Indiana Jones and the dawning self-realization

I recently screened Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on Blu-ray, and a few things struck me, not least of which is how much I really enjoy the film. I posted a bit about it to Twitter, and predictability got some pushback about the film. If Internet commentary is to be believed, it’s not a very good movie. But why should I trust Internet commentary when I have the evidence of my own two eyes? It made me wonder why I like the film when so many other people don’t, and I came to a few conclusions.

First of all, I’m not stranger to liking genre movies dismissed by the fans of said genre. After all, I’m on record as an ardent support of the Star Wars prequels. I used to think that I liked those movies not because of any inherent quality, but because I have a blind spot when it comes to Star Wars that allows me to love it unconditionally. But in light of Crystal Skull‘s reception, I no longer think that is the case.

[[image:indiana-jones-raiders-lost-ark-1605.jpg:Indiana Jones and the Golden Age of Sci-Fi:center:0]]

I think my appreciation for the recent Indiana Jones movies and the Star Wars prequels comes from the same place as my love of Flash Gordon, Doc Savage, Conan the Barbarian, John Carter of Mars, The Shadow, and Tarzan. Those movies are throwbacks to a different kind of story-telling, one uncomplicated by the trends common to today’s movies. These films are pulpy adventure stories, and I suppose I’m part of the minority that still enjoys that style. Doc Savage could easily survive any number of nuclear blasts — so why not Indy? One of the most maligned bits in the most recent Indy movie is the scene that pays direct homage to Tarzan; that scene put a huge smile on my face. The whole plot of the movie is a nod to the popular themes in the digest Science Fiction magazines of the 1950s, as much as the previous films were inspired by the pulp adventure stories of the 1930s and ’40s.

I’m not trying to change any minds. Genre fans today seem to much prefer the rebooted, darker Battlestar Galactica series over what I think is the superior original. Fandom today has left pulp adventure behind, and with the success of The Dark Knight movie studios seem happy to inject darkness into any and every genre film, no matter how much that might not fit the source material. Do we really need a “dark” Superman movie? The Dark Knight was not good because of its shadowy themes, but because the noirish crime story fit the character and the director’s style so well. I love Batman, but not every character can be as tormented as conflicted as Bruce Wayne. It’d be tedious.

Crystal Skull has helped me to realize that the reason I’m championing it, instead of recent popular genre movies such as 300, is that it’s part of a long tradition of adventure tales that might not appeal to the audiences of today — but that I still love.

38 thoughts on “Indiana Jones and the dawning self-realization

  1. I’m as much of a sucker for pulp fun as anyone else (I’d kill for an Indy movie involving Pacific Rim air pirates during WWII, etc) but I’m an even bigger sucker for tightly-wound narratives and plots/characters that make sense – two things that Crystal Skull distinctly lacked.

    I can’t watch that flick without being yanked right out of the movie by it’s dodgy interior logic (the crystal skulls are sometimes magnetic, sometimes not?), the utter uselessness of the Fat Brit Who Keeps On Betraying Everyone and Whose Death At The End Surprises No One and the vast amount of sludgy CGI slathered over the entire last third of the movie.

    At least it had Karen Allen in it though, so, you know, it wasn’t *all* bad.

  2. I mostly agree on Crystal Skull. I feel like it did an admirable job of being a pulpy tribute to campy 50’s sci-fi, just like the older Indy films provided a tribute to the older dimestore adventure fiction in the H. Rider Haggard vein. The only problem there is that the adventure setting fits the character better, and the whole alien element felt lame in comparison.

    I was also a little disappointed that Indy had been elevated to some sort of Godly status — part of Harrison Ford’s charm is usually how he takes a beating and keeps on fighting, but he never once seems to be in any real danger in Crystal Skull.

    I can’t agree with you on the Star Wars prequels, though. The tone is irrelevant–the scripts are simply awful. Lucas’s fondness for special effects and his poor direction in the sequels shows he long ago forgot the magic elements that made his movies great.

  3. Well put. I was able to forgive a lot of the sillier moments in both Indy 4 and the Star Wars sequels just because I figured they were throwbacks – if not specific references – to older serials, most of which were produced long before I was born and therefore not terribly familiar with. I could be wrong but that’s what it always felt like. Despite what people may claim, Lucas and Spielburg aren’t morons – those scenes were definitely there for a reason. I think they either misjudged any potential reaction to them, or just don’t care.

  4. You had me at “ardent supporter of Star Wars prequels” (cause I kind of like them too, at times), and completely lost me at “superior original BSG.” Sorry! Also, I haven’t seen Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but I really can’t imagine it being as awful as people say.

  5. To be clear, I LIKE Crystal Skull. There are just a few things about it that bug me.

    Old BSG is pretty crap, though, and not anywhere near as good as the new one. On this I will stand firm!

  6. Crystal Skull was brain-dead, preposterous, with generally bad dialogue and poorly defined characters. It was stupid, and the worst of the Indy films.

