The quartet of official CHUD reviews for Indiana Jones and
the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
[linked at the bottom of this article if you haven’t had your life changed by them] tried to remain as spoiler-free as possible –
but that put a real limit on what we could talk about in regard to the film. Now
that the movie is out, and we assume that you’ve seen it (possibly even twice
already), we’re diving in with a roundtable discussion where we hash out our
feelings on the first Indy movie in two decades. And we’re doing it chock full
of spoilers, giving away every moment we need to give away to really talk this
one through. So you’ve been warned – this is incredibly spoiler heavy.

Devin Faraci: When I walked out of The Phantom Menace I convinced
myself I liked what I saw. When I walked out of Attack of the Clones, I was
angry. By the time we got to Revenge of the Sith, I just walked out of the movie
numb. That’s pretty similar to how I felt walking out of Crystal Skull. There
was stuff I liked, stuff I didn’t like, and stuff that was just head
scratching… but none of it ended up making a huge impact on me. I know that
Jeremy hated the shit out of the film, and I gave it the highest score out of
the reviewing team, but in the end my reaction was really one of ‘Oh, well, I’ve
seen that movie now.’ I get pissed off about the movie now, looking back on it,
not because the movie itself makes me angry or it ruins Indiana Jones for me,
but just because it’s so fucking middling, and I really, really expected
something – terrible or great – from it.

Although I
will say that one thing that really irritated me, even when I was watching it,
was Indy getting married at the end. I’d rather see Indy get gang raped by
Thuggees than get married. That’s just a fatal misunderstanding of the character
and what we like about him. Indy, even when he finds a ‘family’ at the end of
Temple of Doom, is a lone figure. He has people in his life that he loves and
who are important to him, but it’s a non-binding set of relationships, since he
needs to be able to go wherever he wants to go. The way they ride off at the end
of Last Crusade is perfect for me – these people are a family, but there’s
something transitory about their time together. In my mind, marrying off Indy is
worse than killing him – you’ve neutered him, built a fence around him. And even
if this isn’t the last Indy film (and especially if it is), I don’t want to end
with the vision of a domesticated, tamed Indiana Jones. That shit is nice for
old men like Spielberg and Lucas, who would rather spend a night at home than be
out digging up graves and evading death traps, but that’s no fate for Indiana
Jones.

Nick Nunziata: The marriage thing didn’t bother me that much because
it came at the end of all the other annoying stuff the new film presented. At
the end of the film I didn’t even care who was the bride in the Indy/Marion
transaction. It just didn’t matter because I just wasn’t invested in Indiana
Jones the character anymore having survived River Phoenix’s precious little
prologue, seasons of Sean Patrick Flannery, and this meandering missed
opportunity. A lot of that was lost once I saw him bickering with his father for
half of the running time of the third film. It was funny at times and seeing
Connery and Ford together was cute, but that’s the problem. The series got too
attached to the adjective cute and less concerned with ones like iconic,
intelligent, and unforgettable.

What did bother me was the total lack of concern towards
fleshing out memorable characters, primarily the villains. Dietrich, Belloq, and
Toht were amazing characters and Mola Ram was pretty impressive as well. The
Last Crusade
, among its many failings chose poorly rendered and less
bloodthirsty villains and led the way towards this film where they had excellent
actors in Ray Winstone and Cate Blanchett and still failed to give them anything
to do of circumstance. How do you not utilize these people? Oh wait, part of the
mixture behind the scenes involves the gentleman who failed to utilize Natialie
Portman, Ewan McGregor, Terence Stamp, Christopher Lee, and so on and so
on…

When given the free reign that pulp adventure provides how do
you not make full use of the ability to have larger than life characters for our
hero to conduct their battles with? Instead, one theme park action scene after
another unfolds and it truly could be any disposable character filling every
spot. Did we need to resurrect Indy for this?

