In 2008, the incredibly tardy Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull returned cinema's most beloved archaeologist to the big screen almost two whole decades after The Last Crusade.
While it's certainly not as widely reviled as other modern sequels to classic series, I feel safe saying that most found Crystal Skull disappointing. Many people walked out of the theater blaming things like monkeys and fridges. While those are absolutely elements of the movie's failure, my autopsy has uncovered a number of other causes of death.
Unnecessity (disclaimer: not a word)
|One of these people looks less comfortable than the others.|
An Indiana Jones movie doesn't need to be essential. There aren't lots of threads connecting one to the next. Supporting characters, settings, plots all change from movie to movie. It's an inherently episodic series. There's a reason it gets compared to the James Bond franchise sometimes.
However, the people making it should feel like they have something to say, not that they feel obligated to just say something, anything. Steven Spielberg himself provides a fantastic argument for the unnecessary nature of Crystal Skull in the very first non-dialogue lines of a behind-the-scenes featurette on the DVD.
When I was done with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, there's a reason that I invented the shot of Harrison riding a horse into the sunset. Because I thought that brought the curtain down on the trilogy, and then we were all gonna move on and mature into other aspects of filmmaking and I never thought I would ever see Indiana Jones again. Which, by the way, in a sweet nostalgic way, was fine with me at the time. But there were some people it wasn't fine with.
Spielberg relates a version of the story in which fans pester him, Lucas, and Harrison Ford about a fourth movie, getting to Ford first, who then gets to Lucas, and Lucas to Spielberg. As he says: “I was the holdout. I was the one that said, 'I'm done with this series! It was great; let's walk away!'”
This isn't to say that there isn't a great Indiana Jones 4 movie that could have been made. But the idea that the film's own director was unmotivated to tell further stories with the character could explain in part some of the other problems I'll talk about below.
I should mention that Spielberg didn't phone in the direction on set. The camerawork and technical storytelling are fantastic as always. The story he has been tasked with telling, however, has some serious issues, including the surplus of characters.
If you watch the first three Indiana Jones movies, you'll find that Indy is almost always in a pair, with occasional moments alone or in a trio. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy picks up the always awesome Marion Ravenwood. (Though I'm about to complain about excess characters, bringing her back was a good idea). Very shortly after they join Sallah in Egypt, Marion is seemingly killed off. When Sallah and Indy are separated, Indy finds her in the Nazi camp. The Last Crusade ostensibly begins with three protagonists, but Elsa and Marcus share only two scenes before it becomes just Elsa and Indy. As soon as Indy finds his dad, Elsa switches sides. The finale of Crusade does finally incorporate Marcus, Sallah, Henry, and Indiana as well as the villains, but that's only for the final fifteen minutes or so. Temple of Doom, ever the odd man out, sticks to its three-man party basically the whole time (though only one could be called a man).
Who's in the protagonist section of Crystal Skull's dramatis personae? Indiana, Mutt, Marion, Professor Oxley, and sometimes even Mac. That many people only just fit in my car, and somebody's not getting a window. Similarly, it's impossible for everyone here to get their due. There just isn't enough screen time to go around. Look at the Amazon truck chase, which splits its time jumping around to three different active heroes (Ox is being useless and Mac is in evil mode) and three different vehicles. As a result, every character gets short shrift.
In the Back to the Future commentaries, one of the writers says that they regretted putting Jennifer in the DeLorean at the end of the first movie upon realizing they'd actually be writing a sequel. The series does its darndest to write her out as quickly as possible, leaving her unconscious for basically two entire acts and a whole other movie. The dynamic we're interested in is Doc and Marty, and Jennifer is just a third wheel. In a way, the Crystal Skull cast of heroes is something like a five-wheeled bicycle, but without the stability that implies.
Mutt and Marion actually do contribute as characters, but the other cast members... Well, let's get into one or two of them.
The Mac Problem
|He's back there.|
Double crosses are a proud tradition in the Indiana Jones series. I think the thought with Mac was to embody all the betrayal in just one (1) Ray Winstone. Unfortunately, they got everything wrong with him they could.
