is, though, or Mutt swinging on vines like Tarzan surrounded by CGI monkeys. Crystal Skull does occasionally get too outlandish with its camp, more frequently than any other film in the series. Still, let’s not pretend camp hasn’t always been there from the very start.
The same goes for how simple and somewhat shallow the story is. Outside of Last Crusade (my favorite film of the series), I don’t consider any of these movies to be narratively riveting in the slightest. They’re by-the-numbers plots about going after strange artifacts that do strange things. Still, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seems to be aiming higher with the whole family dynamic between Indy, Mutt, and Marian, which means it’s a bit more detrimental to the film when that aspect falls largely flat. Indy and Mutt work well enough together, but once they’re captured and reunited with Marian, the character work gets pushed to the side when it’s not being littered with half-baked clichés and unearned resolutions. Mutt might as well have not even been Indy’s son, and Marian might as well have not been there at all.
I’m split when it comes to the overall look and cinematography of Crystal Skull. There’s definitely a glossier, more washed-out look to cinematographer Janusz Kamiński’s lighting, and the dirty, grimy aesthetic that heavily carried the earlier films is considerably lessened. (Though to be fair, Last Crusade definitely started this trend.) But the grainy quality and rich depth of field in every frame still makes the film look vintage in an old-school way, and I still feel like I’m really in the 1950s. Spielberg’s camera and framing are just as dynamic as ever, keeping the action energized and fun to look at. It’s imperfect when all is considered, but I think the cinematography works well overall.
The effects, on the other hand, are much more of a mixed bag. In Crystal Skull’s defense, for as often as the CGI in this film gets slammed, there are still plenty of actual sets, environments, and in-camera stunts throughout the entire movie. Do they hold a candle to the original trilogy’s stunts and effects? No. But when I compare them to more than half of today’s live-action blockbusters that have little to no practical stunts whatsoever, Crystal Skull holds up better than I was expecting it to. At least the actors look like they’re really in these locations. Up until the climax, the CGI is only used to spruce up the environments, not replace them.
The quality of all that sprucing up is where the problems come in. You can tell when a digital effect is used a majority of the time, and for a film series whose appeal is so heavily reliant on its practical action and props, any noticeable CGI is a problem. Like everyone says, the prairie dogs and monkeys look distractingly fake, as do some of the ants (though for the most part they’re okay). One chase sequence in the jungle also features what looks like really bad green screen. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull often seems to trade gritty, practical set pieces for faster, more creative action. But if it doesn’t look real, then it’s ultimately a trade down. Still, not only does about half of the CGI still look fine, but even the half that doesn’t isn’t atrociously bad for 2008. I’ve seen movies that came out this year with far worse effects.
The only part of Crystal Skull I’d call outright terrible is the climax. This is where the CGI goes way too far, taking center stage and turning every frame into a poorly rendered cartoon. None of it looks real, none of it looks good, and it’s too heightened and ridiculous even by Indiana Jones standards. While I like the idea of aliens being the mysterious race this time around, the one we get an up-close view of looks terrible. I think more people would’ve been on board with aliens existing in this world had the film never given you a clean-cut look at one of them alive, instead letting their creepy mystique and remains work their own magic.
Listen, if you were a huge Indiana Jones fan who was hyped for a new movie after 19 years, then I can absolutely understand why Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would be such a massive, anger-inducing disappointment for you. It’s easily the weakest film in the series, it fails to improve anything from its predecessors in almost any way, and it goes a bit too far with how silly it gets aesthetically. But as someone who first saw Raiders only a few years ago and only casually likes the original trilogy, I can go a bit easier on it and see it as just a lesser-quality version of the same type of story I’d gotten with the other movies. This isn’t a good movie, but it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. So, if nothing else, I can go into Dial of Destiny without feeling jaded by what came before it.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is now available to watch on digital and on demand.