David Ehrlich on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
You may have heard that there’s a scene in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in which the cinema’s most iconic archaeologist survives an atomic blast by hiding inside of a lead refrigerator. The incident occurs about 20 minutes into the grizzled whip-cracker’s fourth feature-length adventure—widely considered to be the series’ best (note to self: fact-check this later)—and it follows a scene in which a small squadron of Russian soldiers infiltrated Area 51, unveiled an alien corpse, and got derailed by an arthritic part-time college professor who’s so bad at his job that . . . well, these were supposed to be his office hours. So it’s safe to say that, even before the scene in question, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, like the earlier films in its series, doesn’t feel particularly beholden to realism.
Nevertheless, a certain stripe of moviegoer might have you believe that the moment devalues the entire Indiana Jones franchise. But a closer look at the film—so quickly disregarded as the candied, counterfeit distillation of a hallowed film hero—reveals this sequence as a possible key to solving the Indiana Jones mythos, proving Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a vital (if imperfect) chapter of this beloved saga, as necessary for its hero as it was for its maker.
The evidence suggests that Spielberg was mighty reluctant to make a fourth Indiana Jones, and for reasons that extended beyond the obvious implications of anyone resurrecting such a holy film franchise. To that end, there’s a moment in the first act during which the traitorous Mac Michale (a shiny, round Ray Winstone) explains his betrayal to Indy by pointing his fingers down the barrel of the camera’s lens and cooly stating, “What can I say, Jonesy? I’m a capitalist, and they pay.” It’s a rare bit of defensive posturing from a man who has managed to become the cinema’s most important living pop artist without ever sacrificing the integrity of his voice or vision, and the implication is clear: “You asked for this.”
But Spielberg’s diegetic apology—like those he’s offered during interviews in the years since the film’s release—is most surprising because it’s almost entirely unwarranted. Perhaps this was always going to be the case: Spielberg has conceded that he never fully supported the plot’s controversial reliance upon interdimensional beings, but ultimately chose to yield to the series’ grand vizier, his best friend George Lucas. Nevertheless, the film itself isn’t the work of a man wracked by doubt—Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is boisterous, hyperfluid, and ends on a note that resolves a tension that’s weighed upon the franchise since 1989.
For over four decades, Spielberg has obsessively struggled to reconcile the opposing ideals of the modern man: the fight for domesticity and the thirst for adventure. His films acknowledge the need for the latter but ultimately rule in favor of the former, families (nuclear or otherwise) and the real immediacy of their love positioned as the satisfying consolation prize for the hero’s impossible dream. In Spielberg’s films, family is almost never conflated with adventure but always counter to it. E.T. wants to go home, and the movie ends as soon as he’s on his way. Catch Me If You Can’s Frank Abagnale Jr. starts running the moment his family fractures, and stops only when he accepts Carl Hanratty as his surrogate father. War of the Worlds comes to an immediate end as soon as that angry little man is reunited with his ex-wife and moron son.
It’s an idea pivotal to Spielberg’s identity as a storyteller, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull serves as further affirmation of the domineering centrality it holds over his work. The crux of Indy’s appeal is that he’s the rare hero whose romantic bravado and derring-do are at once both unique and recyclable. His roguish appeal is a timeless one, but Indy belongs to a very particular era, and the idea of immortality runs through the series as a trap for the foolish and greedy. Whereas the James Bond franchise requires its hero to be stuck on an endless succession of missions, the Indiana Jones films are powered by the promise of replacement, of heroes being reborn rather than simply recast. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ends with Indy having to actually let go of the Holy Grail—the most literal incarnation of his father’s life’s pursuit, and an object that seduces people with its promise of immortality—in order to ride off into the sunset with his dad. The film positions adventure and family as mutually exclusive paths, and for almost twenty years it appeared as if the franchise would end with Indy practically resigning himself to the latter.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull amends that conclusion, showing Spielberg returning to his most iconic hero not because he feels that he was wrong, but because he seems to have learned that Indy should never have been forced to pick between an eternity alone or a family life together. Naturally, the only way to have Indy make that discovery for himself was to saddle him with a son of his own, repositioning everyone’s favorite snake-hating adventurer so that he would once again have to confront the dilemma that forced his hand at the end of Last Crusade, but this time from a markedly different perspective.
