Many fans of the Indiana Jones franchise can identify the moment which made them lose all hope with the franchise with the utmost clarity of a Vietnam flashback, and that moment involves a refrigerator. In modern pop cultural parlance, the phrase “jump the shark” has been replaced by the invective “nuke the fridge.” Coming a full 19 years after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the previous finale to the franchise, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has proven to be quite the divisive film. For all its flaws (of which there are many), I think it’s a fun, underrated romp for the beloved Professor of Archaeology.
To my knowledge, the hate for this entry in the franchise derives from three sources consisting of the following: Shia LaBeouf, shoddy CGI, and aliens. As far as I’m concerned, only the first two are a real detriment to the quality of the movie.
Harrison Ford recaptures the spirit of Indiana Jones while realistically showing what happens when a gunslinger archetype begins to age out of being able to back up his bravado. He still swings punches, but he can’t take as many as he once could. Indy is out of practice. And many believe the franchise was as well. The movie is certainly flawed.
The first big problem with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was the casting of Shia LaBeouf. The movie spends much of its runtime seemingly trying to set up his character Mutt as an eventual replacement for Indy, and it doesn’t work. LaBeouf doesn’t have the effortless charm and loveable curmudgeonly rogueishness of Harrison Ford. Anyone who thought he would was a fool. There’s not much to say here other than to acknowledge just how much LaBeouf sucks the soul out of most of the scenes in which he appears. Unlike someone like John Boyega, he had no business sharing the screen with a cinematic legend portraying another cinematic legend.
The excessive use of CGI is a second sizable problem. Many of these sequences haven’t aged at all well in the 9 years since Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was released. Comparatively, consider how well the special effects from 1977’s Raiders of the Lost Ark have aged. I think this is largely because of the way modern action films are produced. I have high hopes the success of practical effects in The Force Awakens will be a positive influence on the production of the impending fifth entry in the Indiana Jones franchise.
And then there are the aliens. Of the 4 films in this franchise, the alien MacGuffin in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is most similar to the sacred stone from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I think the sci-fi elements of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull represent a logical step in the mythos of Indy’s recycled pulp tropes. The setting has moved from the 40s of Nazi punching to the Cold War 50s. The pulp fiction this franchise seeks to replicate saw a similar shift from spiritualism and patriotism to a technological boom. The 50s was a dawn of sci-fi. So, it seems entirely reasonable to me for the Indiana Jones franchise to make this leap. This is a post-nuclear (oh god, I’ve reminded you of the fridge) Indiana Jones. The content of the films evolves in much the same way fiction did during the period of time the film itself covers. If we can accept the Lost Ark melting Nazi faces, the literal Holy Grail offering immortality, and Sean Connery being Harrison Ford’s father, then why can’t we accept sci-fi trappings in our pulp fiction?
I guess what’s most important to me about this entry in the franchise is whether or not it FEELS like Indiana Jones. And for me? For the most part? It does. The character feels authentic. Indy’s interactions with Marion feel real. Like the relationship has felt the weight of time much like the performers themselves did in the gap between their onscreen appearances together. The hinted at backstories between John Hurt’s Ox and Ray Winstone’s Mac remind me of the feeling I had, watching the original movies, I was witnessing one adventure in a life that included many I just hadn’t seen. I think Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels more like Indiana Jones than Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom did. So, for all its flaws, I think Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is an enjoyable albeit minor entry in the franchise. But really anything other than Raiders or Last Crusade has a lot of work to do.