By Michael Koresky
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Dir. Steven Spielberg, U.S., Paramount
In American cinema, old age is diagnosed as a sickness, and response to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, both preproduction and post-release, is the perfect example of how media and public both exacerbate the condition. Harrison Ford diaper jokes began cropping up when the film was announced, and even now that the final product has hit theaters discourse generally hasn’t risen above the Space Cowboys level. Yet age isn’t merely tangential to the success or failure of this, the fourth installment of the Indiana Jones series—it’s as much an inextricable part of the film (its physicality, visual textures, narrative momentum, and editing necessities) as it was with David Lynch’s The Straight Story. In that film, the journey was set at the pace of Richard Farnsworth’s disabled gait; while Ford, at age 65, may not have been as old or infirm as Farnsworth, 79 at the time of Straight Story’s shoot, the comparison is helpful. Generous filmmakers must pitch their works at the tenor of all mitigating factors and all those involved—not an argument against auteurism per se, but a fair approximation of how the filmmaking apparatus is necessarily in thrall to the circumstances of inevitable outside forces. It’s up to Spielberg then to make vital what might seem past its prime, to harness those elements which call attention to the film's datedness and bound past them with youthful vigor.
If Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull functions on the purest level as a nostalgia machine—a reminder of celluloid’s dominance as the twentieth-century’s most popular art form, of Spielberg’s position at Hollywood’s mountaintop, of film’s very intrinsic pleasures—then it’s also just as much an attempted confirmation of Harrison Ford’s continued vitality. One might argue that I’m confusing Ford with the iconic hero he’s playing, but whether Ford can once again inhabit the skin of the daring professor-cum-archeologist, now past retirement age, is fairly inextricable from the question of whether Jones can remain a viable hero. And it’s not a matter of mere grumpiness or the deep crevices of crow’s feet; rather, watching Ford try to grasp his way through the thicket of Crystal Skull’s plot requires a leap of faith not unlike that which Jones took from the stone lion’s mouth at the close of Last Crusade. Not vacant or befuddled, but rather intent and enthusiastic all the while trapped behind a body that can’t quite keep up, Ford is hugely sympathetic in this presumably final Indiana Jones film; in conversational, expository scenes his lips occasionally quiver, possibly moving with the rhythm of his thoughts, and his eyes dart, not disinterestedly but with the slight frustration of someone who feels like time is marching on without him. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that Jones seems more in his element when swinging from a whip or crawling from a motorcycle through the window of a speeding car—it’s not the physical that now seems to elude him, but possibly the capacity to process this information and why he should care.
This isn’t a weakness on the film’s part however, but a deepening of the gravitas of a character who was always precariously perched on the edge between flesh-and-blood and cartoon. It also grants Ford more of an overt audience identification than ever before, with mugging and grimaces replaced by genuine stabs at human connection—there’s a particularly winning moment when Ford first meets the upstart adventurer and obvious Marlon Brando-aping Mutt Williams (Shia Lebeouf, weak and annoyingly slack-jawed as ever), and the two chat it up in a prefab-looking Fifties diner. Thanks to Spielberg's decision to present the scene in a largely uninterrupted two-shot, we see Ford staring back at the young man with a kind of dopey awe: the man is giving a grandfatherly, wincing smile, and it’s lovingly paternal and conciliatory—even if the film finally refuses to officially pass the torch, Ford seems ready himself.
