This is the first in a new series of columns I’ll be occasionally writing. Each time, I’m going to defend a movie that is often derided and explain why it deserves more respect. Perhaps if I get bold enough, I may also go after a few “classics” I consider to be overrated. Keeping things recent, though, I’ll turn my focus back just a few years to begin.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not the best Indiana Jones movie. No one would claim it is. Hell, even Shia LaBeouf said in a 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times that he felt they “dropped the ball” with it.
It’s better than people gave it credit for, though, in the same way and for the same reasons that The Phantom Menace is. When both movies were released, people had such adoration for the original trilogies and had over a decade of anticipation and expectations to live up to, which is a burden no film series is strong enough to overcome.
What is unfair to those movies, though, is that audiences appropriated Lucas’ characters for themselves. People believe that once a movie character exists and is loved, that person belongs to everyone and not just the character’s creator. The truth of that thinking is debateable in and of itself, but it has a caustic side effect, which is that audiences can forget the actual reason for a character’s existence. That’s what happened with Indiana Jones.
Before I get into what I mean, let me stress that there are many things in the movie which I won’t defend. Some parts, like the CGI vine-swinging and the airborne refrigerator, will get no defense from me. So don’t think I’m in love with the movie. But if you’ve read this far, that means you’re obviously open to at least hearing why I think it’s underrated and unappreciated, so let me ask you a question: What is Indiana Jones’ purpose as a character?
By that, I mean literally, within the script and as a conception in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, what does his character represent? Why, in the movie that introduced him to us all, was he chasing down Nazis and traversing jungles and recovering Christian artefacts?
Many people don’t know the truth. Because Indiana Jones was doing those things in the first three movies, audiences assumed incorrectly (though understandably) that the character, as conceived by George Lucas, was a professor-slash-archaeologist forever locked into the 1930s and forever in battle with Nazis. But he wasn’t. He was never meant to be anything that simple.
In that Los Angeles Time article, there were a number of statements LaBeouf made about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that set chatboards and entertainment news shows ablaze, but his most insightful comment was largely ignored: “We need to be able to satiate the [audience’s] appetite. I think we just misinterpreted what we were trying to satiate.”
What does he mean? What is he referring to? For that, you need to know what Indiana Jones, as a character, truly is and always has been: an homage.
Many people nowadays don’t know what movie serials are/were. The only remnants left these days are the occasional Looney Tunes shorts that may precede a kids’ movie or the short cartoons Pixar shows before their films. Serial were hugely popular up until the 1950s, though, preceding many, if not most, theatrical releases.
Unlike the sporadic and scarce serials of today, serial films close to a century ago told continuing, serialized stories (hence the term). They often ended in cliffhangers, during the climax of an action scene, with the audience unsure if the hero would survive. (The only way to find out would be to return the next week and see the following instalment.)
Before George Lucas came up with the fleshed-out character in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy was more concept than character. The ideas and motifs people came to associate with the first three Indy movies were not the effect of Lucas’ inspiration, they was the cause.
Lucas wanted to pay tribute to serial films with Indiana Jones. Because the most prevalent themes of 1930s serials were adventure, exploring, jungles, native tribes, and treasure-seeking, that’s what Indiana Jones dealt with. That’s even why the first three movies all took place in the ‘30s. (Did you ever wonder about that?)
Even Lucas, though, is bound by the marching of time. The first three Indiana Jones movies, made in an eight-year period, all took place in the ‘30s. Between 1981 and 1989, Ford didn’t age much, so Spielberg and Lucas could afford to leave Indy in the same decade for the second and third movies. By the mid-‘00s, however, there would just be no believing a sexagenarian Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones in the 1930s.
By the time Ford, Spielberg, and Lucas all lined their ducks in a row for a fourth adventure with Indy, almost two decades had passed since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had been released. As such, we meet up with Dr. Jones 19 years after the events in his third movie. What was a logical timeline decision, though, led to a script choice that alienated many audience members (pun partially intended).
If you don’t know by now that the fourth Indiana Jones movie features aliens, then you probably care so little about Indy that I’m not spoiling anything for you. Many, many people were outraged that sci-fi elements would dare be shoehorned into their favourite archaeologist’s universe. Trey Parker and Matt Stone memorably went so far as to depict the movie as two hours of Spielberg and Lucas literally raping Indiana Jones on South Park.
