Were we wrong about 'Crystal Skull'? The pros and cons of the least-liked Indiana Jones adventure.
From nuked fridges to Mutt Williams, we look back at Indy's divisive fourth adventure on the movie's 15th anniversary.
You cheered when Indiana Jones found the lost Ark of the Covenant. You screamed when he invaded the Temple of Doom. You teared up when he used the Holy Grail to rescue his father, Henry Jones Sr., from a fatal gunshot wound. And you... tried to forget that time he found the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. That's the strange legacy of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — the once much-demanded and now oft-neglected fourth Indy adventure that reunited the franchise's key creative trio of Harrison Ford, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg decades after their original '80s trilogy.
Released on May 19, 2008, Crystal Skull wasn't a slouch at the box office: In fact, it's still the highest grossing Indiana Jones movie ever, banking just under $320 million in the U.S. and another $475 million worldwide. And more than a few prominent critics were on its side as well, with Roger Ebert writing in his 3.5 star review: "I can say that if you liked the other Indiana Jones movies, you will like this one, and that if you did not, there is no talking to you."
Contrary to Ebert's estimation, a significant number of Indiana Jones fans led the charge against Crystal Skull, criticizing the film's story, cartoony action sequences and the introduction of a long-lost son that few had asked for. There was also the the thorny question of Ford's age, and how the passage of time noticeably impacted a hero who had seemed immortal in the previous movies. (And, depending on how you interpret the ending of Last Crusade, might actually be immortal.)
That's an issue that's not going to go away as the now 80-year-old star returns for what he promises will be his final time in the fedora, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. Directed by James Mangold — who stepped behind the camera when Spielberg stepped away to make his autobiographical drama, The Fabelmans — the fifth Indiana Jones movie is a fresh chance for the character's creators to give him the warmly-received farewell that Crystal Skull was intended to be.
"[The critics] were harsh on it," Ford admitted to The Hollywood Reporter in a recent interview. "They were imposing their rules on what the movie should be. I think that everyone has a right to their opinion. The film was not as successful as we wanted it to be, perhaps."
Now that 15 years have elapsed since we first entered the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, perhaps those harsh feelings have softened? We weighed the pros and cons of the least-liked Indiana Jones adventure from nuked fridges to an out of this world plot reveal that even Spielberg didn't like.
PRO: "Nuking the Fridge" is good, actually
Henry Winkler must have breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the opening sequence of Crystal Skull back in '08. For years, the Happy Days star was the smiling face of creative exhaustion courtesy of that long-running sitcom's notorious "Jump the Shark" moment. But leave it to the director of Jaws to devise a scenario that would blow up Fonzie's shark pal. Having escaped the Soviet captors who forcibly enlisted him to assist with a break-in at U.S. government's artifact-laden Hanger 51, Indy finds himself in a mannequin-populated model town that's about to be blown to smithereens by an atom bomb.
This version of suburbia might be fake, but fortunately the appliances are all real. As the countdown to detonation begins, Indy promptly hops in a lead-lined refrigerator and rides the resulting atomic wave out of the blast zone. It's a big, silly stunt that has since launched a million memes about the creative death spirals of once-beloved franchises. But it's also an appropriate escalation of the comedy-laced seat-of-his-pants escapes that Indy specialized in going back to his Raiders boulder run. Plus, it gifts us with one of the most evocative scenes in any Indiana Jones movie: Dr. Jones staring up at a giant mushroom cloud — a hero from another time dwarfed by the power of the atomic age.
For the record, Spielberg stands by the nuked fridge gag, as he should. "That was my silly idea," the director told Empire magazine in 2011. "People stopped saying 'jump the shark.' They now say, 'nuked the fridge.' I'm proud of that. I'm glad I was able to bring that into popular culture."
CON: Aliens... why did it have to be aliens?
On the other hand, Spielberg is all too willing to pass the buck to Lucas when it comes to the other most-derided part of Crystal Skull: Indy's close encounter with extraterrestrials... uh, make that "interdimensional beings." The titular relic — and its accompanying psychic powers — turns out to be the missing cranium of one of these visitors from another world, and it's none too happy about being made to wait in an abandoned temple for hundreds of years for the skull's return.
While the supernatural has always been baked into the DNA of the Indiana Jones series, the previous movies all played in the realm of mythical gods and monsters — tying those leaps of faith to Indy's own side gig as an archeological professor. Crystal Skull tries to continue that tradition by positioning the visiting aliens as Chariots of the Gods-style deities whose arrival aided in the development of the South American cultures. But that's a realm beyond Dr. Jones's experience, making the character entirely incidental to the climax of the movie — even more incidental than The Big Bang Theory claimed he was to Raiders's endgame.
