or OUTLAW VERN AND THE ENJOYMENT OF THE FORBIDDEN SEQUEL
“What exactly am I being accused of besides surviving a nuclear blast?”
INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is the one movie in this Lucas Minus Star Wars survey that I actually reviewed on its original theatrical release, so you can see what I wrote about it at the time. I had already picked up on everybody hating it, but didn’t realize it would become one of those movies that is only ever brought up as an example of what is wrong with George Lucas, Hollywood, America, capitalism, technology, civilization, human life, etc. When people mention it they have to spit, like Indy when he mentions Victoriano Huerta in the movie. It is a universally agreed upon milestone in the degradation of our culture and past.
Well, almost universally. I really liked it at the time, as you can see. But it’s been a few years, and I honestly can’t remember the last time I encountered someone who thought it was any good. Watching it now, maybe I could finally be one of them. One of the beautiful people.
Ah, who am I kidding? I yam what I yam. I must report that I still liked it. I even went back and re-watched most of it the next day. It plays even better after having watched a bunch of Young Indiana Jones and in close proximity to those other sequels, which by the grace of having been made pre-digital are allowed to be whatever they want without recrimination. I know it’s taboo to say, but those two also change up the tone from RAIDERS, have a more artificial look (in their case using stop motion and blue screening), goofier supporting characters and go further into the fantasy – in their case adding ancient magic and immortality instead of inter-dimensional beings. I do not subscribe to the orthodoxy that accepts the former and denounces the latter. I have no doubt that we as proud disbelief-suspenders can accept Biblical magic existing alongside ancient astronaut inspired trans-dimensional travel just as we can accept The Mighty Thor crossing a “Rainbow Bridge” to party with The Hulk at Tony Stark’s crib.
Or at least I can. But for what it’s worth Shia LaBeouf’s character Mutt Williams agrees with you guys, he doesn’t like combining God and Greys. When Indy tells him that Nazca Indians elongated their skulls to honor the gods, Mutt is real offended and says “No. No. God’s head is not like that, man.”
CRYSTAL SKULL takes place in 1957, and I guess looking at the LAST CRUSADE and Young Indy timeline Indy should only be 58, but Ford (who was about 66 at the time) is definitely playing him as older. I mean, he can still jump from things and punch people out, but he’s got a full head of grey hair, he’s introduced already beaten up and there’s alot about him missing his deceased father and friend Brody. But this is definitely the extension of the Indy we saw in the series, who was not just an archaeologist but a soldier and spy who cared about causes. This Indy talks about riding with Pancho Villa, has an old friend from MI6 that he was a double agent with, and gets feisty about insulting Russkies. He’s been through some shit, but some FBI asshole has the nerve to call him a traitor. “Do you have any idea how many medals this sonofabitch won?” his friend asks.
Like Young Indy, who experienced WWI, the jazz age and John Ford making silent westerns, this is an Indy who exists outside of a fight against Nazis. The Indiana Jones adventure for 1957 features many concerns of the time: Elvis, hot rods, the bomb, UFOs (Roswell, Area 51, big-brained alien looking guys, flying saucers), leather jackets, motorcycles, switchblades, diners, fights between greasers and socs, “I Like Ike,” a “Better Dead Than Red” rally on campus, Indy blacklisted out of school by a witch hunt. While RAIDERS played off of Hitler’s interest in the supernatural, CRYSTAL SKULL combines Cold War era paranoia and sci-fi. They said the Reds were infiltrating our culture and controlling our minds, so that’s what Cate Blanchett (CAROL)’s Colonel Dr. Irina Spalko is trying to do… but by using the powers of a skull that seems to come from an alien. The nightmares of the McCarthy-ites are combined with the saucer men of the drive-in screens.
Think about this: this story takes place only five years before AMERICAN GRAFFITI. This is basically the world those guys are desperately clinging onto as adulthood (and college, and war) beckons. The first thing we see in the movie is a speeding hot rod, and although it’s not Anakin-yellow its exposed engine is reminiscent of John Milner’s car. If motorcycle repairman Mutt ever made it out to the west coast maybe he would’ve hung out on Milner’s race track once or twice.