Time passes, and no matter how often American cinema tries to reassert its own masculine supremacy by throwing its old bones back into the saddle (Stallone in his recent Rocky and Rambo outings; Schwarzenegger in his current governorship), age always prevails. Yet if the laws of gravity are unavoidable on the body and mind, they don’t seem to apply to Spielberg’s newly slapdash arsenal of visual effects. The obvious digital fakery that overtakes the second half of the film is strange for Spielberg, known for always being on the vanguard of effects; he has time and again evinced a perfectionism, beginning with 1993’s Jurassic Park, in seamlessly integrating the digital into the analog, and always using the right balance of scaled model work with computer-generated imagery. The dazzling, melancholy spectacle in A.I. Artificial Intelligence of a female mecha’s face splitting open into glittering circuitry without denying the palpable quivering of human flesh set the bar for CGI; even when Spielberg sped things up for the chase scenes in Minority Report and War of the Worlds, he seemed to capture the results with an oddly contradictory hallucinatory verité, carnage glimpsed from the corner of the eye, fantastic future worlds that nevertheless felt grounded in hopeless reality. It’s been quite a while since Spielberg jumped forthrightly into action, without studious reflection on the cinematic representation of violence; this isn’t to venture that the Indiana Jones films weren’t concerned with this, but the distinct style that Spielberg has foregrounded in these films, with their thick conglomeration of images and content lifted from B-movie serials, comic books, paperback adventures, and beyond, nevertheless sets them apart from the rest of his more sober-minded oeuvre. This is certainly true of his later films, since following Schindler’s List Spielberg vowed to no longer employ Nazis as broadly stroked cartoon villains; if that film galvanized the director, creating a clear demarcation point in his career (In his mind, at least) between then and now, in terms of both visual realism and an increasing commitment to overt social themes, then where does this new film fit within the Spielberg trajectory?
For Spielberg, as much as for Ford, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is an aging man’s confused grappling with seemingly familiar territory; the elements are all in place but how then to navigate them with newfound perspective? In a literal sense, the film is utterly untenable, a smorgasbord of perfunctory fantastic-historical elements mashed up into nearly nonsensical oblivion; but then if one simply dismisses David Koepp’s octopod script as a Spielberg greatest-hits collection (not only do we get riffs from 1941’s bobbysox-and-boxing diner brawl to Close Encounters’s extraterrestrials, there’s even a bit from the Spielberg-produced CG-pioneer Young Sherlock Holmes and imagery borrowed from “The Main Attraction,” the second ever episode of Spielberg’s short-lived Amazing Stories television series, about a high-school athlete who becomes magnetized by a meteor) then one also misses the honorable attempt at emotional reconciliation and the thematic consistency running through the film. The opening sequences especially show a Spielberg on sure footing; over the credits is a brilliantly vertiginous blast, a mostly tire-level speed-race between a jalopy full of soda-fountain teens and a military vehicle of scowling troopers en route to a Nevada nuclear testing facility. Set to Presley’s “Hound Dog,” it’s a sly, tongue-in-cheeky beginning that, while not as instantly jaw-dropping as Raiders of the Lost Ark’s jungle obstacle course, thrillingly unexpected as Temple of Doom’s Busby Berkeley number, or as primal in its engagement as Last Crusade’s shoot-for-the-stars myth origin, sets things off on a fittingly ominous note, while also immediately establishing time and place. Anything can happen, and for the next two hours, Spielberg proves, for better and for worse, that it does; these opening images of intergenerational bumper cars, as well as an imminent, instantly classic set piece that finds Indy lost within an alarmingly model perfect Levittown simulacrum on a nuclear test site, smartly set in motion a plot that will see Indy reunited with family, including a son he never knew he had. Ford confusedly stumbling upon a (literal) nuclear family mere moments before vaporization is a perfect visual representation of the character’s continued rejection and distrust of domesticity; Jones looks terribly out of place between four walls and a roof, let alone surrounded by ephemera of the 1950s product boom, and the irony of a commodified community constructed explicitly for the purposes of extinction is thick.
After narrowly, wonderfully, ludicrously escaping from incineration by hiding himself in a lead-lined Frigidaire and being jettisoned away from the blast, Indy finishes off the sequence by witnessing the grandiloquent carnage of a mushroom cloud overtaking the desert, framed majestically on the left hand of the ’scope screen; it’s the hope and fear of the Eisenhower years, diffused with comic-book nostalgia (one of Ford’s first lines, ambivalently delivered: “I like Ike,” before being pummeled by a Russian soldier). Yet alongside these exquisitely mounted, intellectually legible sequences, Spielberg and Koepp are also laying the foundations for Crystal Skull’s slightly unhinged through-line, which concerns the efforts of dastardly Stalinist doctor and colonel Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) to enlist Indy’s help in retrieving the titular skull, thought to be an advanced extraterrestrial life form that grants psychic powers. With its nearly rote rattling off of cultural touchstones (which also include Roswell and El Dorado), and devil-may-care map-hopping, Crystal Skull is convoluted perhaps, but no more ridiculous in theory than the earlier films, with their captivating mix of the historical and the fantastic—or more to the point, the secular and the spiritual. And here is where Crystal Skull is both alike and lacking, in comparison to the earlier films, particularly the first and third; in their unholy marriage of mysticism and grounded twentieth-century wartime conflict, Raiders and Last Crusade shook with a metaphysical fury, and the punishments meted out to the villains weren’t mere plot-fueled just desserts but bursts of Godlike vengeance at those who presumed to overtake his authority—there was something elemental and enormously satisfying about watching Nazis explode, melt, and disintegrate in agonizingly brutal ways at the very moment of their greatest hubris.