Essentially, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the story of Indiana Jones rebuilding the notion of the modern family in his own image, a notion that was disregarded when the discourse surrounding the film’s spectacular opening sequence began to center on how Indy survives it, and not what’s destroyed in the process. When Indy dismounts from the giant rocket on which he’s traveled straight into the heart of a nuclear test site (nope, no memes there), it initially appears as if he’s arrived in an idyllic desert ghost town. The streets are paved, the houses are pastel, and the people are plastic—it’s the most intensely foreign place Indy’s adventures have ever taken him: suburbia. Indy ducks into a living room in hopes of finding a way to escape the imminent blast, and there he finds a model family of four sitting together on a sofa (he takes advantage of their unused fridge). When the bomb detonates a few seconds later, Spielberg cuts away from the carnage outside to revisit these particular mannequins, and we watch from several different angles as they’re blown to bits: the nuclear family writ large and disintegrated. When a bedraggled Indy emerges from the fridge a few minutes (and miles) later, he hasn’t just escaped a fiery death, he’s also escaped an even greater fear.
Indiana Jones, we’re reminded soon thereafter, is the worst loner in film history. All he wants is to do his own thing and to do it by himself, but despite his best efforts he always manages to be stuck with all sorts of sidekicks (to quote Temple of Doom’s Short Round, “Indy! Cover your heart! Cover your heart!”). Of all Indy’s unwanted companions, Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf) is the least unlikely—his skills as a misanthrope are so pathetically underdeveloped that he and Indy are instantly simpatico. Mutt has become Indy in absentia, but they need each other in order to embark on their latest adventure. Where Indy actively searched for his father in Last Crusade in order to kick the plot into gear, here Indy’s son does the same for him.
Adventure and family form the twin-piston engine that powers most Spielberg films, an antagonistic pas-de-deux that must be resolved in favor of the latter in order for the film to end. It’s an idea that the Indiana Jones films attempt to couch in the dialectic between academia and the field, the two worlds between which any archaeologist is torn. Soon after Mutt’s introduction, Spielberg hints that he’s intent on complicating this dichotomy, as—for the first time in the series—the action of Indy’s adventures spill into the hallowed halls of his institution, Marshall College (a frantic motorcycle chase ends with Indy crashing through the library, where one of his students is on hand to ask their professor a question).
Indy’s quest is complicated further by the second-act reintroduction of his old flame, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), and the subsequent revelation that Mutt is their bastard child. That last bit of information is only shared with our hero, who is a bit slow on the uptake, as he’s sinking in a pool of quicksand, the image baldly illustrating the extent to which Indy regards family as a burden.
Of course, Mutt and Marion soon prove to be valuable cohorts as Indy clashes against Cate Blanchett’s dastardly Irina Spalko (a psychic KGB agent with the cinema’s most sinister bob cut) in their race to obtain the knowledge of the skulls, and their contributions force Indy to reconsider one character’s earlier assessment that he’s “Reached the age where life stops giving us things, and starts taking them away.” On the contrary, as someone who is both an archaeologist and a teacher, Indy is professionally dedicated to the idea that things can only be lost if they’re not preserved and passed along. His prevailing passions, unlike those of so many of Spielberg’s other protagonists, are thus inextricably linked to the idea of family and how information flows from father to son as it does through artifacts from one civilization to another. In Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, family is not opposed to Indy’s yen for action and adventure, but related to it.
The transience of Indy’s existence (in stark contrast to the relative permanence of the relics he works to uncover) is made visually palpable in this installment in a way unique to the series, as the swooping, spatially unifying camerawork emblematic of Spielberg’s post-millennial cinema immediately sets apart Kingdom of the Crystal Skull from the three Indiana Jones films that preceded it. In retrospect, the kinetic action here plays like a limp dry run for the compositional ballet of The Adventures of Tintin, but nevertheless these scenes work to constantly redefine Indy’s place in relation to the world around him, and to collapse his actions in the same frame as those of Mutt and Marion. The jungle chase sequence, for example, uses a wide shot to isolate the Jeep Indy shares with his family from the vehicle steered by Irina and her henchmen, driving the action down two parallel lines that only Mutt can straddle.
As the film ends, the villains have once again been destroyed by their lust for knowledge, and Indiana Jones has survived by settling for the smiling arms of a misshapen family. Some fans were miffed at the idea that Indiana Jones would ever get married because they felt it contrary to his character, but Indy’s ultimate commitment to being involved in his son’s life satisfies the most pressing tension of his existence. Moreover, in snatching his iconic fedora back from Mutt after the wind threatens to blow it away, Indy indicates that he’s not quite ready to hang up the whip, countering the popular dictum of Spielberg schmaltz that family is only a motivating factor when it’s absent. Indy has learned that adventure is something he’s never been much good at by himself.