It’s a different time and Indy is a different age. Just as the Crystal Skull – something he’s been searching for since his college days – falls into his lap, so does a family. Soon he will discover that he’s a father and marry “Abner’s little girl,” the great love he left behind 20 years ago, but first he will find himself surrounded by graven images of the 1950s ideal of middle class familyhood, whitebread mannequins in suburban model homes, built just to be destroyed in bomb tests. This is what’s at stake, the doom cities seemed to say: the American Dream. The nice kitchen, the smiling family gathered around the TV watching Howdy Doody as the paperboy rolls up on the lawn, the neighbors washing cars, walking dogs, enjoying a Slip ‘n Slide, gathering around the Good Humor man getting popsicles.
These types of images are only ever seen used ironically in movies. This idea of suburbia is clearly a bullshit fantasy world that doesn’t exist for us or for Indy. And yet it’s one of the luxury consumer items on display in this dream house that saves his life: the lead-lined refrigerator. So maybe there’s something to the Dream after all.
This is a notorious scene. People who hated it launched a successful campaign to have the phrase “nuking the fridge” be loosely synonymous with “jumping the shark,” meaning the moment when a series has run its course and starts doing stupid shit. I guess that’s fitting since the original phrase came from an episode of Happy Days, a show obviously inspired by AMERICAN GRAFFITI. It all goes back to Lucas’s ideas.
I still don’t get the hate. I love this scene. It’s the culmination of a long, exciting chase, where Indy finds himself knocking on a door for help, then realizing he’s in a fake town, then remembering that a weapons test was supposed to be going down about now. It’s unexpected and it’s surreal and totally unpredictable the first time you see it. Of all the corners we’ve seen Indy painted into, this is the one with the most paint. His desperate improvised solution is not much less plausible than TEMPLE OF DOOM‘s jumping out of a plane in an inflatable raft, but far more clever.
After Spielberg laughed off the criticisms and took the blame for the unpopular idea, Lucas insisted to the New York Times that he’d had a team of scientists talk Spielberg into it:
In response to Spielberg’s fears, Lucas put together a whole nuking-the-fridge dossier. It was about six inches thick, he indicated with his hands. Lucas said that if the refrigerator were lead-lined, and if Indy didn’t break his neck when the fridge crashed to earth, and if he were able to get the door open, he could, in fact, survive. “The odds of surviving that refrigerator — from a lot of scientists — are about 50-50,” Lucas said.
That’s the funny thing: Indiana Jones has survived various booby traps, boulders, falls from planes and cliffs, the face-melting wrath of God, the brainwashing of heart-devouring magical cultists, the autograph session of Adolf Hitler, even Dracula if you count the TV series. There is really no reason why this latest cliffhanger has to be more than half plausible. But Lucas put a whole bunch of work into making sure it was. And nobody believed him.
I’m not sure if LaBeouf is still one of the things people hold against the movie. At the time the knock against him was that he was a clean-cut Nickelodeon-bred child star. Now it’s totally different, it’s his public persona as an apparent Hollywood asshole, weird plagiarist and pretentious performance artist that makes him easy to hate. Neither has much bearing on his performance as Mutt, a humorously arrogant meathead character who spins his switchblade in inappropriate situations and whose last request when he thinks he’s about to be executed is to have a moment to comb his hair.
Hey, people loved Short Round driving Dr. Jones around with bricks tied to his feet, what is so much worse about a teen Marlon Brando wannabe who takes after his old man in the fisticuffs and vehicle-jumping without anybody ever having to point it out? I suspect some of the rejection of the character came from reports that he was introduced as a replacement for Indy in a future sequel. Hollywood seems to have this in mind sometimes, and the people always reject it. No, we don’t want to see the adventures of John McClane Jr. or Blade’s white friends. Of course we don’t want to see The Later Adventures of Mutt Without His Dad.
Except that was never the plan! In an interview three years before the movie, while they were still working on the script, Lucas was asked about rumors that “there may be a younger person in this, poised to take over.”
Lucas: “It’s possible. Not really to take over.”
Hollywood.com: But someone to create new movies with?
Lucas: “No, it wasn’t meant to be that way. But I guess that’s a possibility. It’s really to wrap it up. Just desperately trying to put things together that work. You need characters to make the film work. It’s not just an adventure story. There’s actually got to be human relationships in it.”