    It was, however, still entertaining. I mostly enjoyed my time watching it, and certainly don’t regret seeing it. I wouldn’t pick it up on DVD or anything though.

  7. indy 4 could’ve been one of the best indy movies had the script been better. The movie had too many characters and by the second half everybody’s just a cardboard cutout (marian for example only had like 2 lines). I know Indiana Jones was never particularly deep or thought provoking when it comes to characterization, but the Crystal Skull leaves you feeling like you just got off a theme park ride rather than an epic quest (as in Raiders, Last Crusade)…

    that said I think indy 4 gets too much hate, and I hope a new movie is on the way in the near future

  8. I think a question you might ask yourself about Indy4 (or the Star Wars prequels, for that matter) is, how often have you found yourself quoting from Indy4? The answer is probably 0. There just wasn’t anything really gripping or memorable about it, and in that sense, yeah, I think it ranks well below the other movies. I don’t think Indiana Jones could have made his reputation based on that movie. I agree with the other commenters that the problem isn’t the content so much as, like, especially compared to RotLA, it’s such a sloppy, dumb movie.

  9. Its worth as a movie has nothing to do with an artificial “quotability” quotient in comparison with its predecessors, especially seeing as the time frame and cultural context is completely different. I personally quite liked Indy 4, great fun.

  10. Was it as good as the other movies? Two words for you: Shia LaBeouf. Box office poison.

  11. How are “GODDAMN ALIENS” any worse than the boogiemen of various mythologies? God’s hitmen melted the Nazis’ faces, Kali’s henchmen ripped people’s hearts out and made people into zombies with the blood of Kali, and Jesus’ pimp chalice gave people immortality…

    How are those older myths less ridiculous of the modern American myth regarding flying saucers?

    The “GODDAMN ALIENS” criticism seems to not exactly understand the point of Indiana Jones… it’s always been about ridiculous adventures involving fantastic elements.

  12. My beef with indy 4 isnt that it’s ridiculous, or about aliens, but that it’s kinda boring and flat. I have only seen it once, so I cant really say what it was but it didnt grab me. There are highlights: I like the fridge, the chase on campus, Shia The Beef, ants eating dude and “I am become death”

  13. For my money, a big part of the reason that Lost Ark and Last Crusade are good is that the action mostly stayed in the realm of quasi-plausibility. Brain-dead, ridiculously over-the-top action sequences of the sort that Crystal Skull employs are a dime a dozen. I would prefer my Indiana Jones films to be a cut above that.

  14. I really enjoyed this movie despite reading about all the hate online. I rented it from Netflix so I am not bitter about purchasing it however. I think that if I had bought it for retail price, perhaps my mood would be more sour.

    Regardless, still entertaining. I got what I expected: Indy jumping, swinging, punching, and wooing his way to freedom. The warehouse scene rocked btw!

  15. A key ingredient to the “feel” of Indiana Jones has been fucked-up supernatural phenomena, and aliens just don’t fit that bill. They’re just…aliens. And pretty boring aliens at that. With plastic quasi-magnetic skulls packed with tin foil. Bah.

    The aliens could’ve worked better if the movie had a build-up to the big “OMG ITS ALIENS” reveal if their connection to the plot had been more tightly connected to an archeological quest, rather than slapping the audience with the Area 51/alien cadaver stuff right off the bat.

  16. I’m with Chud666… It wasn’t really bad or good enough to be get excited about. Even if you thought it was an awesome movie, I don’t think anyone can really make the case that Crystal Skulls was a better cap on the series than Last Crusade. It was kinda like Alien: Resurrection… Wait a minute, what am I saying? It wasn’t THAT bad.

  17. Something I didn’t get into was how much hate Indy 4 got before it even released. Many people seemingly decided to hate it simply based on the fact that it included aliens as the macguffin, and that Shia LeBeouf was in the film. Is Shia disliked simply because he is an alum of the Disney channel? He’s certainly a more talented actor than many of his contemporaries, and his starring role in Holes shows that he can carry an entertaining movie.

    The macguffin doesn’t really matter all that much — it’s the device that pulls the characters through the plot. Whether it is aliens or a magical religious relic at the end doesn’t change the mechanics of the plot too much.

  18. The reason I don’t like Crystal Skull is because Indy is completely irrelevant to the plot of the film. Remove him from the story, and what happens? The Nazi woman does everything she wanted to do, which happened even with Indy there, and ultimately fails and dies due to her misunderstanding of the skulls’ purpose, which happened even with Indy there. He didn’t make a difference one way or the other. In an Indiana Jones movie, he should be the protagonist–not simply the audience’s viewpoint character for a series of events that would chug along with or without him.

  19. I dunno, the nature of a macguffin can matter quite a bit, especially in a movie like this. I still maintain that one of the spookiest aspects of the Ark was that it’s opening proved that some aspects of the Bible were true – specifically that there IS a God, and that God can be one pissed off mofo…which is a hell of a lot more intimidating/interesting than a macguffin that leads to the discovery that “yeah, aliens really exist, and they’re kind of mercurial jerks.”

