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Consumed With Hate: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

💀 I'm Just Uptight, Uptight...

The Crime: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The Guilty Party: Mostly George Lucas
Overview: A too-late sequel to a beloved franchise makes us wonder if the filmmakers have ever seen an Indiana Jones movie.

Why I Hate It...

This is a pretty widely reviled film. The phrase "nuking the fridge" came into modern parlance to describe a franchise that had run itself into the ground because of this movie! It is riddled with nonsense like: the "they're extra-dimensional beings" line from John Hurt that's supposed to explain why the aliens aren't really aliens; Shia LeBoeuf's Tarzan impersonation; the glossy coat of bad-looking CGI; the ancient ruins under a waterfall (!!) that had a tribe of people living inside the walls (!?!?). There's a lot to criticize. Fun fact, though, do you know what its score is on Rotten Tomatoes? Go look, I'll wait.

Yeah. As of time of writing, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is sitting pretty at 77% on RT. That's not just a good score, that's good with a comfortable margin. The recent mega-blockbuster Avatar: The Way of Water is the third-highest grossing movie of all time, and it only scored a 76%. And while it's easy to just dismiss movie critics as being out of touch with the masses, I think there's a lot more to it than that. Because Crystal Skull is definitely bad, and very obviously bad, but it's not at all obvious why it's bad, and that's the kind of thing that can absolutely stymie a professional film reviewer.

Now this is where you throw your hands in the air and say "Dude, what do you mean it's not obvious why it's bad--you gave us a whole list just two paragraphs ago!" And that's a fair point, I guess, but no, those are bad things, but they're not why the movie is bad. In fact, this is probably a separate post altogether, but the reasons you don't like a movie and the reasons that you think you don't like a movie are often two distinct lists. Case in point: yes, it is patently ridiculous that Indy survives a nuclear blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator. It is equally ridiculous in Iron Man that Tony Stark survives a chest full of shrapnel by hooking up a car battery to his heart, and that movie f**kin' slaps, as the kids say. But if Iron Man had been a dud, you can bet the farm that people would be complaining about the car battery as being emblematic of why the whole thing sucked.

Because the thing is: on paper, there's nothing wrong with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It's visually engaging, it's well-acted, it has some fun action sequences, it calls back older stories and characters and brings in new ones, it shows growth and maturation for the hero and sets up some torch-handing-off at the end. It's easy to see why someone might not like this movie but still think it's okay. Just consider for a moment someone whose job is watch a hundred new movies a year and render some kind of verdict on them. That's gonna change your tastes. You're gonna get bored of predictable popcorn movies and be drawn to more esoteric faire for the sheer novelty; there's a reason critics tend to like avant garde arthouse films more than summer blockbusters. But you still have to review the blockbusters and you want to do so in a way that you think reflects the tastes of your audience. So you walk out of this trainwreck, but you can't really point to what doesn't work on a plot or character level, and your readers seemed to love that extremely vapid Michael Bay Transformers movie from the previous summer, so you decide that it's probably fine. Go back and look at those reviews, that's more or less what you get: milquetoast damnation with faint praise. It's not great, it doesn't completely work--but hey, Indy's back and there's some fun bits. Three and a half stars.

Naturally, all of this raises the question: what is actually wrong with this movie?

And the answer can be boiled down the fact that George Lucas has no clue why people like the movies he makes. You can see this in the Star Wars prequels. People resonated with Luke Skywalker, a nobody farm boy who goes on a spiritual journey to save the galaxy. Why would you think that they would then resonate with midichlorians and virgin birth chosen-one narratives? How would you even arrive at that? And the truth is that George Lucas doesn't really interrogate his creations that way. He doesn't try to understand them the way his fans do. He just makes pastiches of the old film serials that he loved as a child and populates them with whatever weird ideas have popped into his head. And the longer a franchise goes with him as a creative force behind it, the more the stories start to decohere.

And Crystal Skull was a very long time coming. It released 19 years after Last Crusade, and it might as well be from another planet given how thoroughly it misunderstands its own mythology. Indiana Jones is not a character so much as an archetype. He's sort of like the Joker and Hannibal Lecter that way. He's a force of nature, and the more you try to humanize him, the less interesting he becomes. He fights Nazis because they are the quintessential bad guys. He investigates religious relics because fundamentally these movies are thematically about spiritual awe triumphing over cynicism. He's an adventuring ladies man, ergo the romantic interest for any given film is a brand new character whom we will never see again. And isn't he functionally immortal because of the end of Last Crusade anyway? Well, it doesn't matter, because Crystal Skull just chucks all of that out the window in order to make him an alien-chasing family man and former spook. Like... what is this other than a recipe for cognitive dissonance? It's not an elevation of the character or a subversion a la Luke's arc in The Last Jedi. And it doesn't help that the previous films had mostly practical effects with a little optical compositing for the finale. Crystal Skull is stuffed to the gills with over-the-top CGI, and that difference in texture and scale is just one more thing that makes your brain scream "This is not an Indiana Jones movie!"

And that, in my humble opinion, is the real problem with this film. Everything about it just feels wrong because it so thoroughly clashes with the expectations that fans of the franchise bring to it. And that's a weird kind of conclusion to arrive at. This movie isn't bad because it's bad. It's bad because it's so committed to being an Indiana Jones movie but is also absolutely not an Indiana Jones movie. For comparison, Temple of Doom was also bad--and a thinly-veiled metaphor for Lucas' divorce, which is neither here nor there--but it at least feels like an Indiana Jones movie. No one bats an eyelash at including it in the "trilogy", but people straight up pretend that Crystal Skull doesn't exist. It immediately became a pop culture punchline.

Just for shits and giggles, let's do a little thought experiment. Imagine what it would be like if you stripped all of the Indiana Jones-ness out of this film. What if it were more of a spiritual successor that revolved around Mutt Williams? Maybe Indy and Marion have a cute little cameo at the end, but they're not really a presence. You can imagine that working, right? Instead of the legendary bullwhip-wielding archaeology professor, it's about a greaser on a motorcycle who inadvertently gets wrapped up with this alien artifact. Hell, you could even leave in the fridge-nuking. It would still be ridiculous, but it would at least be internally consistent, and you wouldn't spend every moment trying to figure out why things feels off.

Incidentally, I see no reason why Dial of Destiny is going to be any better, and from the trailers it looks like a heaping pile of fan service, so maybe pretend like that one doesn't exist either.

Next week we look at what was supposed to be Jurassic Park meets Game of the Thrones: Victor Milán's The Dinosaur Lords...

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.