In his Empire interview, Spielberg confessed that he wasn't at all enthusiastic about the arrival of aliens in Indy's universe, but he agreed to the third act out of loyalty to Lucas. "When he writes a story he believes in — even if I don't believe in it — I'm going to shoot the movie the way George envisaged it. I'll add my own touches, I'll bring my own cast in, I'll shoot the way I want to shoot it, but I will always defer to George as the storyteller of the Indy series. I will never fight him on that." But what the dud ending of Crystal Skull presupposes is... maybe he should have fought a bit harder?
PRO: The Red Scare material paved the way for Bridge of Spies
Watching Crystal Skull again today, it's clear that Spielberg's fascinations lie much more in the story's homages to Cold War thrillers instead of that era's sci-fi stories. After escaping the Soviets and their dastardly sword-wielding leader, Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), Indy falls into the crosshairs of the FBI, which mistakenly assumes this true blue World War II hero has turned Red. That double agent device pops up throughout the film, with Spalko's KGB goons disguising themselves as American soldiers in the movie's credit sequence and Indy's former ally, Mac (Ray Winstone), revealing his ever-shifting loyalties at inconvenient moments.
Once Indy leaves the continental U.S. for South America, though, the Cold War allusions largely fall away in favor of jungle adventure and alien encounters. It's tempting to wish for a version of Crystal Skull that's a pure Red Scare thriller, one that takes cues from The Manchurian Candidate rather than The Thing From Another World. But Spielberg ended up saving the Cold War theatrics for 2015's Oscar-nominated Bridge of Spies where Tom Hanks ventures behind the Iron Curtain and thankfully leaves the crystal skulls and bullwhips at home.
CON: Cate's not so great
Whether she's playing a canceled classic music maestro or an emotionally troubled architect, Blanchett fully commits to every role — even the ones that are misconceived from the jump. That's the case with Soviet swashbuckler Irina, the franchise's first major female villain after Nazi-affiliated archeologist Elsa Schneider in Last Crusade. While Blanchett cuts a ferocious figure when she enters the frame, that aura of menace promptly dissipates when we hear the actress's Natasha Fatale vocal stylings. "It's a storybook world, it's a fable," Blanchett said in a 2008 interview about her approach to the part. "I'm playing a villain in an Indiana Jones installment, so [the characterization] is a bit more heightened."
To be fair, David Koepp's script doesn't add much in the way of motivation or menace to the role beyond her single-minded pursuit of the Crystal Skull and its powers of mental mastery. And Irina doesn't even have a bevy of memorable supporting villains she can bounce off of, like Toht and Dietrich in Raiders or Donovan and Vogel in Last Crusade. And then Spielberg goes and piles on by awarding Blanchett the movie's least entertaining action sequence — a listless sword fight with Crystal Skull's worst character (see below) where poor staging and digital effects defeat both of them.
CON: But Mutt is worse
After mining so much comedy — and emotion — between Henry Jones Sr. and Henry Jones Jr. in Last Crusade, it was inevitable that Lucas and Spielberg would want to replicate that magic by putting Ford in the Sean Connery part. Enter Shia LaBeouf's Mutt Williams, aka Henry Jones III, who prefers leather jackets to fedoras and fisticuffs to whips. In keeping with the '50s setting, Mutt is a rebel without a cause in the great James Dean and Marlon Brando tradition. That personality type is intended to clash with his Greatest Generation old man, allowing comic sparks to fly much as they did between Connery and Ford decades earlier.
There's just one problem: Mutt is less of a rebel and more of a wet blanket. A product of the Disney Channel sitcom factory, LaBeouf brought an unpredictable comic energy to early-aughts blockbusters like Disturbia and Transformers, and his early scenes with Ford crackle with some Odd Couple tension. But Henry Senior and Junior had years of father-son history they could invest in their late-in-life adventure together. Indy and Mutt are meeting for the first time, and the movie is too busy rushing from location to location to really deal with their lack of connection. It doesn't help that LaBeouf seems to lose interest in the movie once the adventure kicks in, and he later confirmed that was essentially the case.
"I feel like I dropped the ball on the legacy that people loved and cherished," LaBeouf said at a Cannes Film Festival press conference in 2010. "You get to monkey-swinging and things like that and you can blame it on the writer and you can blame it on Steven [Spielberg]. But the actor's job is to make it come alive and make it work, and I couldn't do it." (Ford responded to that interview in 2011, calling his on-screen son a "f***ing idiot.") LaBeouf offered an even harsher assessment of the movie to Variety six years later, saying: "You're meeting a different Spielberg, who is in a different stage in his career. He's less a director than he is a f***ing company."
