The Indy Challenge: Melissa Olson on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Today the four Indiana Jones films are released on blu-ray, along with a host of special features (including the awesome TV special, The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I’ve had on VHS for decades).  To commemorate this, author Melissa Olson (Dead Spots) and I have agreed to swap blog posts defending the most maligned entries in the series. At her blog I’ll be making the case for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and here she sings the praises of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. 


Greetings, my fellow Alex Bledsoe fans. I’m glad you could join me for this half of the Indiana Jones challenge. Some would say that I’m getting the short end of the stick by having to defend the series’ fourth movie, but I beg to differ. Now, I have no intention of using this blog to argue that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a Great Film. It isn’t, certainly not the way Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade are undeniably Great Films, which I believe Alex and I would agree on. But the thing about Crystal Skull is, it also shouldn’t be what it has become: an easily dismissed joke of a movie. Because when Spielberg and Lucas set out to make Crystal Skull, they tried something fascinating. And while it didn’t really work, not the way they wanted it to, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not just another tacky piece-of-crap sequel that came out way too late and was thrown together way too shoddily (I’m looking at you, Wall Street 2 and Basic Instinct 2). There’s a line of reasoning here, a story behind Crystal Skull that you might not know about. It’s interesting. Here’s why.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to bear with me for a bit of history first, because in order to really understand Crystal Skull, you have to go back to what influenced the entire series in the first place. In the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, the US was experiencing a sudden pull towards nostalgia: the 70’s had been such a complex period, politically and socially, that there was a certain anxiety and fear in the air, a general longing for simpler, more fun times. Filmmaker George Lucas managed to have absolutely flawless timing with the release of Star Wars, which gave the people exactly what they wanted. Star Wars combined elements of beloved 1930’s serials with bits and pieces of other traditional genres: samurai stories, war epics, westerns. Star Wars is a really good movie, but it’s stupendous success owes a lot to the perfect timing of supply and demand, a match of cutting-edge technology and nostalgia for simpler stories from simpler times.

A few years later, Lucas and his pal Spielberg were kicking around some ideas for how to do it again: make a nostalgic adventure film that was deeply influenced by the style of the 1930’s serials, but still had the best technology and grandeur that 1981 had to offer. They set it in 1936 to embody the spirit of those serials, and decided to involve the world’s biggest villain at that time: Hitler. They stumbled on the historical fact that Hitler was interested in the occult, pulled in Lucas’ interest in archeology, and ran with it. Raiders of the Lost Ark twists in themes of spiritual exploration, the potential danger in a search for knowledge, the power of faith and trust, and so on. And it featured the same sort of cartoonish stunts and exaggerated facial expressions that made those serials so popular in the 30’s: an enormous pit of deadly snakes, spirits that whip around and melt the faces off the Nazis, a gigantic boulder that almost rolls over Indy, and so on.

Fast forward twenty-some years. Let’s take a moment, people, to pause and pretend that we are the mighty triumvirate of Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford. Collectively and individually, we have more money than Marie Antoinette could spend in twelve lifetimes. In addition to our individual successes, we’ve already made a beloved, timeless trilogy together that (with the possible exception of Temple of Doom, which, in addition to pretty much lacking a plot, is so saturated with obscene female and Asian stereotypes that you can breathe them in and die of bigotry) actually holds up thirty years later. The three of us miss working together, and we miss the characters and themes we built for Indiana Jones. But…we are also older, and to do a fourth film now, when Indy himself would be so obviously changed, doesn’t make any sense. There’s just no way to follow the formula of the first three films with Dr. Jones as an older guy.

But wait. Suddenly, there’s a spark. An idea, if you will. Because after 9/11, and all the political and social turmoil that followed it, wouldn’t audiences enjoy getting back to nostalgia again?  What if we could have it both ways? What if we could return to the spirit of Indiana Jones, but update it for a different age?

There was no way to get around the age problem, of course. Dr. Jones had to be aged about 20 years after Raiders, which put the story in 1957. So Spielberg and Lucas did the exact same thing they did with Raiders: they cast the real-life villain from that time period, which in this case was the Soviet Union – Communists. With that basic premise, Spielberg and Lucas put their thinking caps on. How to update Indy while keeping the same themes of spiritual exploration, the potential danger in a search for knowledge, the power of faith and trust, and so on? How could they revive the series but still bring in something new?

