Thursday, February 13, 2014

Was it Really That Bad?: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. by Kyle Johannessen

Indiana Jones has always been my childhood hero.  I found everything about him appealing, from the whip and the adventures to the artifacts, the amazing ability to beat the crap out of Nazis and of course, the hat. So when they announced a new Indiana Jones movie after nearly 20 years, you better believe I was extremely excited. And there I was, during the midnight release wearing my Indy hat on the edge of my seat waiting for the movie to start. Needless to say that at the end of the movie, I was less than pleased.
I was in denial for a about a week, trying to convince myself that it was a good movie, but that didn't last long.  The movie just wasn't good, and I had to deal with it. I was so disappointed that I hadn't seen the movie since its midnight release, and didn't plan on seeing it ever again. But then I started writing an Indiana Jones movie for fun (yes, fun. Why, what do you do for fun?) And it got me to thinking, was Kingdom of the Crystal Skull really that bad? So I went back to watch it after six years and I discovered some surprising things. I’m gonna run down some of the biggest complaints from the masses and see if I can respectfully disagree. And if I can’t be respectful about it, I’ll just disagree with you anyway. It’s my article!

Nuking the Fridge
Let’s start with the several megaton elephant in the room. This scene has become so ingrained in people’s minds that it finally usurped “jumping the shark” as the term when a film or movie has just gone too far. When I re-watched Kingdom it was at the end of an Indiana Jones marathon, and I have to tell you, I had a lot less of a problem with that scene than when I saw it initially. 

I think the problem with this scene is people saw it in a vacuum.  They somehow forgot that Indiana Jones is by no means a series known for its gritty realism. In the first ten minutes of the first movie he disarms a guy with a whip, shuts down an ancient booby trap set off by light, grabs an idol that appears to be set upon a complicated counterweight system and gets chased by a giant boulder.  The second movie has the infamous inflatable raft parachute scene and the mine cart chase. The Last Crusade is the closest anything comes to “realism” but that movie still has spinning saw blades still sharp after hundreds of years and an invisible bridge.

So why do people have such a problem with this moment? Again, I think it’s a matter of forgetting what kind of movie they are in the theater seeing. This isn't James Bond or Jason Bourne or The Dark Knight, this is Indiana Jones. These are supposed to be fun adventure films. You’re not supposed to think too hard about it! He gets out of tight situations in ways that you wouldn't expect! And without this scene, we would be denied the amazing image of Indy silhouetted against the mushroom cloud. Is it a little over the top for an Indy movie? Maybe. But you’ll have to explain to me how he held on to that u-boat in Raiders, or pretty much all of Temple of Doom. Hell, he meets Hitler in Last Crusade! These movies are not gritty realistic movies! They are just supposed to be fun! Stop thinking so hard!

Shia LaBeouf is So Bad in this Movie!
No, he’s not. And his character, Mutt, isn't bad either. I am no Shia fan, I think he’s a dick outside of acting and I don’t think he’s a great actor in general, but he doesn't do anything wrong in this movie. In fact, that whole scene in the diner is great for all the subtle things both Harrison Ford and Shia are doing. He’s funny in all the right moments, actually shows some emotional range when they find Oxley’s old cell at the sanatorium. He’s witnessing the madness of the only father figure he knew and has a great, natural reaction to it.

Mutt is very out of his element adventuring with Indy, and he shows that in more ways than just being clumsy. He has no idea that a larger scorpion bite is less harmful than a small one (I knew that. But don’t ask why it’s a long story), he’s quick to give up when the path isn't clearly in front of him. In a lot of ways, he’s the opposite of Indy. It’s all a callback to Last Crusade where Indy and his father don’t get along, but he performs it well.

I think the problem many people have with Shia is the monkey swinging scene and the stigma attached to him from the Transformers series, which is by no means his fault. It’s not his fault at all. You think Shia wrote that scene? Or directed it? It as in the script, and Spielberg shot it. And of course he wants to be in a big blockbuster film! The guy wants money just as much as the next person. Someone point to a scene or moment where Shia’s acting is so terrible in Kingdom? And don’t just cop out and say “the whole thing” because that just means you don’t have an argument. Shia does great with what he’s given in this movie and certainly shouldn't be listed as one of the faults of the film.

Why is there so much CGI?! I thought they were going to make an old school Indiana Jones movie!
I’ll admit, this was one of my biggest problems with the movie when I first saw it back in 2008. But on the second viewing I realized that they really only use CGI when they absolutely have to. Yes, the first thing you see is a CG Prairie Dog, and you see lots of CG prairie dogs, but that’s really the last bit of CG you see for a while. Seriously, guys, they only use it when they absolutely have to. Most of the stuff with the town exploding is a practical effect done with miniatures with some CG elements. Most of the jungle chase is actually Hawaii, I think. A surprising amount of that scene is actually shot on location if you go back and watch it.

The idea that they were going to avoid CG all together is a bit silly. They couldn't possibly do that in a modern film. It would be too expensive to build all those sets. Even Steven Spielberg has to answer to the studio budget system. So they CGed some ants and green screened the sword fight on the cars in the jungle. They HAD to! There was no other way to get these shots! They would have blue screened it or done rear projection if this movie were shot back in the day, and that would have looked no more real than what we got. They certainly didn't rely on CG to make the film.

I think most of the hate of the CG in Kingdom comes from the prequel trilogy of Star Wars. People were worried that George Lucas was going to green screen everything in Kingdom so every time a CG prairie dog or background popped up, people freaked out. They didn't actually look to see that, in fact, most of the visuals in front of them were all practical effects.