Needless to say, Mutt won't be back for Dial of Destiny. Instead, Indy will be paired with goddaughter Helena Shaw, played by Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge. "She's a character who's a wonderful set of contradictions — charming and brilliant, but also a lot of trouble," Mangold promised to Entertainment Weekly, adding that Mutt's absence will be addressed in some fashion. Maybe he got stuck in those jungle vines.
PRO: Ford can still save the day
Sure, you can make fun of his advanced age — The Dial of Destiny apparently did until Ford insisted on cutting all those gags from the movie — but Harrison Ford just is Indiana Jones. The ease with which the then-65-year-old actor slips back into his best action hero role (sorry Han Solo) after two decades away remains delightful to watch, even if it's a little more obvious where the stunt team and editing room tricks take over from the real star. Even when the forced business of Crystal Skull's negligible plot pushes Indy to the sidelines, Ford's wry humor and gruff earnestness gives it a center.
That's why the idea of continuing or rebooting the Indiana Jones franchise with anyone else in the lead role — be it LaBeouf or Chris Pratt — always seemed like a nonstarter. And Ford has made it clear that he doesn't intend to hand the fedora to anyone else after The Dial of Destiny. "I’m Indiana Jones. When I’m gone, he's gone. It’s easy!" he said on Today in 2019.
On the other hand, other actors have successfully played young Indiana Jones over the years from the late River Phoenix in the opening sequence of Last Crusade to Sean Patrick Flannery in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV series, which will arrive on Disney+ on May 31. So there might yet be another Indy out there... we just haven't met him (or her) yet.
CON: The Family Jones should have stayed broken up
Watching Spielberg directly confront his parents' complicated marriage in The Fabelmans now casts many of the parental relationships in his past movies in a different light. In the case of Crystal Skull, we learn that Indiana Jones left the love of his life, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), when he came to believe their marriage would never work. In his absence, she gave birth to Mutt and married Indy's friend Colin William, a dashing Royal Air Force pilot who raised her son as his own until he was killed in action during World War II.
In real life, Spielberg's parents split up when he was a teenager, and his mother subsequently married his father's close friend who she had been having an affair with for years — a story he dramatized in The Fabelmans. Viewed through that lens, Indy and Marion's reunion (and eventual marriage) could be interpreted as the lingering wish-fulfillment of a child wanting to see his mom and dad fall back in love after years apart.
There's a potent idea there, but Crystal Skull plays more like a subpar family sitcom when it gets the Jones clan together. While it's great to see Allen back as Marion — far and away the franchise's best female character — she and Indy aren't granted a lot of time to interact directly, and when they do those scenes are largely played for laughs that fall flat. Case in point: the quicksand sequence where Marion reveals the truth of Mutt's parentage. All that's missing from the scene is the sound of canned studio laughter as Indy and Marion squabble and Mutt races around to find something to rescue his parents — a something that naturally turns out to be his dad's eternal nemesis... a giant snake. Talk about your snakebit reunions.
CON: More like CG Eyesores
Complaining about dated CGI effects can be churlish, since VFX artists have to work with what's available at the time. Even so, Crystal Skull's visual effects looked rough at the time and are borderline unwatchable now, whether it's Mutt's aforementioned vine-swing through the jungle, or the swarm of digital ants that devour many of Irina's Soviet soldiers.
To his credit, Spielberg seems to recognize the cartoonish elasticity of that era's CGI and adjusts the tone of the action accordingly. Most of Crystal Skull's set-pieces have an exaggerated, hyper-real quality that are a noticeable departure from Raiders or Last Crusade, where practical production techniques took center stage. But the limitations of the technology are all-too evident throughout. Spielberg had more success going full cartoon in 2011's eternally underrated The Adventures of Tintin, where the magic of motion capture freed him to stage the fluid digitally-created action sequences that Crystal Skull couldn't achieve.
Fifteen years later, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull still earns its ranking at the bottom of Indy's big-screen adventures. Still, the movie does provide an instructive case study in the pleasures and perils that come with an influential creative team reuniting for one more hurrah. And while Spielberg's decision to vacate the Dial of Destiny director's chair means he won't get the last word on Indiana Jones behind the camera, he sounds pleased with how Ford, Lucas and Mangold closed out the series.
"It's really, really a good Indiana Jones film," the director remarked at the recent Time 100 Summit. "When the lights came up I just turned to the group and said, 'Damn! I thought I was the only one who knew how to make one of these.'"
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is currently streaming on Paramount+ and will come to Disney+ on May 31.