It’s a wonder we got a fourth Indiana Jones film at all. Though the deal struck by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Paramount initially agreed to a five-film franchise, the fourth installment seemed unable to escape the purgatory of Hollywood development. Tom Stoppard and M Night Shyamalan, among others, were offered the opportunity to script, while previous titles pitched Henry Jones Jr alongside The City of Gods, The Atomic Ants and even The Son of Indiana Jones. Yet arrive it did, and the franchise is better for it.
Crystal Skull isn’t a good film just by dint of existing, nor solely because it’s an Indiana Jones film. It’s good because it carries the same brio that powered the original three films, and parades a wry sense of humour through which Spielberg and Lucas satirise the era in which they grew up. It’s a giddy B-movie which provided pure escapism at a time when blockbusters were rushing headlong into a fog of self-seriousness.
The plot sees a world-weary Jones thrust back into saving the world from evil, this time perpetrated by Soviets. Tracing the disappearance of Professor Harold Oxley (the late, great John Hurt), Jones is joined by greaser Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), the prickly counter to Ford’s laconic lead, and later reunited with Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Marion (Karen Allen). With an interdimensional crystal skull as their MacGuffin, the trio traverses the jungle to return it to the mystic city of Akator. Unsurprisingly, Russians are never far behind.
The main criticisms levelled at Crystal Skull are ones that afflict many modern blockbusters; namely a sketchy use of CGI and a lingering gaze on the franchise’s future. True, the CGI is far from flawless, but any allusions to Mutt (or Henry Jones III) inheriting the hat and whip from his newly revealed father are more playful than profound.
It’s a film set during what would have been a memorable time for both Spielberg and Lucas. Entering adolescence in 1958, their formative years were tangled in the pastiche view of the Soviet Union that the film portrays. There’s something satisfying about two of Hollywood’s most influential creatives caricaturing the pervasive McCarthyite Red Fear that gripped America during the 50s. As such, Cate Blanchett’s scenery-chewing Irina Spalko is perfectly placed, as is Ray Winstone’s lively portrayal of the slippery George “Mac” Michale.
While many look at that fridge scene as a 21st-century version of “jumping the shark”, it bookends a tense, pacy opening. You can pick up Spielberg’s glee in quite literally blowing up the “nuclear family” and contrasting America’s postwar prim-and-properness with something much more grim. This lampooning continues into the college bar fight, in which two “tribes” go to war like a scene from West Side Story (a remake of which is Spielberg’s next release, of course).
One of the joys of the original Jones films was their simplistic moral compass. Things were cleanly black and white, with Indy struggling for a just cause, and his opponents heavily dabbling in evil. There is a shade more cynicism within Crystal Skull, particularly through the triple-crossing Mac, but the reality is that the film remains clearcut, despite being released into a cinematic landscape where blockbusters had decided upon the moral ambiguity of their protagonists as the central thematic tension.
The Dark Knight, Iron Man and Quantum of Solace all premiered in 2008, and centred on characters who fought for “good” in a much murkier way than Jones. Whether it was Tony Stark’s arms-dealing past, or Bruce Wayne’s vigilantism, the blockbuster gloss covered a much more cynical narrative, with an internal tussle over the legitimacy of their actions. Perhaps cinemagoers had grown a bit too jaded – either through experience or familiarity with the new cinematic norm – to fully lose themselves in the Crystal Skull’s unambiguous assessment of right and wrong.
But it’s exactly this simplicity and commitment to pure escapism that makes Crystal Skull such a tonic. There’s so much fun to be had with the B-movie glow of man-eating ants and a fencing fight staged atop two speeding jeeps (though I will concede that Mutt’s Tarzan routine is perhaps too far). It’s all very much at home in the cartoon-ish lens which Spielberg uses to send up the FBI, the USSR and the facade of postwar respectability. The film realises it’s a bit silly, and doesn’t carry the same earnestness as The Last Crusade, or force of Raiders of the Lost Ark. But what it does have is an arch sense of humour which carries it through; straight into the arms of Indy 5 …