In the opening to Crystal Skull, Mac is introduced as Indy's sidekick – sort of a big, Ray Winstone-y Short Round. Unlike Short Round, he almost immediately betrays Indy. It could be considered an echo of Alfred Molina's Satipo in Raiders (“Throw me the idol; I'll throw you the whip!”), another character who exists only to betray our hero in the early going.
But! In Raiders, Satipo's betrayal isn't portrayed as the end of a long partnership. It seems like a marriage of convenience that's not yet post-honeymoon. Mac isn't just a hired hand, though. Dialogue tells us he and Indiana have spent “years spying on the Reds.” Indy even tells him, “I thought we were friends.” The movie seems to be asking us to mourn the death of the fantastic Indiana-Mac team, but it's a team we've never seen do anything but get dragged out of a trunk. Elsa going turncoat in Last Crusade succeeds in affecting our emotions because we've spent something like twenty minutes liking her – watching her help Indy on his adventures and out of his pants. Jones has supposedly known Mac for far, far longer than he did Elsa, but because the audience doesn't, we're not hurt by it (this ties into the low stakes of the movie, which I'll be bringing up a lot – more on that later).
Any importance of the severing of their relationship is further undermined later on by Indiana's quick acceptance of him back into the fold. In the truck chase, Mac claims “I'm a double agent!” only to do absolutely nothing to help Indy and the gang to prove it. He doesn't even go to the effort of hiding his greedy motives, complaining about the “city of gold” not being gold enough for him. The most helpful he gets is riding shotgun, where maybe he could change the radio station if need be. He's exactly the same on the side of good as he is on the side of evil, just with less gun-pointing.
That's the other problem with Mac: He doesn't do anything. The character is totally superfluous to the plot. Take him out and add just one more silent Russian soldier and the story moves forward in exactly the same way. A great example is the end of the film. Mutt, Marion, Indy, and Oxley are exploring the pyramid and interacting with each other while Mac is off to the side grabbing jewelry. When he pulls the pistol on them in the room 'o' skeletons, it's followed right away by the Russians striding in to take over threatening duties. It may as well be Spalko who walks in with gun aimed; cut out the middleman.
After two hours of doing nothing, Mac succumbs to his greed and is killed despite Indy's efforts to save him. Depending on whether you're feeling generous, this is either an homage to or ripoff of Elsa in The Last Crusade. It worked much better in Last Crusade, though, because she was ever at any point sympathetic. Mac was firmly in the spectrum between non-presence and prick all movie. At least Elsa seemed nice at the beginning.
While we're talking about people dying pointlessly in the climax, let's talk antagonist.
The Spalko Problem
Indiana Jones villains have always been cartoons. (The one with the most shading is Belloq, who is humanized slightly in his scenes with Marion) These cartoons are reflective of their respective groups as viewed through a pulp fiction lens. The Nazis are obsessed with power, and the supernatural as a way to it. The cultists seek to enslave.
The pulp vision of the Soviets is one of invasion and cold war tension. Crystal Skull makes a little effort to give Spalko a related motivation when she tells Indy she plans to use the crystal skulls to control the thoughts of Americans everywhere. Unfortunately that goal is tied up in the weak, vague MacGuffin (more on that later).
There's also a perfunctory blacklist subplot, but “perfunctory” describes it perfectly. It sees Dean Charlie Stanforth, a character we've never seen before, forced to resign and the audience forced to ask, “Why should I care?” The movie wrings far more emotion out of a photograph of Sean Connery than the living human in the room. Just listen to John Williams' music in that scene; it's clear he knows what's actually moving and scores it accordingly.
But back to Spalko herself. She spends the entire film seeking the “power” of the crystal skulls in the lost city. Once she gets in the room with them, though, Spalko suddenly desires “knowledge.” She asks the alien for it, and it's pretty polite by her standards. She then gets obliterated for her trouble. The bad guy is dead and it looks on the surface similar to the demises of other Indy villains. So why is it so unsatisfying?
This desire for “knowledge” comes out of nowhere. The Nazis opening the Ark in Raiders are showing the disrespect for history they've shown all film, seeking only to appropriate it for their own uses. When Donovan chooses poorly, he does so because he fundamentally misunderstands the character of Christ. In Temple of Doom, Mola Ram ends up losing the Sankara stones because he betrayed Shiva with their misuse.
