Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
It’s irrelevant to ask why should we need another Indiana Jones, even taking into account Harrison Ford’s age, the absence of Sean Connery and the possibilty of George Lucas ruining another of his franchises (given the great job he did with Star Wars). We know that Spielberg and Lucas were careful (planning and producing this movie for years now) enough to be aware of these and a number of other problems, so maybe it’s better to ask another kind of questions. There were always a million reasons not to make a fourth Indy movie, but now that it’s here, the matter is not whether it’s good as the previous instalments (of course it isn’t), but how does it change how we see Indiana Jones, and what is his role in cinema and our culture in 2008. We don’t have an answer, but we try.
Bloggers have recently pointed out that the key for interpreting any Indiana Jones movie is in its opening sequence. For instance, Temple of Doom emphasized the eccentric and stylized nature of these movies, with the deliciously exaggerated dance sequence of “Anything Goes”. Crystal Skull harkens back to American Graffiti, of all things, the Paramount logo dissolving to a gopher mound to show a 1950s convertible with youngsters to the sound of “Hound Dog” crossing paths with a military convoy in the desert. This hints at the twofold nature of the 1950s ethos, full of innocence and paranoia, since the officers are in fact KGB agents penetrating into a US Army restricted area. This will come into play in the following scene, as Indy inadvertently enters a nuclear test site, walking into a simulacrum of suburban post-war America, a town peopled with mannequins. A bomb is about to go off (CGI is finally put to good use) – the image of a diminutive Indy against a huge mushroom cloud is indelible and should have a high place in the Indy iconography. He escapes, sure, but now it looks as if the powers of destruction of the Ark of the Covenant so feared in Raiders are merely child’s play – is Indy a hero made for these times? Is he even on the right side?
The attempt to locate and situate Indy in the 1950s is welcome, and it deals with some of the more superficial anxieties of the decade: communism, McCarthyism, aliens. The simulacrum of post-war America becomes even more significant as the villain, Cate Blanchett’s Soviet agent Irina Spalko, voices her evil plans, to turn “you”, the Americans, free living people, into “us”, communists, and without even realizing it (that’s what the crystal skull is for). What she wants is an era of psychic warfare, a battle to dominate the minds – something which was already taking place. The issue at stake is to shake and destroy the hegemony, that idea of America that Indy defended bravely in Raiders and Last Crusade. Who can forget Henry Jones’ deliciously campy line, “If the Nazis put their hands on the Grail, the armies of darkness will march upon the face of the Earth!”? Now America enacts the destruction of its own society with the nuclear testings. That scene is crucial because it represent a more mature world-view than elsewhere in the Indiana Jones series – it’s disturbing because somehow it doesn’t fit.
The rest of the film is far more conventional – not unenjoyable, but not as challenging – and Indy is off looking for treasures and fighting off the bad guys. In the end, as Spalko is destroyed by her own thirst of knowledge – held by no one other than aliens, here in the figure of ancient patriarchs – Spielberg reiterates one of his strongest themes. It’s in all Indiana Jones movies, but more directly in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (not coincidentally the one screenplay of Spielberg’s career he penned himself), as Roy decides to enter the spaceship in the end. We never get to know what there is for the aliens to teach us – Close Encounters was about the obsession and the curiosity, but Roy is the good guy; in Indiana Jones those who seek too much end up destroying themselves. The ark is locked away and forgotten, and the Grail is long gone after Henry says to Indy just to “let go”. Likewise, as order is restored (the crystal skull is returned to where it belongs), the knowledge is taken away and erased. It’s significant that the aliens are the the true patriarchs of the human race, they hold the seed of the knowledge – so Indy assumes. Unlike the ark and the Grail, the skull is not a Judeo-Christian artifact, but it’s certainly no less mythical or even religious. Indy survives becauses he really “believes”, he says, and that’s why he’s humble enough not to challenge (the) God(s).
It’s strange that Spielberg treats something so transgressive, like in Close Encounters, when Roy neglects and almost destroys his family because of his obsession, with so much deference. Roy renounces it to accept another set of values and another “family”, in a way. (I know he said that if he made the movie now he wouldn’t have Roy go up in the spaceship, but that is against the whole point of the film) In Crystal Skull, there is again a deference to the power of the deities, and to the knowledge man is not meant to have, a decidedly conservative and conventional point of view – predominant in all Indiana Jones films. Indy, being persecuted by the FBI for allegedly helping KGB agents, is off to Europe when Mutt tracks him down and leads him to the adventure, and eventually Indy is able to restore order to his life by accepting, more than ever – a role as a father and husband. The end of Last Crusade provided perfect closure to the series – Indy’s family then being Henry, Marcus and Sallah. Now he is part of a more traditional, bonafide nuclear family – he’s getting old and so is Spielberg.