Most people hate Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), and I have never been entirely sure why. When I came out of the theater after seeing it the first time, I was, on the whole, satisfied. It looked like an Indiana Jones movie and quacked like an Indiana Jones movie, so it must be an Indiana Jones movie. Yes, there are some silly moments in it. Early on in the film, Indiana Jones survives an atomic blast by hiding in a lead lined refrigerator. Yet this is the same person who, in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), survived the literal wrath of God. What does that have on any man-made explosive, no matter how powerful?
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, because it was filmed roughly twenty years after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), also set its own time two decades forward, being in 1957. Since the Nazis had been defeated in World War II, Jones’ new collection of baddies to punch are Soviets. His big reveal comes after being captured by them, and they bring him to the warehouse that contains the Ark of the Covenant we see being stored at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Soviets bring Jones there because they believe he can lead them to a strange coffin that contains the remains of an alien. He does so because they are pointing guns at him, but manages to escape via the atomic bomb mentioned above. His activities, though, attract the notice of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) who believe him to be a potential communist collaborator. Though false, it is enough to force him into an extended leave of absence from his position as a professor of archaeology. It is then that Mutt Williams (Shia Lebeouf) catches up with Jones as he is leaving and informs him that his old friend, Harold Oxley (John Hurt), has been kidnapped by the Soviets. They take Oxley because the leader of the cohort of Red soldiers Jones previously tangled with, Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), knows Oxley to be the world’s foremost expert on crystal skulls. Thus they head to Peru to hopefully rescue Oxley. When they find him, his mind is addled by staring at crystal skulls too long, which apparently have psychic powers. He is also smack in the middle of a Soviet camp staged to make an attempt to find the source of the crystal skull deep in the Amazon jungle. Also being held captive there is Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Jones’ old Falmer from Raiders of the Lost Ark and companion to Oxley. It is at this moment that Jones learns that Mutt is his son, Marion being his mother. Together, they manage to slip from the Soviets and make it to the fabled City of Gold where the skull originated. When they reunite the head with the rest of the alien body, it comes back alive and the whole site they are at takes off, but not before disintegrating Spalko.
In order to better understand Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, some historical context is warranted. I hope this might help you, dear reader, if you are one of those who feel this film completely ruined the beloved Indiana Jones series. For starters, it would have been a little harder to buy if they had tried to set it once more in the 1930s and make the antagonists Nazis. Harrison Ford was in his late sixties when they made this one, so a bit of aging was needed. Thus we get the 1950s. During this decade, there were a number of things that were going on in the culture that the film captured well. The opening scene sees a group of teenagers speeding about in a souped-up hotrod with “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley playing in the background. Cars and tinkering with them were a popular pastime for youth at this time, and their soundtrack was Elvis. So far, so good. And if the Nazis were the boogeymen of the 1930s and into the 1940s, the Soviets adopted that mantle in the 1950s in the eyes of Americans. Indeed, Jones mentions that he had once spied on the Russians. It goes further, though. One of the big fears of the Soviet Union was that they wanted to take over the minds of Americans and make us behave in unpatriotic ways. There developed in American society a paranoia about the Soviet threat known as the Red Scare, and this explains the suspicion of the FBI towards Jones. Finally, there are the aliens. There were several B movies made during the decade that talk about alien invasions. This was triggered by the supposed crash-landing of flying saucers at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. Though it was explained as downed military weather balloons, Americans believed we had been visited by martians. Thus, if you think about the film in these terms, it makes a little more sense.
There is not much to appeal to the Christian viewer from a faith perspective in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but neither is there anything particularly objectionable. One moment that soothed my Catholic mind, though, is when Jones and Mutt visit the cell where Oxley had briefly stayed. Oxley initially found the crystal skull and it had driven mad. After returning it where he found it, he had wandered out of the jungle and wound up in an asylum ran by nuns. This brief sequence speaks to the way the Church has cared for people in need for centuries.
I really do recommend Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, though I recognize that it is not quite as good as its predecessors. There are some silly parts to it, such as when Mutt swings through the jungle ala Tarzan with monkeys in tow. There is also how Jones and company miraculously survive falling from waterfalls several stories high. Finally, I am not sure what to make of Jones’ initial companion, George “Mac” Michale (Ray Winstone). He is some kind of double-agent, but he changes sides so many times as to be virtually useless. Nonetheless, I would submit to you that none of the Indiana Jones movies are meant to truly be taken seriously. There are serious moments, to be sure. But they are action films with the whimsy of archaeology thrown in to add a little bit of spice to them. I enjoy them all to varying degrees.