Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull part 1


“Oh my god…you are batshit crazy, Alcott! This movie didn’t bother you?! I won’t say it sucked–it’s too competent for that, and the combination of Spielberg, Harrison Ford, a fedora, a whip, and John Williams’ music will never fail to put at least a semi-smile on my face–but I dare you to find one genuine emotion in that movie. Or a single moment that had any gravity whatsoever. Even Last Crusade, which this is probably the closest to, tonally, had real chemistry between the characters, who would actually get sad or angry or upset or hurt or worried about each other from time to time. What the hell did the protagonist want, dude?!

Leaving aside, for the moment, questions of my insanity, let’s start with Mr. Publick’s last question. What does Indiana Jones want in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?hitcounter

He is born into the world of the movie from a car trunk, kidnapped by Russians led by Irina Spalko, and forced into helping them uncover an artifact from “Hangar 51.” We are told that he was found “digging in the dirt” in Mexico — that is, working as an archaeologist, gathering artifacts to put in a museum.

(What is Mac doing in the trunk? Is he also an archaeologist? What were they doing in Mexico together? It’s unclear. What is clear is that Mac is a reflection of Indy — Indy searches for artifacts to put them in museums, Mac searches for treasure to enrich himself. Indy is an academic — “a teacher”, as Mutt says, with varying degrees of credulity.)

Indy helps Spalko find the box she’s looking for — partly because she’s forcing him to, partly because he is also curious about what’s in the box. We are told that he participated in the retrieval of the thing in the box from “ten years ago,” and yet he knows little more about it than Spalko does. Spalko seeks the artifact for its power, but Indy simply wants “to know.”

Once he “knows” what’s in the box, his intent becomes “to put it back where it belongs.” This is a marked change for Indiana Jones, who up until now was content to trash temples, grab the idol, and put it in a museum (or hand it over to a gangster, as he does at the beginning of Temple of Doom). “To put it back where it belongs,” which we can shorten to “to set things right” for our purposes, is Indy’s motivation throughout Kingdom.

He seeks knowledge of the thing in the box (which is mummified remains) and soon finds himself confronted with the ultimate product of the 20th-century’s thirst for knowledge — the atomic bomb. (Later in the movie, Spalko quotes Oppenheimer quoting Shiva, but Spielberg surely remembers that Oppenheimer’s [or somebody’s] first words upon seeing the explosion of the atomic bomb was “Science has now known sin.”) This all seems thrilling and chaotic in the context of a first viewing, but the pursuit of knowledge, and the danger of that pursuit, is the theme that ties together all the plot lines of Kingdom. (Hence the emphasis on Indy being a “teacher.”)

After witnessing the terrible destructive power of the atomic bomb, the next thing that happens to Indy is he finds himself being interrogated by a couple of g-men about the thing in the box. (In a rare non-Spielberg reference, the scene directly recalls the interrogation of Richard Kimble in The Fugitive.) Indy, who fought the Nazis not once but twice to keep them from taking over the world, now finds his patriotism being questioned by a couple of Men in Black. The man who is pulled out of a car trunk after a 19-year absence finds himself in a world very different from the one he left at the end of Last Crusade. Things he once knew to be true are now called into question by the reigning authorities. The “intelligence” men, we would say, have acquired too much knowledge — their wealth of knowledge has blinded them to what anyone could plainly see.

(Indy being rescued from his interrogation by “General Ross” hard upon surviving an atomic blast is another question — what is Bruce Banner’s antagonist doing in this movie?)

The “intelligence” men are so far gone in their pursuit of knowledge that they ransack Indy’s office at his university (which I guess is Yale), force him out of his job and even force his boss out of his job. So the “intelligence” men, in their pursuit of knowledge, trash the traditional pinnacle of knowledge, the university. The American intelligence men are aided in their quest by Russian intelligence men, the “good guys” in unintended league with the “bad guys” against our protagonist.

(The corollary to “knowledge” in Kingdom is “experience.” The intelligence men may “know” things, but Indy’s “experience” proves things — General Ross says as much to the g-men. Pure knowledge, the movie suggests, is destructive, while knowledge combined with experience can be a useful tool for achieving things — like solving a puzzle, finding a lost friend or escaping a trap. The atomic bomb is a perfect example of knowledge minus experience.)