Aliens suck! What a stupid idea!
I will admit that execution of this idea wasn't done very well. But the concept itself is not something I have a problem with. I really would have like to have seen this as more of a mystery. A “maybe they are aliens, but maybe not.” Sort of thing, but they didn't go that way. The fact that there are aliens (yes, they’re aliens, fuck this “interdimensional beings” shit) isn't the problem.

All three of the previous movies require us to believe is something from the paranormal/beyond. Raider is about a chest that apparently contains the power of God himself. The Temple of Doom is about MAGIC ROCKS. Yes, MAGIC. FREAKING. ROCKS. Last Crusade had the Holy Grail, the subject of a Monty Python movie. So I ask you, why are aliens so hard to believe in? There are a vast number of ancient alien contact theories out there. Hell, the History Channel even has a show all about them. Can’t they be within the realm of Indy’s possibilities?

This is one of the problems with Kingdom that I’m discussing (there are plenty more, I’ll get to that later) that can really be traced right back to the film itself. It was just poor execution on the filmmaker’s part. The mystery is gone within the first 15 minutes, and it’s disappointing that it had to be this way.  I mean, I couldn't even get through the first paragraph of this section without calling it shit. It’s a poor execution of an otherwise interesting concept.

So what does this all mean? Is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull really THAT bad? Well, yes and no. I had a much better experience with the film on my second viewing, and my third as I brushed up for this article. However, the movie does still fail in some monumental ways. The character of Mac is ridiculous, they give Marion, one of my favorite Indy girls, absolutely nothing to do, the movie really goes off the rails in the last half, and the ending makes almost no sense what so ever.

There are a lot of good things about the movie as well. The first hour of the film is really well done and a lot of fun to watch, Harrison Ford is great to watch as Indy - I don’t care how old he gets - and the action is still well done. What the real shame is that it’s fairly apparent that Steven Spielberg wasn't really interested in making this film, and I feel a lot of the mistakes that the film makes (other than wasting Marion, that’s a script problem) were due to his lack of creativity and passion for the project. Could this movie have been better? Oh, so much so. But is it the terrible movie that murders our childhood while we sleep? No, not even close.


  1. The thing about the original Indy films is that they were love letters to pulp nooks and serials of that era. Indy4 takes place years later and is now in a post war America and as such it now begins to emulate comics, sci-fi, and the movies of the 50s. In that regard it is a wonderful film, and evolves instead of just being stuck in 30s pulp.

  2. I could not agree more about the genre emulation switch, that is something i truly liked about the movie, though I found it problematic. I also liked the hidden Mccarthyism/freedom of thought plot that ran throughout the movie.
    - Jarys

  3. Interesting and well thought out article, but I unfortunately have to disagree with most of it.

    On the fridge: yes, it true that there was always humor in the Indiana Jones movies, and impossible stunts that defy physics, but in Crystal Skull they are presented in such a way that is too self-referential. The fridge scene is just so utterly rediculious even by action movie standards that it took me out of the movie. There was always a grittiness and realism to the original Indiana Jones - even in its more rediculious moments. KOTCS seemed more like wacky hi-jinx.Again, don't get me wrong; the older films had plenty of silly physics-defying moments, but they were usually pretty minor and not super over the top. The problem with the fridge is that it asks the audience to suspend their disbelief just a bit too much.

    When people want to defend Crystal Skull they often use things like the raft from Temple of Doom, the submarine ride of Raiders or the supernatural elements. The comparisons never stand because the execution in those three movies was different. Those movies managed to keep the tension and excitement throughout their duration, Crystal Skull was all about making us know no one was ever going to really get hurt because it was like a Looney Tunes cartoon.

    On Shia leBoeuf: I actually agree here and I don't agree with a lot of the hate for Shia leBoeuf. The character of Mutt makes sense to me. But he's poorly written. Completely out of character , he is set up to have prior training in fencing so that conveniently he can have a silly fight scene at the end with the villain. Maybe he should have been a tough guy wannabe who was totally useless until the very end when he does something brave? That would be better character development, and feel more real. Having him fight in such a stupid and unrealistic manner at the end seemed forced and made Indiana Jones a little pointless. It also drifted into the “had to give them something to do” territory, which is never a good sign.

    CGI: I mostly agree here, the CGI was pretty seamless for the most part. But I hated the cartoon prairie dogs. And the jungle chase scene was digitally enhanced to the point where it started to look fake. It just doesn't sit with you right. Compare to the excellent practical chase scene in Raiders of the Lost Arc.

    Aliens: I agree that Aliens in Indiana Jones is weird and strange. It could have been good if it were done right. There was lots of archaeological adventure stuff with the Russians that could have been used, even perhaps involving aliens or a sci-fi element (Sputnik), but instead we got a weird plot about inter-dimensional aliens that made little sense.

    And at its core Temple of Doom isn't really about the magic rocks (which fits with the mystical/spiritual elements of the other films), but it's really about bringing life back to the Indian village.

    I also disliked the way the filmakers dishonestly claimed that Indiana Jones 4 was an homage to the 1950s B movies, in the same way as the original films were an homage to the 1930s adventure serials. This movie had nothing to do with those old 1950s movies - it's just the same adventure serial crap from the first 3 movies except with an alien thing in it.

  4. Very good article. Nice to see someone seeing the movie for what it is. A fun adventure movie. Sure there things that could be better.
    But people getting upset over the whole fridge scene. If in the Indy universe a guy can keep living after his heart is ripped out. A fridge can save you from a nuke.