Control Nathan and Clint: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
When I was thirteen years old I went to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, by myself of course. That's pretty much what I did at that age: I saw movies and avoided people. That's pretty much what my life is like today as well. I was so blown away by The Last Crusade that after it ended I marched proudly to the concession stand and spent twenty dollars I really did not have on a poster and then another twenty five dollars on a frame for it. As a latchkey kid obsessed with the movies, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was exactly the kind of escape I needed from my miserable life as a friendless, painfully self-conscious dreamer: a rollicking adventure full of derring-do and Nazi-punching.
Yet when the entire creative team reconvened nearly twenty two years later for the tardy third sequel Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull I not only didn’t rush out to see it immediately, let alone buy the poster: I didn’t see it at all. The less than rapturous buzz sure didn’t help but I was also in a very different place in my life in 2008 than I was when I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989. Movies were no longer an essential escape from an often miserable childhood: no, movies were my life. Movies were my passion. Movies were my everything.
In the space between when Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was announced and when I finally got around to seeing it, my expectations for it had gone from sky-high to exceedingly low. For a solid decade, I happily avoided Crystal Skull, despite my love for both Spielberg’s original and terrible movies. I ultimately had to force myself to see a movie that once would have filled me with giddy excitement by making it a Control Nathan and Clint contender alongside Attack of the Clones, another late-period George Lucas production that has aged about as well as a moldy cheese sandwich left out in the sun.
At a certain point, the question stopped being “Can Kingdom of the Crystal Skull possibly be as awesome as it looks?” to “Can Kingdom of the Crystal Skull possibly be as terrible as its reputation suggests?" How bad can a Steven Spielberg movie that isn’t 1941 possibly be, particularly when it’s part of such a beloved franchise?
It turns out the answer to “How bad can a Steven Spielberg movie be?” is “Pretty damn bad." I was surprised at how bad the film was and I chose it as a Control Nathan and Clint nominee precisely because I expected it to be quite poor. And I found myself getting irritated by it for very predictable reasons.
That’s the beauty of columns like this and Lukewarm Takes: you get the same banal observations about hit movies as you do everywhere else, but long after everyone stopped caring about them, and all in my inimitable, self-indulgent, typo-riddled style.
Despite its sorry reputation these days, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull actually got mixed-to-positive reviews upon its initial release. Heck, Roger Ebert gave it three and a half stars, which in my mind is at least a star and a half too many. I suspect that critics were overly kind to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull because it at least feels like an Indiana Jones movie. But in the decade since its release, the film’s modest, derivative charms have faded into non-existence while its enormous flaws grow more pronounced ever year.
Considering all of the scripts that have been written for Indiana Jones movies—including one written by Chris Columbus (who at that point was the hot shit screenwriter of Gremlins, The Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes and not the hack behind Rent, Home Alone and Pixels) that Clint turned into a radio play over at Alcohollywood—it’s kind of amazing that they went with “Indy and his son Johnny Greaser Versus the Space Aliens and Commies.”
Shia Labeouf plays the aforementioned Johnny Greaser, a sneering ne’er do well perpetually cos-playing Marlon Brando in The Wild One; given the tepid nature of the material, LaBeouf is more like the Mild One. The eminently punchable young actor’s character isn’t actually named Johnny Greaser. No, his actual name is somehow much stupider: Mutt Williams. Then again, everything about the character is annoying: his dumb pompadour, his frequently flashed switchblade (what a rebel!) and his “Beginner 1950s Outlaw” fashion sensibility, the actor playing him.
LaBeouf is an example of what I like to call Cousin Oliver syndrome after the painfully adorable moppet that was added to the cast of The Brady Bunch late in its run in a desperate attempt to stay on the air and pander to young viewers. LaBeouf’s presence here serves a similar function, and feels just as shoe-horned in and mercenary. True, Mutt Williams falls very squarely into the controversial, troubled young actor's wheelhouse of "Obnoxious snot-nosed punks you want to throttle to within an inch of their life for being so insufferable" but that, most assuredly is not a good thing.
Before I watched Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I wondered why people hated LaBeouf so much. Was it just that he was too young and cocky and successful too fast? I now know the answer. I also now know why the phrase “Nuke the Fridge” gained such prominence. In the notorious scene that created this phrase (heck, it’s damn near Manic Pixie Dream Girl-like in its irresistibility), Indiana Jones wanders through a model home in Nevada in a panic mere seconds before a nuclear bomb is about to explode and finds refuge inside a refrigerator, and, in an angry violation of everything we know about nuclear weapons, somehow manages to survive more or less without a scratch. By hiding in a refrigerator. A refrigerator. A fucking refrigerator. From a goodman nuclear blast. That's just plain silly.