Russ Fischer: Larger than life characters — hell, I’d take a handful of vaguely
actualized pieces of cannon fodder. One characteristic of the previous three
films was that there was always some humanity or at least identity given to the
rank and file. Yeah, Toht and Mola Ram are fantastic, memorable villains, but
just as many people remember the other bad guys, too. Some of them are
mini-bosses, sure — the swordsman and strong man in Raiders, for example — but
some are just soldiers doing their job, like the guy in Last Crusade looking
through the tank’s periscope turret and laughing at the idea that Indy is trying
anything at all. Guys like that contribute to the feeling that something is
actually happening, which helps suspend disbelief for the overt setpieces. There
are plenty of set pieces here, but precious few moments of unexpected personality
and reaction to sell them.

And going back to the marriage question, I
wasn’t put off by that like Devin was, nor was I quite numb as per Nick. I just
saw it as the handoff, reinforced by Indy’s hat being pulled on fishing line to
land at Shia’s feet. By the end of the movie, I was perfectly happy to accept
the suggestion that I wouldn’t see Harrison Ford do this again.


Jeremy Smith:
I wonder if that wedding bit with the hat was a reshoot. It plays like an
answer to Jim Windolf’s hunch that Shia was/is being groomed to take over
for Harrison. Regardless, it made me laugh. Intentionally. That probably
saved it a 2.8 rating.



I guess the big Russian with whom Indy brawls as
the giant ants start a-swarmin’ is supposed to be one of those mini-bosses
in the tradition of the Nazi colonel from LAST CRUSADE, but he feels like an
afterthought. As with everything else that falls flat in this
film, there’s nothing to payoff here. True, the bare-knuckle punch-up in
RAIDERS comes out of nowhere, but it works because the bald dude is so
determined to observe the Queensberry Rules (to his whirring
detriment).



That adroit attention to character is MIA in INDY 4 (and
I’m never going to waste my time with typing out the full title because it’s
insultingly arbitrary). Like ATTACK OF THE CLONES, it feels like Spielberg
and Lucas are working through a laundry list of obligatory scenes that the
fans have been clamoring for since the last installment. This is focus-group
garbage, and it’s the first time since THE LOST WORLD that I felt like
Spielberg was ignoring his typically infallible storytelling instincts in
favor of giving ‘em what they think they want.



And can anyone truly be
satisfied by that jungle chase? It’s so sloppily shot
(Kaminski’s cinematography is jarringly inappropriate) and unimaginatively
staged that I feel like Spielberg owes ticket buyers a written apology.
Twenty-five years ago, that RPG bit would’ve been a rousing payoff;
in this movie, I feel like Spielberg’s throwing an elbow to my ribs as if
to say “Hey, remember the bazooka in RAIDERS!?!? This is kinda like
that!”



There are no payoffs in INDY 4. None. Again, I don’t understand
how reasonably intelligent people like this movie.


Devin Faraci: I don’t know that I’d go that far. That said, why the hell did the
movie turn out like this? My guess is that it’s all about the strike –
there was a work stoppage looming, Spielberg wasn’t ready to go on his
other projects, Ford was available… so they just went for it. Drew
McWeeny has called the script a Frankenstein amalgamation of a whole
bunch of other scripts (including the original draft of Back to the
Future
, which is where the fridge at the nuclear test site business
originated), but it’s shocking to me that these people spent so much
money making a movie from this final script. It isn’t just the bad
dialogue or the goofy set pieces: it’s that the structure is horrible,
a complete mess. Is there a deleted scene of Indy meeting with J Edgar
Hoover to get off the blacklist? If so, why is it not in the film? If
not, why the fuck did they even bother with that plot point at all? I’d
really like to get Spielberg being honest on the record about this one
– he’s too smart to have looked at this final cut and thought he had
made a structurally sound movie. Fuck, I wonder how Harrison Ford could
have been on set when they were shooting the third act and not have
spoken up about his character having nothing to do the whole time. How
do people as good as they are go this very wrong?