Searching for later quotes on the subject I found dozens of blog posts referring to a Lucas “we’re not doing a Mutt Williams spin-off” quote as “changing his mind,” (example), but none that I could find provided a source or quote of him previously wanting to do one. If he’d cottoned to the idea since the Hollywood.com interview it must not’ve stuck for long, since the movie itself makes a joke out of the idea of a torch-passing. After the wedding of Indy and Marion, a seemingly magical gust of wind blows open the church doors and carries Indy’s iconic hat from a rack to Mutt’s feet. He picks it up, looks at it in awe, seems to contemplate the symbolism of this moment. He starts to put it on his head– but at the last second Indy swipes it from him, puts it on himself and strolls off into the sunset. Too slow, Joe.
Besides, if they had done one it would’ve just been a TV movie called THE MUTT ADVENTURE, co-starring Wilford Brimley.
Content-wise this is definitely Lucas’s baby. For years he developed scripts around the idea of an Indiana Jones version of a ’50s flying saucer movie, even though Spielberg and Ford were skeptical. He had drafts by Jeb Stuart (DIE HARD), Jeffrey Boam (LAST CRUSADE), and hired M. Night Shyamalan at one point. Young Indiana Jones veteran Frank Darabont wrote a version with escaped Nazis as the bad guys. Spielberg says he liked it, but Lucas didn’t think it was right. The final script is credited to David Koepp (I COME IN PEACE), story by Lucas and Jeff Nathanson (SPEED 2, RUSH HOUR 2, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN).
In admitting to Empire that he’d never wanted to use aliens or inter-dimensional beings, Spielberg explained that the Indy series belongs to Lucas: “But I am loyal to my best friend. When he writes a story he believes in – even if I don’t believe in it – I’m going to shoot the movie the way George envisaged it. I’ll add my own touches, I’ll bring my own cast in, I’ll shoot the way I want to shoot it, but I will always defer to George as the storyteller of the Indy series. I will never fight him on that.”
Darabont was pissed that they didn’t use his script, and whatever he may know about the way better version that could’ve existed (along with his way better MARY SHELLY’S FRANKENSTEIN and his way better The Walking Dead after-half-way-through-season-2), CRYSTAL SKULL is the type of fun I want in an Indiana Jones sequel. Of course it has all the adventure shit: riddles, traps, dry sand, scorpions, killer ants, extinct languages, pictograms, blow guns, hidden tombs, lost tribes. It has cool gimmicks like throwing gun powder in the air to lead them to the magnetized skull.
And of course it has Ford. People accuse him of sleepwalking through the movie, but I like him in it. I think he has a good chemistry with LaBeouf when he’s just a friend trying to give good adult advice, and then it’s funny when he realizes he’s his dad and starts treating him way more sternly. And he has many good tough guy lines and smart ass responses.
I like the humor in this one. Things like Indy saying “Here, hold this,” referring to the decaying corpse of a legendary Conquistador, his non-idle threat to break Mac’s nose, the delighted way the previously incoherent Oxley declares “Henry Jones… Junior!” in the middle of the biggest action scene, Mutt casually dipping his comb in some jock’s water at the diner, the guy almost noticing. Even a broad joke, like the student asking Professor Jones an academic question after he crashes through the crowded library on a motorcycle, hits better to me than most of the big jokes in LAST CRUSADE. And the undisputed stupidest moment, when Mutt swings on some vines Tarzan-style and ends up leading an army of monkeys into Spalko’s vehicle, is so over-the-top absurd that I’ve come to love it.
And by the way, the total time from when he gets caught in a vine to the last shot of the monkeys is about 2 minutes, and most of that he’s not on screen for. We’re talking about less than a minute of a two hour movie spent on this goofiness. It’s going to be all right, everybody.
I also timed the animated prairie dogs, a less ridiculous detail often fixated on by people who hate the movie. They’re in 3 shots that total about 16 seconds of screen time.
Meanwhile, so much of the movie is spent on cool action sequences:
1. The warehouse chase, where Indy jumps across moving vehicles, swings from his whip, a lamp and chains, runs across rafters, falls through glass, rides on a rocket sled.
2. The weapons test. See above.
3. The KGB chase that starts with a brawl at the diner, continues with Indy riding bitch on Mutt’s motorcycle (shades of Henry Sr. in the sidecar in LAST CRUSADE), has Indy pulled into a car, punching some guys, climbing back onto the motorcycle and driving through the town and the campus.