Enter Mutt. Mutt has lost his beloved Oxley (which, well, let’s just accept for now that Oxley is important to Mutt — we are told this rather than shown it, but let’s go with it for now). Indy has his own emotional attachment to Oxley (which we will understand later) and agrees to help Mutt — if he can keep them one step ahead of the Russians, who are after Indy for reasons that will eventually become clear.

(The “knowledge vs. experience” theme is underlined during the motorcycle chase scene, where Indy advises a student that a real archaeologist knows that he has to “get out of the library.” This would come as a surprise to the younger Indy, who advised his students the exact opposite.)

Mutt has a coded note from Oxley which Indy decodes after a furrowing of his brow and the two of them head off to Peru in search of Oxley.

Now then: who is Mutt? Mutt is, of course, another reflection of Indy. We could say that he has neither Indy’s knowledge nor his experience, but he does have his determination, his recklessness, his will. (There’s a nice moment during the motorcycle chase where Mutt grins about some stunt he’s just pulled and Indy frowns disapprovingly, an exact echo of a similar moment between Indy and his father in Last Crusade. This is how we know Mutt is Indy’s son before Indy does.) Mutt feels things too much, does things on impulse, in general lacks direction — lacks a father, one could say. It would seem that Oxley is a sort of father figure to Mutt, and nothing excites Spielberg’s emotions more than a child separated from his father.

(Now that Spielberg is a father himself many times over, his movies, which were once full of father’s abandoning their families, are now full of older, wiser fathers returning to their families, and Kingdom, we shall see, is not only a worthy addition to this new tradition, but a specific repudiation of Spielberg Past — but don’t let me get ahead of myself.)

Mr. Publick finds a lack of “genuine emotion” in the movie, but I find the opposite — Indy gets put through more emotional changes more quickly than in any of the other movies. First he’s tired and pissed at the Russians, then he’s angry at Mac for betraying him, then he’s terrified and awed by the atomic blast, then he’s suspicious and angry at the g-men, then he’s quickly hurt and then forgiving to his boss at the university, then he’s concerned about Oxley, all in the first act. Maybe that’s the problem — if the movie doesn’t stop and underline the changes, the sheer number of them starts to feel like glibness or superficiality.

Anyway, unless I’m mistaken, everything from Hangar 51 to Indy’s departure for Peru with Mutt constitutes the first of four acts, which makes this a good place to stop for now. We could say that Act I is: Indy, thrust into a world he cannot recognize, where the use of knowledge has been perverted to cast doubt on experience, is given an opportunity to find another lost academic and seizes it.


45 Responses to “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull part 1”
  1. You don’t think Indy is an exceptionally passive protagonist in this film? I would almost jokingly call the skull the protagonist.

    his university (which I guess is Yale)

    It’s “Marshall” but it was shot at Yale and there was a New Britain System bus on the street so I’m guessing that the Marshall is, at least, in Connecticut, if not Yale proper.

    • Also what exactly was Oxley’s relation to Mutt? He was obviously some sort of father figure, so maybe I projected that he had married Mutt’s mother. (I had thought they said as much, but by the end it seemed that certainly couldn’t be so.)

      Along the same lines, were there any of Abner Ravenwood’s students that his daughter didn’t shack up with? How does that fit in with Spielberg’s ideas of fatherhood? (He’s more of a father-son guy, yes, but still!)

      • (Not that I don’t love Marion Ravenwood)

      • srhall79 says:

        As I understood it, Oxley and Indy had both been students of Abner, and so both knew his daughter. While Indy cultivated a romantic relationship with Marion, Ox seems to have formed an older brother/kid sister relationship.

        After Raiders, Marion was back in the US and able to reconnect with one of Abner’s prize students (her “big brother”). After she married the pilot and Mutt was born, I imagine Ox took on the role of uncle.

    • Todd says:

      “You don’t think Indy is an exceptionally passive protagonist in this film?”

      I don’t. I think his duties have changed from previous movies, but no, I don’t find him particularly passive. That’s something that’s come up a lot, and I’ll address the reasons why it seems that way later.

      • Looks like we’re trading comments simultaneously. Sorry to clog the works; I have just been thinking a lot about the movie and the Indy conventions it breaks, and in which of those cases it does or doesn’t matter. Not to mention why I found it fun as I watched, but also why I am less satisfied with it as I think about it more. So it goes without saying that I am looking forward to your continued thoughts on the film.

