In case you've been living in a cave or exploring an ancient tomb for the past week, you should know that Disney has announced that there's to be a new Indiana Jones film released in 2019, directed by Steven Spielberg and once again starring Harrison Ford. The news was met with a mixture of reactions, some incredibly excited that Harrison Ford is dusting off the hat and the whip again and others more cautious with the wounds of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull opening anew.
Will Indiana Jones 5 be the Indy adventure we all hope it will be? Only time will tell, but it could do a lot worse than avoiding the pitfalls Crystal Skull fell into and reading our 12 Reasons Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Screwed Up Indiana Jones.
8 years after Raiders of the Lost Ark came out, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg decided to send the beloved character of Indiana Jones on his last crusade. The film dealt with Indy's father issues as well as the quest for the Holy Grail. By the end of the film, the Grail has been found, Indy had reconnected with his father and our heroes galloped off into the sunset, like the classic cowboys of old. The final shot was a perfect way to close the book on the adventures of Henry Jones Jr.
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn't do enough to justify reopening that book. We can only start to reflect on how good a story was once it's over. Last Crusade was the perfect end point for the character, having our hero work out his family issues and have achieved the literal Holy Grail of his career. The end point of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has Indy getting married and presumably settling down. Here's hoping Indy 5 has a better conclusion that that.
Indiana Jones films are pretty simple chase affairs. Indy is told of a powerful ancient relic, finds out that some bad dudes want to get their hands on said relic and then he endeavours to stop them and make sure that the power doesn't fall into the wrong hands. On paper, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull follows that formula.
However, the film weighs itself down with needless story baggage. For example, there is no point to the FBI subplot whatsoever. Indy gets hauled in by government agents who suspect him of being a Communist (the film being set at the height of the McCarthy era witch hunts). They also ransack his office and cause Jim Broadbent's Dean to resign from his post. Once the film gets underway, the FBI are forgotten about. At the end, Dean Stanforth seems to still be working at Marshall College having hired Indy as the associate dean and everything's back to normal. There are numerous bits like this that distract from the main narrative and make the story baggy.
There's a popular saying that a film is only as good as its villain. While not necessarily true in all cases, it certainly applies to the previous Indy films. Belloq and Major Toht headed up Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mola Ram was Temple of Doom's baddie and both Walter Donovan and Elsa Schneider shared evil duties in Last Crusade. These are all memorable villains with clear motivations and reasons for us to hate them.
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has Irina Spalko, a highly decorated Soviet scientist and military officer, obsessed with using the power of the crystal skull to aid the Soviet Union win the Cold War. There isn't much about her that's particularly villainous or charismatic. The overall plan is vague too. There are mentions of brainwashing, but it's not expanded on enough. We know that the skull has weird powers and sent John Hurt's Oxley crazy, but we're never given any real indication of the consequences of the skull falling into Soviet hands. It's hard to get invested in Indy preventing disaster when we don't really know what that disaster would be. It's also tough to cheer a hero besting a bad guy you don't care about.
Big action set-pieces are a hallmark of the Indy series. For decades, audiences have come to known the franchise as a place for globetrotting, adventure and death defying feats. The giant boulder rolling after Indy at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark is an iconic moment of cinema and a pop cultural touchstone.
With all that in mind, it's baffling that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has weak, run-of-the-mill action. Apart from a half-decent bike chase around the college campus, the action is mediocre, soulless and CGI heavy. There's a chase through the Peruvian jungle that has all the danger and tension drained thanks to weak CGI work. Mutt swordfighting Spalko astride two speeding vehicles is ridiculous, but could have been fun. However, the scene is so obviously computer generated you're made very much aware that it was shot on a soundstage, ruining the immersion completely. The earlier Indy films were triumphs of classic stuntwork and it's disheartening to see Crystal Skull move so far away from that.
The Indy franchise has never shied away from the darker side of things. From the melting heads in Raiders to nearly everything about Temple of Doom and Donovan's demise in Last Crusade, there are some gruesome and disturbing things contained within the first three films.
Put simply, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull plays it too safe. It feels like a concession to being family-friendly, which is something the series never really was. To make everything practically edgeless distances the series from its pulp roots, not to mention the other films in the series. People are shot off-camera, there's little to no focus on injury and most of the deaths are cartoony and over-the-top. Even the themes are less mature. Raiders was an exploration of faith, greed and even had some Promethean parallels. Crystal Skull is just a wacky adventure with no real subtext. It all feels toothless and unworthy of the Indiana Jones title.
Since the 1990s, CGI has become an increasingly big part of how blockbusters deliver huge spectacle and action. As with any tool, it's up to the craftsman to know how to use it and the limitations of it. Some of the best computer generated work in more modern films goes unnoticed because that's exactly what it's designed to do.
When it comes to effects, there are some filmmakers that tend to use a sledgehammer when a chisel would have sufficed. Unfortunately Crystal Skull suffers from the sledgehammer approach. The human eye is great at detecting fakery and Indy 4 is lousy with it. Entire locations are greenscreened and action sequences have an unpleasant blurry quality to them because either the effects work or technology wasn't up to scratch. To be fair, the older films used miniatures and matte paintings to the same end, but they were used sparingly. Locations and stunts were kept as real as possible and as a result, they still hold up today. Crystal Skull has managed to age badly in eight years.