Nick Nunziata: It may just be that time has passed them by. That their
collective golden years of crafting this kind of mainstream
entertainment has passed. Aside from Jurassic Park, Spielberg’s forays
into the summer mindset have all been heavily balanced with science
fiction and based on existing material that required a certain artistic
temperature [Philip K. Dick, Brian Aldiss, etc.]. George Lucas, well we
know what happened there. Harrison Ford has been in a slump of
extraordinary magnitude. These are not the premier craftsmen of
rewarding and honest mainstream entertainment anymore. That mantle has
been passed on to men with last names like Raimi, Jackson, del Toro,
and Nolan. Steven Spielberg has made some extraordinary dramas since
his heyday as the master of the summer movie, but he’s really wasting
his time in this kind of fare. Although they set the standard in many
regards, it may just be that this kind of material works a lot better
when the participants have something still to prove.


Russ Fischer: I’ll go with the time passing them by angle; it’s not easy to do
a movie like Raiders at 35; doing it twenty or thirty years later has
got to be a bitch. I suppose it would be easier (and far cheaper) now
to try to let soundstages and CGI double for all the pesky, hard to
reach locations. (Revere Werner Herzog, 65, who treks out to locations
all the damn time.) All three prior movies were created to a
significant degree on location. Last Crusade the least of all, but I
won’t draw direct lines between that fact and common perception of the
film. Hate to bring reminiscence into this, but at 11 years old I got a
Temple of Doom book after seeing the film and even then I knew that all
the shooting on location in Sri Lanka was something special. Or I did,
after I looked at a couple of maps to find that it wasn’t an LA suburb.
There’s a sense of magnitude and wonder that comes from that sort of
work, and it is almost entirely missing from this film.


Jeremy will probably want to weigh in on this point but then I want to
focus on Indy himself for at least a round. He’s missing here so far,
and looking back at my review I realize I barely mention him at all.
I’m terrible at same-day reviewing, but he’s the title character!
Looking at our message boards and other places online I see a lot of
other people making the same call. This isn’t Indiana Jones’s movie. A
few sequences aside, it feels like he’s barely in it, when in reality
he’s probably in all but about five percent of the scenes. How did we
all come away with such a lack of impact on that front?



Jeremy Smith:
Nothing registered for me because that’s not Indiana Jones;
it’s a once great movie star struggling to run through pages and pages
of dialogue dedicated to explaining the shit out of the most unwieldy
“MacGuffin” in film history (actually, it’s not a MacGuffin, but Lucas
insists on calling it that, so I’ll play along for the purposes of
making him look like an even bigger dolt). It’s already enough of a
struggle for Ford to project charisma nowadays, so let’s stick him with
loads of droning exposition!


But Ford’s diminished charm is nothing compared to Indy’s diminished
mental capacities. How can someone as brilliant as Dr. Jones
misinterpret foreign utterances with such reckless aplomb, or, worse,
not know to back bloodthirsty natives away when he’s carrying an
artifact that’s allegedly sacred to them. Rather than figure that
latter “mystery” out on his own, he has to consult the batty Professor
Oxley, which is profoundly insulting to the audience. Good to know that
Spielberg thinks so little of the fans for whom he claims to have made
this film.


But getting back to that absence of Indy stuff, Crystal Skull never
felt like an Indiana Jones movie in the first place; I stopped hoping
he’d show up the minute the Area 51 sequence went south. I was actually
more offended that they kept dragging Marcus Brody into this mess.


Devin Faraci:  Roger Ebert wrote a blog post about the Indy ‘haters,’ and in it
he says how much he likes the laidback Indy. It’s like Indy is watching
the movie with us, Ebert says. As a positive thing. What kind of action
hero gives the vibe of watching the movie with us? Just the most
passive hero of all time.