        • Anonymous says:

          In Context

          I noticed even while watching the movie, and have come to realize even more after much reflection, to properly place Crystal Skull in context one has to accept the Young Indiana Jones mythology (which is why it’s mentioned via the Pancho Villa reference in the film.) Lucas, and to some extent Spielberg, do not look on these films as being solely about “Indiana Jones, adventurer/archeologist” anymore. They look instead of this as another chapter in the total story of the life of Henry Jones, Jr. The alien aspects of the story seem far out of character if one’s view of Indy comes solely from the films. In the context of the films and the Young Indy series, however, which have far more scope than the films, this installment feels far less out-of-the-ordinary (still over-the-top, but that’s Lucas/Spielberg for you.)

        • Anonymous says:

          the exchange itself made me chuckle.
          it’s a bit like the online bot/game guess the dictator or sit-com character

    • I suppose Indy has always been a somewhat passive protagonist, but that’s never bothered me before. I should clarify that I didn’t expect that Indy would entirely lead the way; the tank chase through the jungle was exceptional and thrilling and successfully balanced the contributions of everyone in Indy’s party. I think what particularly bothered me was that Indy has always been the de facto leader of whomever he is with, but in the Goonies-style fourth act they follow Oxley, who seems to intuitively know how to solve the puzzle. Being captured by Nazis and being led by an omnipotent alien force are a little different (to me at least).

      Anyway I’m getting ahead of you here.

    • eronanke says:

      there are many reflections of the University of Chicago in Marshall as well.
      When Indiana Jones escapes from his basement office via the window, this is mirrored by an infamous Anthropologist at UChic who did the same, causing the administration to bar the windows to the basement offices!

      Similarly, Indiana’s mentor, Prof. Ravenwood is said to be from the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago – he is directly based of Prof. Braidwood from that same building.

      • Todd says:

        The only reason I guessed Yale was because the credits mentioned that parts of the movie were shot in Connecticut, and Indy and Mutt leave for Peru out of New York (which made Sam think that maybe Indy was teaching at Columbia or NYU — but he’s seven and knows comparatively little about the university system).

        • eronanke says:

          NP! I’m a UChic girl, so I kinda need to fight for this. lol

          • fengshui says:

            The only university ever actually mentioned in Indy movies is the University of Chicago. However, in the first film, he flies out of San Fransisco, so you can make a case for Berkeley, and in this one, all of the automobiles have New York license plates, so Cornell is another possibility. This one is filmed at Yale, of course, but that doesn’t mean much.

            • eronanke says:

              To be fair, he also lands in the Republic of the Hatay at one point (Last Crusade?) – a republic that only lasted one year, and certainly not the year the movie takes place. He also drives from the Hatay (S. Turkey) to Jordan in under a day somehow. lol

              • Todd says:

                I can’t remember now if he arrives in the Republic of Hatay or some other version of it. Hatay it certainly is.

                • eronanke says:

                  Well, let me correct myself: if it WAS the Last Crusade, then it was accurate, time-wise. However, in no way could you drive from there to Jordan in under a day.

        • igorxa says:

          parts were certainly shot at yale. there was a musicology convention there during filming, and friends of ours were in attendance. since they were part of the convention, they were allowed to access areas off limits to everyone else. one of our friends ran into spielberg, and has pictures of ford relaxing in a lawn chair between takes.

    • greyaenigma says:

      I’d wondered about that myself — when the only people who are insisting on returning the skull are those that are arguably under some form of mind control, how can we be certain that would be their own intention?

      There were also NEw York plates on some of the cars in the chase. Perfectly plausible in Connecticut.

  2. catwalk says:

    so, indy is nicknamed for a specific dog,
    and mutt is nicknamed for generic dogs?
    just a random curiosity there…

    • Todd says:

      Indy named himself after his dog, and I’m guessing Mutt did as well.

      (Willie and Short Round were also named after dogs as well, but they did not name themselves, as Indy and Mutt did. Which raises the question, why did they feel it necessary to rename themselves? The answer, of course, is “to distance themselves from their fathers.”)

      • catwalk says:

        and yet managed to connect on that point.

        • Anonymous says:

          Indiana (the dog)

          In the Young Indy series, first episode, we get to meet the dog, a beautiful Husky. Left off the DVD release are bookends which aired around the episodes as originally aired, featuring George Hall as an extremely old Indy. In one of these, he mentioned having to get home to feed his cat, “Henry”. Always loved that he named himself after his dog, and his cat after himself…

  3. mattyoung says:

    First let me say “Damn! That’s some quick turnaround from viewing to blogging!” (Not pejoratively, just thank-god-I-need-my-fix)

  4. moroccomole says:

    I found the whole experience hollow. Although when things got particularly formulaic, I got myself through by reminding myself that I’d eventually get to read the analysis.