People’s outrage seemed to have two facets, similar though arguably different: that having aliens made the series seem hokey and ridiculous, and that aliens did not belong in an Indiana Jones movie.
On the former front, I attribute a large part of that complaint to people’s nostalgia-fuelled revisionism. The first three Indy movies are filled with scenes and plot cruxes that don’t just embrace but downright require an absolute suspension of disbelief. A cult with the power to keep a sacrifice alive after removing that person’s heart? A knight who has been alive around 900 years, living in a sealed cave? Even the brilliant Raiders of the Lost Ark hinged on a chest of religious powers capable of melting people’s faces off (as long as you didn’t know the complex trick of closing your eyes). Maybe it’s just me, but aliens don’t seem any more far-fetched than any of those plot devices or characters. The real issue is people’s feelings that aliens don’t belong in the world Spielberg and Lucas created.
The question behind whether those feelings are justified is, at heart, one that has existed before even cinema itself: Does a character belong to its creator or its fans? Moreover, is a creator’s obligation to do their character justice as it was originally envisioned or to embrace aspects audiences unexpectedly used to define the character?
Indiana Jones was, as I mentioned, always meant to be an homage to serial films. The original three movies referenced ‘30s serials, which dealt with jungles, adventures, and artefacts. Since Ford had aged two decades since the earlier movies, Indy had to have as well, so the fourth movie was set in the 1950s.
Since Indiana Jones was created to pay tribute to serial movies, and the new film took place in the ‘50s, it was constructed as an homage to ‘50s serials. Care to take a guess as to what that decade’s serials dealt with? That’s right, spacemen, Martians, flying saucers, giant ants, and visitors from outer space. (That’s also why Russians are the villains the fourth time around instead of Nazis.)
The trouble is, people had appropriated the character based on the ‘30s-set films’ characteristics. Most people weren’t aware that Indiana Jones was a tributary homage, not a true action hero. The fault could be placed on Spielberg for doing his job too well. Just as movies like The Princess Bride and Shaun of the Dead serve as both tributes to their genres and self-respecting examples of them, the first three Indiana Jones movies function perfectly as both tribute to (serial) action films and as action films in their own rights. Most people, though, only ever watched them on their superficial level, as action entertainment. They didn’t care about the homage elements, if they even were aware of them.
The main “fault” of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull lies squarely in George Lucas’ hands. He’s the one who decided to shift the tribute-paying aspect from ‘30s serials to ‘50s serials. It was a perfectly logical decision, since he was staying true to the very reason he had created the character and world of Indiana Jones. In fact, in fairness to him, I would have done the same thing. And I can’t think of a way around it that wouldn’t have made an even worse movie.
Unfortunately, though, Lucas didn’t seem to realize that the character as Lucas meant him to be was not what the character truly was to audiences. To most moviegoers, Indy is someone seemingly forever trapped in the ‘30s, always just ahead of a Nazi’s Luger or a native’s spear, ever on the quest for the next religious antiquity. In LaBeouf’s words, Lucas misinterpreted what he was trying to satiate.
When the film was released and fans didn’t get what they expected or perhaps wanted, they revolted. Everybody trashed the film in whole and all the parts within, whether deserving of their vitriol or not.
There is much to admire in the movie, if you do revisit it. The score is quite good, with John Williams playfully teasing the memorable motifs of Indy’s theme throughout the movie at quite amusing moments. A number of the action scenes are really well staged and shot, like the motorcycle chase through Barnett College or the opening scenes in Area 51 (although even I can’t defend that damned flying fridge scene). And Harrison Ford gave his best performance since at least the mid’-90s, adding a beautiful sardonicism that fit an older, wizened Indiana perfectly.
All in all, it’s certainly not the best Indiana Jones movie. Despite what people have said and despite what you may remember about it, though, it’s not the worst, either. It’s not even half-bad. Mostly, it’s just not what people wanted it to be. If you go back and check it out some time, knowing what you’re in store for now and perhaps with a new perspective, you may just find Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a noticeably better movie than you remember it being.
Of course, I’m just playing devil’s advocate.