Jeremy’s right in calling out the moronification of Indy – it starts
right at the warehouse, where he’s taking the gunpowder… and actually
uses it to help the Russians. It was weird seeing that he had no bigger
plan, no wiley use for that gunpowder. Putting aside all the other dumb
shit in that scene – why does the gunpowder only get tugged by the
magnet when it’s thrown in the air, why is the rest of the metal in the
warehouse not lodged against the box, why the fuck do the Russians even
need the alien in the first place – this immediate acquiescence to the
Russians is where the movie slides right off the rails. How quickly
Indy goes from telling Spalko off to being her right hand man, a role
he keeps for the rest of the film simply because if he’s not decoding
clues he has nothing going on. Later on he’s not even doing that – he’s
just translating John Hurt’s nonsense. He’s turned into Timmy’s mom to
John Hurt’s Lassie. ‘What’s that, boy – interdimensional aliens are
trapped in a Mayan temple?’


I can understand that Ford couldn’t do what he used to do in these
movies, but how hard would it have been to have made him more active by
helping Mutt step up into the hero role? It’s funny – I can remember
what Mutt did in the big truck chase in the jungle, but I’m having a
hard time recalling Indy’s big moments. In fact, I’m having a hard time
recalling any moments that I actually like in the film… as I get
farther from it, the movie slowly disintegrates like those
conquistadors.


Nick Nunziata: Harrison Ford’s biggest success since the Indiana Jones franchise
has been the Jack Ryan series, proof positive that the actor and a
character perceived as an action hero can get by with minimal physical
activity and still be commanding, intelligent, and heroic. If this film
had found a more balanced approach to the dynamic between the younger
“Indy” [Shia] and the now graying one, I don’t think audiences would
mind. These are the people who were perfectly giddy with the somewhat
precious Harrison Ford/Sean Connery pairing in the previous film.
Instead, we’re given this imposter of Indiana Jones that just happens
to be the originator of the role. Is this how CGI actors are going to
be used in the future? They’ll look the part and go through the motions
but be a void in the hands of inept conceptualists?


I don’t think Ford is all that bad in the role in this film, though. I
just think Indiana Jones isn’t so good a character in the movie.


Russ Fischer: I find that I can barely remember most of Indy’s actual dialogue
and actions. His sequence with Mutt in the cafe and subsequent chase
(which, middling as it is, I believe is the movie’s high point) is the
only significant chunk of the film that stands out has having a
fraction of the old Indy, and even there he’s relatively passive,
letting Shia do most of the work. This is what we’ve come to: Indy
riding bitch, calling a few shots and then dispensing a lesson at the
tail end.


I was on board with the passivity for a moment, as I expected it to
play into an older and wiser Indy who knows how to turn situations to
his advantage. Intuition always did that before, but I expected this
iteration to have more experience to draw on. So I too thought there
was a gunpowder plot brewing in the warehouse, or at least something to
demonstrate that Indy was going to do anything but roll over and show
his belly. His complicity with Spalko is more grating to me in the
post-game evaluation than it was during the film, because I was already
weary of the direction things were going.


We need to take on the set pieces, too. The nuclear town one I thought
had a magnificent setup and wholly dismal payoff. In reality, the only
set piece that came close to capturing the Indy spirit was the fight
with the Russian in the rocket test bay, but even that lacked the
construction and payoff we’ve come to expect. Ultimately that sequence
reminded me more of the Armour of God movies than anything else.



Jeremy Smith:
Yeah, the rocket bit got the juices going a little (and, hey,
there was a payoff there: groundhogs!), but then it literally burns out
like every other nearly promising moment in the movie.


I agree that the motorcycle chase is the most… adequately executed
set piece in the film: there’s the hint of danger with Indy getting
yanked into the back seat of the car, and then there’s the socking his
way back onto the bike – which you can totally see coming, but it’s the
good kind of anticipation. It’s like the tank brawl in Last Crusade in
that – once he gets a little help from a ricocheting bullet – you’re
just dying to see Indy will himself off that turret and beat the holy
hell out of that Nazi colonel. (By the way, that whole sequence is
worth it just for Ford’s “Now, you really pissed me off” look and the
resumption of the main theme. God, I never thought I’d be waxing this
nostalgic over Last Crusade.)