  5. mattyoung says:

    (Indy being rescued from his interrogation by “General Ross” hard upon surviving an atomic blast is another question — what is Bruce Banner’s antagonist doing in this movie?)

    Ross is there because the pulps and serials that inspired “Indiana Jones” are being supplanted by the comic books that will, eventually, bring about The Hulk.

    (Of course, since the A-Bomb had just been created and the Gamma radiation bomb is some ways off (and Ross’ daughter hasn’t met that troublesome nerdy scientist yet), Ross is still a good guy.) Just another addition to things that are out of their element. Ross will eventually lose the perspective of his experience and become “blind” in his pursuit of the Hulk.

  6. mattyoung says:

    I think this theme of Indy dragged out of his world is what’s arousing the most intense conflicts with viewers. Indiana Jones has always been a person who knows his world fully. Throw him out of a plane, across a mountain, down a river, and into the desert… and he immediately knows who the first guy he sees is.

    In the most indelible scene in the movie (for me), when Indy ends up in the ultimate Wonderbread house just before the bomb, he’s completely out of his element. That really haunts this flick, and Indy, too, I think. It’s almost like Spielberg is making a movie WITH Indiana Jones instead of an Indiana Jones movie.

    There are so many little things to pick at about this movie. Clunky, cliche dialogue; the whole alien thing being done in a fairly important bit of Stargate SG-1… but I can’t stop suffixing those criticism with “but I still liked it so much!”

  7. teamwak says:

    I’m confused. They couldnt decide on a script, and this is the one they all agreed on?

    There were some touches of brilliance. I thought the opening, and the nuke were stunning. But there were too many obvious sets, and where were the booby traps? All those fantastic temples, then no traps?

    Then the final scenes. Oh dear, X Files light – quartz skeltons, CGI aliens? Im was not impressed!

  8. greyaenigma says:

    When the groundhog came up, I was pretty certainly I was watching a trailer for a very different movie.

    I have a question for someone who’s seen it twice: Irina starts to do something like a mind meld thing with Indy, then says he’s a hard man to read — perfectly ambiguous use of psychic powers. But moments later, she waves and the fusebox/alarm system for the hanger explodes. Was this something she did, or did I not manage to see (or hear) the member of her team that shot or blew it up?

    • Todd says:

      I think she blows it up.

      • Anonymous says:

        I don’t think she does.

        While Spalko is “scanning” Indy, her goons are working on sabotaging the door controls. She then waves to indicate that she’s concluded her probe and wants to enter the warehouse, at which point the sabotage is completed, the panel sparks and the doors open.

        At least, that’s how I remember it.

    • papajoemambo says:

      I understood that one of the Russians had shot the control box and that the door had opened as a result – I remember machine-gun fire after Irina waved her hand and before the door opened.

  9. schwa242 says:

    He seeks knowledge of the thing in the box (which is mummified remains) and soon finds himself confronted with the ultimate product of the 20th-century’s thirst for knowledge — the atomic bomb. (Later in the movie, Spalko quotes Oppenheimer quoting Shiva, but Spielberg surely remembers that Oppenheimer’s [or somebody’s] first words upon seeing the explosion of the atomic bomb was “Science has now known sin.”) This all seems thrilling and chaotic in the context of a first viewing, but the pursuit of knowledge, and the danger of that pursuit, is the theme that ties together all the plot lines of Kingdom. (Hence the emphasis on Indy being a “teacher.”)

    I kind of saw a parallel with the atomic bomb test and the pillar of fire at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The world has changed… mankind can now replicate the wrathful fire of God and all that. You hear warnings that goggles need to be worn during the test, similar to when Indy warns Marion not to look when the Ark is opened. But this time, he does watch the mushroom cloud and remaining fire of the blast once he steps out of the refrigerator.

    — Schwa —

    And is the refrigerator, a box that protects the contents from the power of science a reversal of the Ark, a box that contains back the power of God from those outside it? Am I reaching way too far now?

    • Todd says:

      You’re probably not reaching too far — putting Indy in the box to protect him from the wrath of the God let out of the proverbial box would be a perfect example of Spielberg’s tried-and-true “stand the idea on its head” philosophy.

      I also forgot to mention in my analysis that the shot of Indy watching the atomic blast and the shot of him watching the flying saucer take off are virtually identical.