Indiana Jones is an archaeologist. He's a learned man with both a knowledge of and a respect for the past. It's these things that make him successful in his career. He's also tough and more than capable in a fight, but his brawn is always secondary to his brains. Part of the fun of the films is watching Indy figure out some historical puzzle. He works out the correct burial site of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders and solves many mysteries his father couldn't in Last Crusade.
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has Indy deciphering notes left by Oxley. They used a similar set-up in Last Crusade when Indy had his father's notebook, but that was for a good character reason, to show Indy was still living in his father's shadow. Figuring out the scrawlings of a mad professor doesn't have the same impact as working out an ancient clue or riddle. It makes Indy seem passive in his own adventure as he's following, rather than leading.
Indy has had some great characters tag along on his adventures. You'd have a tough job to find someone who didn't like Sallah , Marcus Brody or Henry Jones Snr. Even Short Round has his fans. Indy needs a reliable, likable helper of some kind. It keeps him relatable and also gives Indy a reason to explain his methods to them and, by proxy, us the audience.
Crystal Skull has Mac and Mutt. Mac isn't a classic sidekick. He's a traitor. He turns on Indy at the start of the film only to explain later that he's a double agent. Near the end, he reveals that he lied and was always working for the Soviets. That's all there is to the character. Any history the two have is only given lip service and it's hard to figure out why Indy would trust him after his first betrayal. To be fooled twice makes him look stupid. Mutt isn't as bad, but the film doesn't flesh him out nearly enough and it seems in two minds whether to set him up as Indy's successor or not.
Marion Ravenwood is a great female lead in Raiders of the Lost Ark. She's a firecracker. She's tough as nails and feisty and more than a match for Indy. Before the film, we learn that she fell for Indy pretty hard when she was a teenager and the two had a relationship than wrecked Indy's friendship with her father. Indy left, leaving Marion devastated. The two rekindled that relationship during the events of Raiders but she wasn't mentioned after that.
Marion makes her reappearance in Crystal Skull as Mutt's mother. Her and Indy start bickering immediately. Gone is the Marion of old and in her place is a softly chiding motherly type. Is it realistic that someone would change in 25 years, especially after becoming a parent? Absolutely. It is fitting for the series or interesting in the slightest? Nope. There's nothing for her to actually do in the film. Marion may as well have been a brand new character that Indy had had an off-screen relationship with.
According to Steven Spielberg, George Lucas had been pushing for aliens to appear in an Indiana Jones film since the '90s. Spielberg, having done Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, was reluctant and there was a creative stalemate for years. When it came time to scripting Crystal Skull, Lucas again campaigned for aliens and Spielberg relented.
Extraterrestrials aren't the weirdest thing to appear in series dealing with curses, ancient power and the supernatural, but they don't work in Crystal Skull. The film wants to be a setting appropriate '50 B-movie but also a classic '30s serial- style caper at the same time. It's an odd mix of genres that don't mesh together. For some, it was a silly plot point too far.
No one is claiming Indiana Jones films are documentaries. The established series had its moments of Hollywood physics and loopy logic. You just need to look at the inflatable raft escape from a crashing airplane in Temple of Doom to know that Indy and physics don't always see eye-to-eye.
Having said that, Crystal Skull perhaps takes things too far. Aside from the aliens, there are many things that don't quite gel. There's the infamous “nuking the fridge” scene, which despite some physicists saying that Indy could have survived, still sticks out like a sore thumb. Perhaps the worst offender is the scene where Marion drives the gang off a cliff, only to have a tree flex and carry them safely to the water, before twanging back and swatting some bad guys off the cliff face.
These scenes carry no tension because its clear the film will just find some convenience to aid our heroes. It's unsatisfying and a little intellectually insulting. Even cartoons exist on some kind of logic.
Indiana Jones was created as a sort of American answer to James Bond. He's a fantasy figure. People either want to be him or want to sleep with him. He's an ideal man and the perfect audience projection vessel to carry us through dangerous and exciting adventures.
While it's always great to see Harrison Ford don the fedora, having Indy as an old man goes against the wide appeal of the character. Pulp novel heroes weren't written to be particularly complex. They beat up the bad guys and got the girl. Crystal Skull moves away from this by giving us an older Indy with emotional baggage, which brings the character out of the fun fantasy world and into more realistic territory. The James Bond series changes Bonds once an actor gets too old for this very reason. This may be one of the crucial reasons that Crystal Skull doesn't feel like a proper Indiana Jones movie.
However, now that the character has been written to be a little deeper, perhaps Indy 5 will take him in a new direction that manages to please fans of the fantasy element and people who want more complex, realistic characters.
Making Kingdom of the Crystal Skull may not have been the worst idea, but some of the choices made in the film were truly baffling. The fact that both Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg are getting another crack of the whip could rights some of the wrongs of Crystal Skull.
Whether Indiana Jones 5 is a final chapter or the start of a new series remains to be seen. One thing is crystal clear though: Indiana Jones means an incredible amount to people. Here's hoping the new film does the character and series justice.