The less said about the jungle chase, the better. I understand everyone
embracing the Errol Flynn quality of Shia’s swordfight with Cate, but
Spielberg ruins it by sinking to crotch hits. The young Spielberg
would’ve feinted at that gag, and then found a witty way to avoid it.
That’s probably the quality I miss most in Indy 4: the witty resolution
of predicaments. In this movie, we’re supposed to be surprised when an
amphibious vehicle is finally used as an amphibious vehicle. And then
we get waterfall gags. I fucking hate waterfall gags. I mean, they’re
fine for The Wrong Guys…


Oh, and what the hell is up with the Marcus Brody statue bit? The
minute I saw the Russians speeding toward it, I figured we had a cheesy
(if tolerable) “Way to go, Marcus” moment on the way; instead, Brody’s
head tumbles into the driver’s lap, and the punch line is… Indy
glumly surveying the desecration while Mutt laughs? Nothing like
injecting random solemnity into what should be a rollicking action set
piece!


Devin Faraci: I want to like the jungle chase. There are aspects of it I DO
like, but as is true for the rest of the film, the chase feels like
serious half-assing. It isn’t that Spielberg has contempt for his
audience, it’s that he’s seen the movies that are the Children of Indy,
and he knows the audience will eat up any shit it’s served. Well, maybe
that does count as contempt for his audience. It definitely is
filmmaking that is not striving for good but going for passable.


I just wish the movie wasn’t so poorly structured and put together.
What’s interesting is looking at the reactions of fans on the internet
and seeing the film’s defenders getting very much into retconning the
quality of the series: ‘The Indy films were always slapstick! They
always had over the top, impossible action scenes! The elements you
hated in this film are very similar to ones in previous films!’ And
these defenses are true. Sort of. But it’s all about execution: while
the previous Indy films did make leaps over gaps of believability, they
were firmly rooted in a real-feeling world. Spielberg pushed the
boundaries (at times, like in Temple of Doom‘s raft drop opening, quite
forecefully), but he never broke through into Looney Tunes territory.


So the movie doesn’t work and we’re all disappointed – and my dislike
of the movie is growing with every conversation I have with another
friend who has just seen it – but is there anything that you guys did
like? For me, the highlight of the film was Shia LaBeouf, who was the
biggest X-factor going in. He’s the only actor in the whole film who
actually seems to be trying, and while he’s fundamentally miscast as
Mutt, he makes the best of the situation and comes closest to bringing
back the vibe of the older Indy films. Who would have imagined there
would ever exist an Indiana Jones movie where the sidekick was the best
part?


Nick Nunziata: And we haven’t even discussed the aliens. There is a cool story
to be told about the connection between the ancient and advanced human
civilizations and extraterrestrial [or interdimensional as they claim
here], but this ain’t it. If we’re tossing the idea of a MacGuffin
around, why did they have to use one that is so interesting that it
actually makes sense to explore?


Indiana Jones and alien races go together like douche and Skittles. Why
waste such stuff on an Indy film? I’d rather just have seen this thing
aim lower. The filmmakers decided to eschew the pulp and old school
adventure for the science fiction “B” movie world. Guess what was dumb?


Russ Fischer: As far as things I liked go, Shia is at the top of the list. He
was no x-factor for me; the kid hasn’t failed to deliver in any of his
recent features. He’s never made a really good movie, but he has
carried and elevated three features in a row. (The Greatest Game Ever
Played
, Disturbia and Transformers; I’ve avoided Shaker Heights so
can’t speak to that.) I’m pleased to see the same qualities displayed
here. Shia turned terrible dialogue into something workable, he
massaged a little life out of Ford and sold some of the film’s terrible
action.


Beyond that, I’m left with only frames and fragments of scenes. I can’t
say there’s a sequence that I love with any sort of abandon, nor even
one that I like without reseveration. The first setpieces (warehouse,
rocket, Doomtown, cycle chase) all have moments and sparks of interest.
Disappointingly, as the film wears on into the graveyard and jungle
material, even the sparks die until I get to the point where I have to
work to distinguish between the end of this movie and the end of
National Treasure: Book of Secrets.