4. When Indy is forced to help the Soviets find Akator, but gets so excited about the act of problem solving that he accidentally creates an opening for Mutt to punch a guy out, flip a table, set the camp on fire and make a run for it.
5. The family argument while tied up in the back of a truck that leads to beating up the guard and my favorite sequence, a high speed multi-vehicle jungle chase with various characters climbing from vehicle to vehicle, exchanging gunfire and punches, wrestling, firing a rocket, fencing between two vehicles… and this leads right into the “big damn ants” scene, and driving off a cliff, and going down three waterfalls.
I know #5 is unpopular for using some noticeable green screen and digital additions to the scenery. I understand preferring the more pure stuntwork of RAIDERS. Still, I feel like you gotta acknowledge the unbridled inventiveness of the sequence, the gags and escalation and sense of speed and danger and cool camera moves. In my original review I compared it to other FX-based chases in Lucasfilms like the mine cart one in TEMPLE OF DOOM or the speeder bikes in RETURN OF THE JEDI. But this one actually contains way more actual stuntwork and choreography than either of those. And I’m afraid I gotta reject the idea that movie magic is not allowed in movie making. If it was 100% animated it would still be a cool scene.
See, these are the kinds of set pieces that could only be done with all kinds of careful storyboarding, figuring out how each gag leads into the next, where everybody is in relation to each other, where they’re going, and how the camera should move between them. It’s Spielberg having fun being Spielberg, which can be said about the visuals of the movie in general. There are the BIG SCREEN! shots, a tiny Indy standing on the bottom of the frame watching a gigantic spectacle, whether it’s the destruction and erasure of the so-called El Dorado at the end, or the earlier image of the bomb test (a man-made weapon maybe more destructive than the Ark of the Covenant). But also it’s the small things. The way Oxley’s floor carving of the cemetery dissolves into the actual cemetery (a model, I’m pretty sure), the way he holds up the skull so its shadow matches the shape of a god carved into the wall, the way the ancient temple’s stone carvings open like a satellite dish… This has the energy, passion and attention to detail of the guy who had the Paramount logo dissolve into an actual mountain. That’s a type of movie Lucas would want his buddy to make, and a type of movie I would want to watch.
As I might’ve mentioned, many people do not agree. In 2010 Mutt Williams himself, Shia LaBeouf, told the L.A. Times, “I feel like I dropped the ball on the legacy that people loved and cherished… You get to monkey-swinging and things like that and you can blame it on the writer and you can blame it on Steven. But the actor’s job is to make it come alive and make it work, and I couldn’t do it. So that’s my fault. Simple.”
He also claimed that Harrison Ford was disappointed in the movie. “We had major discussions. He wasn’t happy with it either. Look, the movie could have been updated. There was a reason it wasn’t universally accepted.”
When asked about LaBeouf’s comments by Details, Ford didn’t necessarily agree, saying, “I think he was a fucking idiot. As an actor, I think it’s my obligation to support the film without making a complete ass of myself. Shia is ambitious, attentive, and talented – and he’s learning how to deal with a situation which is very unique and difficult.”
I don’t know what LaBeouf meant about wanting the movie “updated,” but he’s right that it “wasn’t universally accepted.” To give you an idea, CRYSTAL SKULL has a 54% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. NATIONAL TREASURE has a 76%. NATIONAL TREASURE 2 has a 67%. The fucking MUMMY RETURNS has a 63%. TRANSFORMERS 2 has a 58%. CRYSTAL SKULL was an idea Lucas had during Young Indiana Jones and nurtured for years until he thought he had it just right, yet according to this metric, ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS 3: ROAD CHIP went over slightly better with audiences. And that’s probly just the casual moviegoers. The “fans” take it way more personally. And all fingers pointed at Lucas.
I don’t know if this reaction contributed to Lucas deciding to pack up and sell the farm, but jesus. After pouring his heart into the prequels and this and then being treated like a war criminal for it one can hardly blame him for saying Fuck this. Fine. You’re right. Star Wars and Indiana Jones are yours now. You earned ’em, ’cause you had the pajamas and you read Heir To the Empire or some shit. I didn’t do that much.
But before he could leave he had a couple last passion projects to finish up.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.