  20. I admit an initial recoil at the mention of aliens, as the supernatural elements of the previous films were always more spiritual, less sci-fi. However, my respect for it hopped up a bit once it clicked in my mind that the crystal skulls (which I’d heard of before) ARE associated with aliens often enough, which in turn made me happy to see other alien-associated relics included, such as the Nazca Plains. But, I really felt that more travel TO such sites would’ve helped. My main complaint with the film remains that the film was a movie about a very light “plot,” and that it felt like all the characters were just passengers to the plot, rather than the engine of it.

  21. So what macguffin should an Indiana Jones movie set in the 1950s use? I think red scare / flying saucers fit the time period the film is set in.

    The macguffin works for me in that it puts Indy in situations where he can fire a bazooka at a tank-like deforestation vehicle, fist fight a hulking commie where the loser is devoured by giant ants (another nod to 1950s sci-fi), etc.

  22. What should’ve been the 50’s macguffin? A pair of opening-day tickets to Disneyland. A haunted Frida Kahlo painting. The Iron Giant! Or at least a piece of him.

    Seriously though, it’s been established that Spielberg and Ford didn’t care much for Lucas’s aliens-as-macguffin idea either, which is why it took so long to get Indy IV off the ground in the first place.

  23. Ooh, I do like the idea of Indy finding pieces of a giant robot. Fits the pulpy SF thing they were going for. I feel some fanfiction coming on.

    Just kidding, I haven’t written any fanfiction since I was 8 and wrote a sequel to Gremlins. (I’m not counting the story I wrote about a certain Konami producer, as that was a dumb joke).

  24. Honestly, they jettisoned the Red Scare thing right after he left America. That was the best thing about the movie and they threw it away. Kate Blanchett’s Soviet Nazi character was boring and kind of embarrassing. Shia LaBeouf outright sucks. Ford looked every day of his 66 years. Karen Allen had nothing to do in the movie and looked like my mom on Vicodin for most of it. It was nostalgic to see Indy don the hat and whip one more time, but I was constantly reminded how much sharper and iconic he was in Raiders.

  25. How can you defend a movie that had one of it’s main characters swinging on vines like Tarzan alongside a pack of monkeys? Indy IV just wasn’t any fun to watch at all, every moment that should have been a good laugh or cool just elicited groans from me and my friends.

  26. As an 8-year old, my idea of a Gremlins sequel was “Hey, they didn’t find all the bad Gremlins!” They start multiplying again and take over the town. It was basically a rehash of the first film– something the real sequel wasn’t at all. Thank the maker Joe Dante was a lot more creative than the 8y/o me.

  27. Someone needs to publish a book (or at least create a website) dedicated to cataloguing the worst/goofiest movie sequel ideas people concocted when they were kids (and no, and Deviantart don’t count).

  28. I really wanted them to play up the fact that Indy was older now. There was a throw away “I’m getting too old for this shit,” line, but otherwise, he had a more physical fist fight with that giant Soviet than he’d had in the first three movies combined.

    Really, if they’d shot it WITHOUT the CG in it, like Lucas first promised, then I think it would have been much better received.

  29. Whenever I overhead someone talking shit about Crystal Skull, I always manage to shut them up by saying, “Hey, it was better than Temple of Doom”…

  30. But they were hunting for MAYAN artifacts in effin’ PERU!!! For some reason THIS is what put the movie firmly in the “crap” category. Even above nuking the fridge, the stupid snake rope, the bad CG ants, the painfully self-conscious references to previous Indy movies, the wooden acting, predictable plot twists or even the friggin’ Aliens.

  31. What Nazi woman? They were Russians. My only beef is that the Skulls were sometimes magnetic and sometimes not… like Mudron pointed out…

  32. I think I can easily agree that the 50’s setting HAD to involve Red Scare Commies, and I also agree that an appropriate theme for the mystical elements would be aliens, but I think the execution was just a bit flawed. The CG should’ve been pulled way back, Indy should have been given a more active and perilous role, and Mutt should have been played by someone with an inkling of talent.
    Just like each Star Wars prequel got progressively better (IMO), perhaps each new Indy flick will be better too. I don’t think the character is ruined – hell, if the new movie bothers anyone, just place it on your shelf next to the (egregiously overpriced) Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and you’ll be set.
    No, it is not the first three films, but it is another look at a character that many people love.

  33. We actually watched Raiders of the Lost Ark in my Intro to Archaeology class, about forty minutes at a time, for about a month. He’s not an archaeologist by any means; rather more of a tomb raider, in my opinion.

    Which is fine! Indy and Lara Croft and their lot make for much better film. Because the only archaeological work he actually did was when he wrote down where the staff said the ark was buried, surveyed the site, and started digging.

    I haven’t seen Crystal Skull because of the bad press, but re-watching it since I have had a few film criticism classes and changed my major to anthropology made me realize that the whole series is made up of vapid action films with overtones of the occult.

  34. Save me from kids fresh out of their first film criticism class. Liking Godard doesn’t mean you can’t also like Indy.

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