This sequence is so ridiculous that it violates the reality of a universe that prominently involves Nazis faces melting and a dude’s heart getting ripped out. I’m not expecting realism or verisimilitude from my Indiana Jones movies. Far from it. I want fantasy. I want escape. Yet this sequence is so insultingly preposterous that it took me out of the movie almost completely. The Nuke the Fridge sequence is unforgettable in the same way you never forget having contracted a venereal disease or Cancerous boil. You want to forget it, but your sadistic brain won’t let you.
Ah, but before our intrepid hero can hurl himself into an empty, lead-lined refrigerator and camp infamy we first have an almost perversely unsatisfying opening set-piece involving Indy trying to find something in a giant warehouse full of supernatural whatnots using the everyday miracle that is magnets. To be honest with you guys, despite a pretty good education, I don’t know how magnets work, and I don’t think the scientific community would be able to help me with it, because I think they’re fundamentally dishonest, and that makes me angry. Phew! Good to get that off my chest.
Then Indiana Jones meets the aforementioned Johnny Greaser AKA Mutt Williams and they join forces in a race to track down the titular crystal skull before the sneering Commies, led by Cait Blanchett, can get it.
How bad is Crystal Skull? Spielberg somehow manages to get a regrettable, hammy performance by the magnificent Blanchett that’s simultaneously flat and campily over the top, complete with an accent seemingly purloined from Natasha of Rocky & Bullwinkle fame. She’s not the only otherwise reliable heavyweight here doing bad work. I was shocked by how badly directed the film is, and how cheap and unconvincing its undoubtedly expensive CGI looks.
Still, the film isn’t a total loss. Karen Allen returns to the franchise after a long absence and is an absolute delight who looks great after all these years. Sadly, that’s pretty much it. The film toys with some fun, novel ideas, like setting the action in a post-rock and roll United States, but pretty much none of these risks pay off and the period detail is fairly oppressive. Maybe it's just the old Wobbly in me, but Commies can't compete with Nazis (or, as they're now known "Donald Trump voters") for satisfying villainy.
The Nuking the Fridge set-piece is hard to top for sheer, audience-insulting ridiculousness but Spielberg and his collaborators seemingly try to top it in a much later sequence where Mutt Williams swings through trees alongside deeply spiritual monkeys like he’s a goddamn cross between Johnny Weissmuller and the Beastmaster. For no discernible reason, Mutt seems to have gained weird control over the animals of the forrest who, not surprisingly, seem to hate Commies more than Roy Cohn and “Diamond” Joe McCarthy did.
What I’m trying to say, dear reader, is that this movie is dumb, and bad, and not even in an entertaining way.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull closes with the untamable Indiana Jones getting married in a chapel before a mysterious wind of destiny blows our hero’s signature chapeau into the church. For a horrifying moment, it seems like Mutt, the Jar Jar Binks of this particular cinematic universe, will pick it up and put it on and take over the series from his ancient and uninterested old man. This, needless to say, would be a huge downgrade. When Mark Wahlberg replaced Shia as the hero of the Transformers movie, I don't think anyone minded, including LaBeouf. Heck, they could have replaced him with a Coca-Cola vending machine or Scrappy Doo and it'd still mark an improvement. It's almost as if LaBeouf doesn't want to be in these giant, corporate blockbusters almost as much as we don't want to see him in them.
This is supposed to be a tantalizing tease of swashbuckling adventures to come. Instead it feels like an ominous threat. Watching the final achingly bad choice in a film full of them (from a director who, to put it mildly, has better instincts, and has done better in the past), I found myself wanting to yell at the screen, “No!!!!!!” By the rules of this particular series, if Mutt were, in fact, to put on his old man’s hat, then his eyes should start bleeding and he would disappear into dust for being so unworthy of even touching such a sacred, Smithsonian-ready artifact.
The same holds true for the movie as a whole: it’s simply not worthy of this franchise. Instead it feels like the world’s most expensive fan fiction, although even rank amateurs would know better than to insult audience’s intelligence with hokum like the nuked fridge and the Mutt Williams Beastmaster sequence.
Ford’s whole vibe here is, “I’m getting too old for this shit”, which is exactly how I felt suffering through this mercenary, muddled take on a childhood favorite.
Wanna listen to Nathan and Clint talk "smack" about Indy IV? Oh yes you do. Don't even lie about it. And you can do so here! https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/nathan-rabins-happy-cast/id1312945471?mt=2
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