Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Shia LaBeouf, Ray Winstone, John Hurt

Story by: George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson; screenplay by David Koepp

MPAA rating: PG-13

Run Time: 123 minutes

I saw a screening of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull at a great 1920’s filmpalace, San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. When the organist rose from the pit and played the Indiana Jones theme song, the usually blasé press corps and their guests clapped and whistled. And the movie hadn’t started yet.

Paramount Studios and the Spielberg/Lucas/Ford team should be grateful that The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s audience is pre-programmed to sit back, snarf up popcorn and relish the film, because, absent that, the $185 Million sequel would be judged as entertaining, but less than inspired.

The movie is set in 1957, making it nineteen years since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The real-time passage of years between films permits Harrison Ford to look his 65-year-old self. But now Indiana Jones is less the smiling swashbuckler with snappy one-liners and more the frowning professor with a grouchy attitude.

The film opens with a Southwestern desert action sequence in which Jones and his new sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone) are captured by the villainess, Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) and her Soviet cohorts. They are taken to a vast storehouse full of dusty crates reminiscent of the warehouse in The Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indy is forced to locate a mysterious crate that he had found there years ago.

Indy escapes and eventually returns to teaching at Marshall College. McCarthyism then rears its menacing head and Indy is suspended from the college for having “consorted” with the Reds. To an audience who was born well past 1957, the mention of the injustices of McCarthyism is a welcome history lesson about an important subject.

A young 50’s greaser, Mutt Williams (played by the talented Shia LaBeouf), who rides a cool motorcycle, finds the now unemployed Jones and secures his help in finding Mutt’s mother (Karen Allen), Professor Oxley (John Hurt), Jones’ elderly colleague, and…the strange Crystal Skull of Akator.

Since the explanation of this MacGuffin is a bit muddled in the film, I’ll try for a more coherent explanation. Legend supposes the crystal skull was stolen from a mysterious City of Gold in the Amazon that is guarded by the living dead. Whoever returns the crystal skull to the City of Gold’s temple will become master of the Skull’s powers.

Shaped by an extinct super-race, aliens, gods or other supernaturals, the skull has otherworldly telekinetic powers and radiant psychic energy that erupts from its eye-sockets. In other words, Indy’s archaeology meets Gurdjieff’s and Castaneda’s extraterrestrial fantasies.

Indy, Mutt and Matt travel to Peru in search of the City of Gold, where they find themselves again battling the nefarious Irina Spalko and the Soviets who want the power of the skull as an advantage in the Cold War.

Along the way, Indy and the gang encounter poisonous scorpions, man-eating ants, a sinking sand pit, snakes, murderous natives, mad monkeys, and subterranean perilous tombs full of skeletons, mummies and gold. They duel with the Soviets on jeeps while careening through the rain forest, and they fall down three breathtakingly enormous waterfalls. And although their adventures are exciting to watch, they are simply variations on the well-trod Indiana Jones action theme.

Harrison Ford played a passable Indiana Jones, but he seemed to have lost his joie de vivre. LaBeouf is a talented addition to the cast and breathed some life into the movie. We’ll see more of him in future Indiana Jones movies. Cate Blanchett melded into her character of Irina Spalko. She did such a fine acting job that it was difficult to recognize her.

The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is attempting to keep its fan base happy by retaining the style, plot devises and characters of the earlier films, but this inevitably makes the movie less innovative. And although it is an enjoyable fast-moving adventure movie, it did seem as though I’d seen it before.

In researching The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for this review, I came upon some trivia/gossip that may be of interest:

  • Harrison Ford believed that playing Indy at his age might make Americans less paranoid about aging. With that in mind, he refused to dye his hair for his role.
  • Sean Connery turned down a cameo appearance as Henry Jones, Sr. as he was too busy enjoying his retirement.
  • Denhom Elliott, who portrayed the well-meaning but ineffectual Dr. Marcus Brody in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, died in 1992. As a tribute to Elliott, the filmmakers put a portrait of his character in the film on the Marshall College set.
  • The scenes at Marshal College were shot at Yale University.
  • Shia LaBeouf (Shia means “gift from God” in Hebrew) must have found the Yale location interesting, since he was accepted at Yale, but turned it down in order pursue his acting career.
  • In order to retain aesthetic continuity with the previous films, traditional stunt work instead of computer-generated stunt doubles were used.
  • New cinematographer Janusz Kami?ski studied Douglas Slocombe’s style from the previous films.
  • Most of the scenes set in the Peruvian jungles were actually shot in Hilo, Hawaii. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was estimated to generate $22 Million to $45 Million for the local economy.
  • Because of an approaching hurricane, Spielberg couldn’t complete shooting a fight scene and sent his second unit to film at Brazil’s Iguazu Falls. The scenes were digitally combined into the fight, which was shot at the Universal back lot.
  • Crystal Skulls are on display in the British museum and Paris Trocadero, while Mayan and amethyst versions have also been discovered.
  • One skull of smoky quartz was discovered in Guatemala in 1906 and is said to resemble an E.T. shape.

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San Francisco ,
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for