    • greyaenigma says:

      It is only by casting out the false products of 50s commercialism and stepping into the metal womb that Indy is able to survive.

      Either that, or he called in a metaphysical marker and surviving a nuclear blast (which I was surprised to hear Indy pronounce “nucular”) was the gift he got from the Grail.

      • I actually have no problem with surviving the nuclear blast. That’s doable, especially with the realtively teeny bomb involved (heck, Hiroshima had long-term surivors.) The problem I have is surviving being blasted miles into the desert while crammed in a metal box not remotely intended to withstand that kind of impact, let alone protect a human inside, hit my credibility button harder.

        But them I was raised by an aerospace engineer who also read early sci-fi and as such my bullshit meter has a permanently skewed setting.

      • dougo says:

        I swear he said “liberry” too.

    • Indiana Jones and the Gray Lensman

      I have more of a problem with Indy casually standing by as refridgerator-sized rocks go whizzing past his head as the saucer lifts off. But then, I guess he didn’t have to worry about them flying out of the green screen.

      I liked this movie, certainly more than Temple of Doom or Last Crusade. But, it has its weak spots. Todd is right that Indy is curiously passive. The only major decision that he makes is when he decides to join Mutt in looking for Ox rather than going to England in search of a teaching assignment. After that, he’s on the rollercoaster.

      Also, my enjoyment of the Indy films is generally inversely proportional to the amount of time given to mystic exploits, and this film would have been better with fewer scenes of the psi-boosting crystal skull.

  10. Am reading in order, so forgive me if you have posted later…

    I saw it last night, and did not leave with the charged up excitement I feel for films that set my world on fire, including the first of this series. I did enjoy it, perhaps mostly for the “game” of referencing other movies – American Grafitti meets Close Encounters (and laughs when he realizes he missed Groundhog Day/Caddyshack!). I also foundly think of post-Spock Leonard Nemoy’s “In Search Of”, (didn’t get the Men in Black, but did think of “Good Night and Good Luck” for recent ‘homage’ to McCarthyism). And what a tribute to The Wild One!

    And the Dr No scrubbing of course…

  11. jawastew says:

    I found your post through and so far, I am enjoying your analysis! It’s especially refreshing after encountering a few people who vehemently did not, nor could imagine why anyone would, like this movie. I’ll be reading these posts in order.. on to the next! 🙂

  12. Anonymous says:

    I had some minor quibbles about this film, but overall enjoyed it thoroughly.

    In only a slight departure from your interpretation of the G-men, I saw them as literal embodiments of the New World Order of the atomic era, cold war and all of that. The new world that must replace the old one, cancelling the old one in the process. In that capacity of course they are not just suspicious of, but prepared to be enemies of Indy, who is one of the relics of the old world that just ended. Indy’s biggest crime then was “how dare you survive our atomic bomb” which is the greatest tool in our new world, and not to be bested by the cunning of an old man. And their most telling line was, when Ross mentioned all of the missions Indy performed in the war and all of the medals he’d earned: “If he deserved those medals.” The virtues of the recent past may well be crimes in the new now. The old world may have been about military men and heroic deeds, and in the old world Russians were our (putative) allies. But now civilian men in suits are running things, the Russians are dire enemies and bold individual action is never called for — it’s suits and committees that run the world to come.

    The college (Yale? Okay, it’s Yale) was certianly part of the old world and therefore the G-men had every right to tear it apart.

    The image of Indy being born out of the car trunk, into a world that absolutely wasn’t his, was perfect. And I think the partial trashing of the warehouse full of relics was another part of saying goodbye to the old world. “Their place of power was the warehouse full of old mystic crap, but our place of power (right next door) is the artificial town, full of plastic people, ready for the coming bomb.” Plastic, manufactured people in a manufactured town is the most telling part of the G-men’s new world. I’m not sure they represented knowlege without experience, so much as restriction of knowlege altogether.

    Bill Willingham

    • Todd says:

      I didn’t touch on it very much, but I very much liked the image of Indy in the make-believe Doomtown. Not only is he ridiculously out of place in the plastic 50s utopia of suburbia, but the idea that it has been built to be destroyed represents a harsh critique of the government the g-men and their up-is-down logic represent.

      Not to mention that Spielberg seems to be saying that suburbia, the locale of some of his biggest hits, was in the end a lie and the blast in Kingdom is his way of saying goodbye to that part of his career.

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