Spalko's a jerk, but she never really disrespects the crystal skulls. Maybe her once-mentioned plan to use the skulls for mind control is against the aliens' ethos, but we have no way of knowing that, and she's not expressing a desire to do so when she's killed. The circumstances of her death are out of nowhere from her perspective, from the aliens', and thematically.
Now that I've brought them up, let's talk about those aliens.
On MacGuffins and Stakes
Crystal skulls, as used in the film, are just a far weaker MacGuffin than any in the original trilogy. Even Spielberg agrees: “I sympathize with people who didn’t like the MacGuffin because I never liked the MacGuffin,” says Spielberg. “George [Lucas] and I had big arguments about the MacGuffin.”
It's not the skulls that bothered Spielberg so much as their extraterrestrial origin – I'm sorry, Ox, “Interdimensional beings, in point of fact.” Let's go back to that behind-the-scenes interview with Spielberg.
George Lucas had this idea for Indiana Jones, and it was basically “Hey, let's do aliens!” and I said “George, I don't wanna do aliens! I've done two alien movies!” […] He said, “Okay. These are interdimensional beings. They're not extraterrestrials; they're interdimensional.” So I said “Fine. Fine. And what are they gonna look like?” “Well, like aliens. But we'll call them interdimensionals.”
Honestly, I think this compromise is worse than just going all-in with aliens. That's clearly a big saucer lifting off in the movie's “X-Files: Fight the Future”-y ending. Calling it “a portal, a pathway to another dimension […] Not into space, into the space between spaces” just needlessly muddles matters.
|Totally not from outer space.|
All of that wouldn't matter, though, if the crystal skull were clearly explained and carried emotional weight. Raiders does a terrific job establishing not just the Ark of the Covenant early on (including pictures!), but even the Staff of Ra and the Well of Souls.
The scene uses awesome music and Indy's description to really establish the awe surrounding the Ark. It doesn't have to be horribly specific, but just the line “Fire, lightning, real wrath of God stuff” is more specific than the crystal skull's powers ever are. What does “control over the power of the city” entail?
Beyond that, there is something to be said for the Judeo-Christian artifacts of the first and third films coming with pre-set connections in people's minds. As Belloq says, “We are simply passing through history. This is history.” People know about the Ark and the Holy Grail. In Raiders, Indy says the Ark “represents everything we got into archaeology for in the first place.” A well-known MacGuffin would have served the movie well; there were rumors for a time of Atlantis being featured, which would certainly qualify. Crystal Skull screenwriter David Koepp is also interviewed in that behind-the-scenes short, and he says, “The closer you can stick to real legends, the better the movie's gonna work, I think.”
The Sankara stones were manufactured for Temple of Doom, but they come with emotional stakes as their fate directly and visibly affects a sympathetic village. In Crystal Skull, the stakes ostensibly include the entire United States, but the danger remains completely abstract; we never see the skull used to brainwash anyone. There's a reason superhero movies constantly endanger a girlfriend or family member. Even when all of New York is supposed to be in peril, filmmakers know that we're going to react more viscerally to seeing Mary Jane threatened specifically. We know the city is in trouble; we feel her fear. And feeling is a far more powerful tool.
Heck, look at the Cross of Coronado in the beginning of The Last Crusade. By representing unfinished business from Indy's childhood, it's more personal (and thematically resonant to the rest of the movie) in thirteen minutes than the crystal skulls are in two hours. Here's Indy's relationship with the skull:
INDY: I have to return it.
MARION: Why you?
INDY: Because it told me to.
Not exactly “the reason we got into archaeology in the first place.”
(Incidentally, why do we see the Russians getting the alien body from the warehouse? That skull is glimpsed in the camp scene and never again. The whole rest of the movie is spent fighting over the one Indy and Mutt find at the grave of Francisco de Orellana. I guess whoever finds the Soviets' trucks just gets to keep the other one. Not a fatal flaw, just a plot hole that bugged me.)