So they did what they did with Raiders: they focused on the pop culture of the period. Only instead of the serials from the 1930’s, they were looking at adding elements from the 1950’s favorite theme: Communists as aliens, aliens as Communists. The public’s biggest fear in the fifties was that the Commies would invade the US and turn good, hardworking American citizens into pod people, drones that were incapable of independent thought or action. And it was reflected in the American fiction of that time: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Thing From Another World (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953), and so on.

You see where I’m going with this, right? Lucas and Spielberg didn’t “jump the shark” by making Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. What they tried to do was the exact same thing they did with Raiders: they wanted to bring in the global villain and the global fear of that time, but still stir in Indiana Jones’s traditional search for truth, faith, knowledge, and especially, spirituality. In each of the first three films, Indiana Jones explores a spiritual outlook: Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity. And in the end, Indy always becomes a reluctant religious savior, a convert, however briefly. His fourth onscreen adventure does its best to continue that tradition, but this time, the religion being explored is knowledge. Stylistically, Crystal Skull does keep the original trilogy’s deference to the serials of the 30’s – the death-defying stunts, the exaggerated expressions, the derring-do – but adds in the themes from films of the 1950’s.  And that, folks, is a pretty damned interesting prospect.

But it backfired, and frankly, that had a lot more to do with us than with them. Go back, for a second, to the outlandish success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, back in 1981. I doubt very much that movie theater audiences in ‘81 shouted and griped at the screen because the boulder trap or the convoy chase sequences were unrealistic and hokey. Or the river raft drop, or the monkey brain dinner, both in Temple of Doom. They didn’t complain because in 1981, the audiences wanted to believe in Indy. They wanted that nostalgia; they’d sought it out. And Spielberg and Lucas delivered. Wild success. Champagne and increased budgets all around.

In 2008 – and today – however, audiences don’t actually want to believe in Indy anymore. We might think that we do, but really, what we want to believe is that we are smart. We are not whores for the man, in this case represented by three rich middle-aged men trying to sell us an Indiana Jones movie about aliens, for crying out loud. We will not be taken in by that bullshit, thank you very much.

But think about it. Setting your personal beliefs in God or aliens aside for a moment, is the fridge-nuclear bomb scene really any less believable than spirits flying out of the Ark and melting Nazi faces? Is a crystal skull (and there is a fascinating, real-life history of those, by the way, go Wikipedia it) any less likely to have supernatural powers than an old chest, some magical rocks, or an ancient drinking glass? Nope. The difference isn’t in the material, it’s in us.

And that is where Spielberg and Lucas made their greatest mistake; it’s how Crystal Skull got put on the geek shit list for all eternity. They misjudged what we wanted. They thought these tumultuous times meant we’d be ready for another return to nostalgia, but what we really wanted was confirmation that even though 9/11, an economic crisis, and the destruction of the planet happened on our watch, we are redeemable because those things have made us smart, shrewd, and skeptical. (Oh, and we’ve also seen an additional twenty-odd-years worth of the best movie effects money can buy, so good luck impressing us, Indy team.)

So. Back to my mission statement: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not a great movie. But it isn’t a mess, or an epic disaster, or an unholy blight on the face of a much-beloved piece of American popular culture. It’s not even the result of three rich guys getting lazy and trying to squeeze some more money out of something cool they did a long time ago. It’s just a bad call. It’s three smart guys trying to revive something they knew we loved in a way they thought was fresh. That they happened to be wrong doesn’t make it any less interesting. Maybe it even makes it more so. Because if the purpose of art is to hold a mirror up to society, then you can’t call Crystal Skull a failure. It did show us who we are. It just maybe wasn’t who we wanted to be.


2 Comments on “The Indy Challenge: Melissa Olson on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”

  1. I find the arguments put forward here fascinating, and having read both blogs must say that I honestly believe Melissa has done a far better job of defending Crystal Skull…
    Well Done!!!

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