On the contrary, Crystal Skull’s slightly bland UFO plot is a bit rarefied and cultish, and hardly enough to support its attempted grappling with something as heady as the limits of “all knowledge,” which Spalko hopes the skull will impart to her. And though allegorically it fits rather well into the film’s updated Cold War framework, with the skull functioning as an explicit metaphor for the atomic age (and thus tying nicely into Spielberg’s oeuvre in its evocations of the dangers of unchecked, fascistically employed technological advance: see also Jurassic Park, Minority Report), Spielberg somehow seems unable (or unwilling) to visually or emotionally invest this installment’s talisman with true metaphysical heft. This is something of a flipside to what Spielberg normally achieves: the wonder of the mundane, the imbuing of the object with life, the vivid and glowing in the everyday. It’s a strategy of the Indiana Jones films that the chintzy rest side by side with the chaste, but the crystal skull itself is too often treated as a piece of cheap goods, tossed around like so much weightless pirate booty within a succession of lightning-quick chase sequences; by the time the film reaches its abrupt climax it’s hardly the audience’s fault for not taking the film’s central spiritual concerns seriously enough, as Spielberg himself hasn’t seemed to, so busy is he trying to ensure that his viewers get their money’s worth, jam-packing his rocket-fueled second hour with enough disconnected mayhem (waterfalls, triple-crosses, and monkeys, oh my!) for an entire new trilogy.
In addition to audience engagement, another casualty of Spielberg’s oddly neurotic fast-forwarding is Karen Allen, reappearing as Indy’s beloved original love interest, Marion Ravenwood. There’s been a lot of good will surrounding the decision to bring her back, all of which gets somewhat crushed by seeing how perfunctorily incorporated she is into the final film, yet as he does with Ford, Spielberg seems to have to work around her rather than with her. Like Ford’s, Allen’s performance (though highlighted by that beatifically wide smile and the visage of a 56-year-old woman who looks blessedly like an actual 56-year-old woman) is greatly made up of awkwardly clipped one-liners, distracting ADR work, and mid-action reaction shots; she’s now strangely muted, and though she’s integral, especially in the film’s final reassertion of family (it’s the most traditionally Spielbergian of all the films in the series, in this sense), she’s allowed barely a hint of the idiosyncrasies and feisty, even barbaric repartee that made her such a stand-out figure in the series in the first place. Marion’s merely a sketch of her former self, thrown a few bones so she can play at snarling with her long-ago paramour, but she's more a signpost and time-marker than a proper foil. She’s not much different from the framed photo of Sean Connery circa 1989, propped up on Ford’s desk: an image, a reminder of flesh and blood. Unlike Connery, Ford and Allen showed up, but they’re similarly shadows.
Approaching Crystal Skull from a strictly auteurist stance and focusing only on its thematic consistencies rather than its occasional failings doesn’t do the film, or Spielberg, any favors. The director is still unparalleled in his ability to choreograph spatially coherent and emotionally engaging action sequences—check out the marvelous, clean lines of that opening warehouse escape, which, despite a pulse-pounding pace, still leaves a moment to wittily survey a busted-open box housing the ark of the covenant; or a thrilling chase from KGB agents on university grounds, in which Ford jumps from a speeding motorcycle into a car’s open window and then out the other side, back onto the bike, elegantly and economically—but there’s something newly mechanical about them. It would be too easy to say that Spielberg and his co-producer George Lucas are merely raiders of a lost art here, trying to bring back a form that’s now been dated two times over (at this point in time, a new Indiana Jones movie is nothing if not a pop-cultural palimpsest), but with Crystal Skull coming at a very particular point in its director’s career, one can’t help but wonder what it truly means to him, and therefore to us.