I thought at one point that I’d be able to come up with a more compelling catalogue of stuff that works, but can’t do it now.



Jeremy Smith:
Shia did what he could with a hopelessly arbitrary role, but
the greaser element was integrated with zero conviction; Brando never
once came to mind. Shia did, however, compare favorably to the dude
from The Heavenly Kid. I’m sure that means a lot to him.


I think I’ve mentioned my other likes (the mushroom cloud shot, Indy
getting dragged off the motorcycle). I loved the idea of the ants, but
the execution was lacking; again, the intended reference (The Naked
Jungle
) failed to read. How am I supposed to get creeped out by CG ants
when Spielberg raised the icky insect bar with Temple of Doom? The bit
with the scorpions in The Sequence That Would Not End was equally
unmemorable.


Oh, what the hell… I’ll throw out a little love for Jim Broadbent.
His heightened performance is actually the only thing that matches the
overtly goofy tone of the film.


Devin Faraci: Nick’s right, we didn’t touch on the aliens. For me it’s because
I didn’t mind them (but then again, I have also known about them for
going on two years now, so I had plenty of time to get used to the
concept); Dr. Jones in the atomic age, with its attendant scifi
trappings, is no problem for me. If anything I was hoping that it would
give some juice to the film and the filmmakers, open a new door or two
for something strange and new. Fat chance.


So, it’s summary time. For me the best thing about Crystal Skull is the
fact that it doesn’t tarnish the first three films very much. There’s
no revelation on par with ‘We named the dog Indiana!,’ which bugged me
even the first time I saw it. In fact, Crystal Skull is sort of like a
good tofu dog – it reminds me just enough of the real thing that I want
to go out and get one. I don’t own the original trilogy on DVD – I’ve
seen those films so many times I didn’t think I ever needed to see them
again – but Crystal Skull has got me wanting to rinse my mouth out with
a little Raiders.



Jeremy Smith:
The worst thing about the aliens and, specifically, Irina
Spalko’s fate is that Spielberg must now offer up a fifteenth “Special
Edition” of Close Encounters in which Roy Neary hits the
inter-dimensional spin cycle. That’s what he gets for being a deadbeat
dad. (You think the U.S. government compensated Neary’s widow and kids?)


I hate to be the I told you so type (not really), but I whined about
this last year with my “Spielberg’s Regression” piece, and, one year
later, what’s the greatest living American filmmaker doing? Prepping
Tintin, putting off Lincoln (’til early ’09 at the earliest) and
altogether ignoring Interstellar. The excuse for getting preoccupied
with the Tintin movies is that they’ll enchant European children of all
ages while moving 3-D motion capture technology forward to an extent
not seen since whatever the last 3-D motion capture movie was (at that
point, it’ll probably be James Cameron’s Avatar). I understand the
desire to get out front technologically when you have all the toys at
your disposal, but those films typically don’t stand the test of time.
Has anyone curled up with Jurassic Park recently?


Spielberg’s too young to be making his Rio Lobo, but that’s essentially
what he’s done. It’s depressing to think that we might not get a true
Spielberg *film* until 2010 (five years after Munich), so I’m pleading
with him to let Peter Jackson close out the Tintin trilogy. Time to get
rolling on Lincoln. Time to keep evolving. Leave the wheel spinning to
Lucas; you’re better than that.

Nick Nunziata: At the end of the day it’s a minor film, which is a shame. We’ve grown so accustomed to seeing the things we love either mishandled or run into the ground and there’s a certain punch drunken nature to the way us as an audience enter the multiplex. We are harder to truly blow away with amazing work but it’s also harder to create a divorce between the product and the fan. The bar is simply too low. Then again, it’s really hard to get all emotionally invested in this film when it seems plain as day that the filmmakers didn’t bother to.