It's not just the crystal skulls' fault that the stakes of the movie are so low. Let's take a look at the resolutions for some characters who aren't Mac or Spalko. The returning of the crystal skull does have one effect on our heroes, in that Professor Oxley gets his mind back. How or why he does, I don't know, but that's his happy ending. The thing is, we didn't know him before he lost his mind. Rather than seeing a character restored to the personality we know and love, we see one crazy character we don't have a connection to become a completely new sane character we don't have a connection to (because we only just met him).
What about a character we do like? At the end of the movie, Indy marries Marion. This is the one story thread that kind of works: Indy, Marion, and Mutt becoming a family. Time is spent on it, and the people involved are all multi-dimensional characters. In particular, I like the surprisingly subtle (for an Indiana Jones movie) echoes of Henry Sr. and Indiana in Indiana and Mutt.
|"Look what you did!"|
|“This is crazy! Somebody's gonna get hurt!”|
In an effort to address the barely-there blacklist subplot, Indy also gets promoted to associate dean. ...Is that what he wants? He never expresses interest in the position. He deliberately avoids paperwork and students seeking office meetings in The Last Crusade, which would seem to indicate it's the actual teaching he enjoys. He's still only a part-time professor here. When he grabs his hat from Mutt at the end of the movie, it's a signal to us that he doesn't intend to give up adventuring as the other part of his time just yet. Associate Dean Jones is just another unsatisfactory resolution to a story with poorly expressed stakes.
But in the minutes before we get the epilogue, what's Indy up to?
The Inactivity of Indy
Every Indiana Jones movie has a climax with some aspect of deus ex machina in its more literal sense, with God or a god affecting the outcome in some way. But they also involve Indy using knowledge (and occasionally his willingness to cut bridges in half) to be an active participant in the plot's resolution.
The Temple of Doom climax is a fairly straight-forward action scene, though Indy does have something of a professor moment when he invokes Shiva. In The Last Crusade, he has to use knowledge (“In Latin, Jehovah begins with an I”, the Grail is the cup of a humble carpenter) to outwit ancient traps, and when the Grail falls, he has to make the decision to “let it go.” This is all important and active stuff, especially the last one which is the culmination of the two Henrys repairing their relationship.
The Raiders climax might seem on its face to involve an inactive Indy, given that he is tied up at the end. But take a closer look at the last minutes of Raiders and you'll see that Indy is making decisions that clarify his character in satisfying ways. He's reuniting with Marion. He's deciding to put down the rocket launcher and not destroy this piece of history. In the Nazi-melting finale, he goes from telling Marcus “You're talking about the boogeyman” to “Don't look at it, Marion.”
What does Indy do in Crystal Skull? He walks into the pyramid with the skull, and he runs away when it all crumbles, with a brief stop to try and fail to save the unsympathetic Mac. That's it. Nothing is revealed about his character by this. Nobody makes a major decision. Indy doesn't even get to punch a swordsman. None of it feels like an inevitable conclusion to something the movie has been setting up. It's just people fleeing CGI disaster. It may as well be the end of 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow.
The victim died of half-baked characters, the sidelining of its protagonist, and lack of emotional stakes. It's surprising, really. One would have expected “crushed by boulder” or “impaled by spikes.”
Nathan Cranor's writing appears regularly at www.rateeveryanimal.com and irregularly at nscranor.wordpress.com. He has a lot of fond memories of that dog.
The monkeys and aliens are great examples of “tangible details” that viewers tend to get hung up on that Film Crit Hulk expounded on well in this piece: http://filmcrithulk.wordpress.com/2011/06/07/hulk-essay-your-ass-tangible-details-and-the-nature-of-criticism/
And five camels! Even though Sallah was clearly told no camels. Can't he count?
I should note that it is possible to quickly introduce characters the audience cares about. The beginning of the '09 Star Trek gets me choked up every time, thanks in no small part to Michael Giacchino's score. Mac is just a nonentity with a mustache.
It's possible to connect with a character who can't interact properly and speaks in nonsense fragments; look at River Tam in Firefly who's humanized by her interactions with her brother Simon. In this movie, the people who supposedly care about Oxley express little to no affection for him. Why should we?