Guilty Pleasures: Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

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The law of diminishing returns has applied in the Indiana Jones series since Kate Capshaw started shrilly screaming in The Temple Of Doom, and didn’t stop until our heroes rode off into the sunset with The Last Crusade. Raiders of The Lost Ark is a bona fide masterpiece, the rest of the series have their good and bad points. Crystal Skull is no exception. To my mind , David Koepp’s script doesn’t trample on the memory of great characters and stunts, and certain ideas held up to ridicule are actually the strongest and freshest aspects of the film.

Take the infamous escape from the nuclear test blast in the lead lined fridge. Now “nuke the fridge” has replaced “jump the shark” for certain fans when describing the point where a film tips over into absurdity. At the time of release, fans (and critics!) complained that Frank Darabont’s script, Indiana Jones And The City Of The Gods, had been nixed by George Lucas – “But Darabont’s script would have been brilliant!” they bleated. Let’s look at that script’s set pieces, shall we? (It IS a great read, by the way, but I do have issues with certain moments that have been held up as superior to KOTCS – other aspects are admittedly far stronger then the finished film). He worked from George Lucas’s ideas, not necessarily adapting all of them – his also has the fridge incident, one of the most memorable,exciting and funny action beats in the film, along with most of the opening clash with the disguised Russian troops (although the traitor is Indy’s Russian friend Yuri, not the annoying Mac from the finished article). True, he doesn’t have the prairie dogs, funny when their burrow replaces the Paramount logo, but admittedly they overstay their welcome. In the Criticwire survey, Everyone (Else) Is Wrong, Luke Thompson of Topless Robot says,

With Indiana Jones, I think people really forget that each film is done as a tribute to the B-movies from the era represented onscreen. So of course an Indy movie set in the ’50s will have weird ideas about radiation, aliens and giant ants. People totally okay with a 500 year-old knight in the last film are suddenly sticklers for accuracy about radiation and lead.”

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In KOTCS, When Indy is suspected of being a Communist sympathiser, he reacts in a mature fashion, by bidding a fond farewell to the new collage Dean, Jim Broadbent, to begin a new tenure in Europe. After all, Harrison Ford, who played him and knows a thing or two about the character, believes Indy is “an academic first, an adventurer second.” Darabont has him get drunk and try and steal the golden idol of Raiders from the College museum. Way to pay your friend back for sticking his neck out for you, Indy.

One thing I find lame in sequels is harking back to great moments or lines in previous films. When Indy is drunk in Darabont’s script, he recreates the temple moment in Raiders by switching sand from a communal ashtray for the idol, setting off an alarm. Later, after another pounding, he tells Marion, “It’s not the mileage, it’s the years.”

In the great jungle chase, where our heroes duel and leap between vehicles, people complained about the monkeys swinging with Mutt and scrabbling over the Russians. In Darabont’s script, Indy and baddie Yuri fight above the jungle, leaping between bi-planes. It sounds great on paper, but I think the fridge would have been well and truly fried at this stage. And to cap it off, a startled monkey craps on Indy’s chest. I far prefer Mutt’s sabre duel with Cate Blanchett’s intriguing character, Col Irina Spalko.

Next, the ants. Ah, the most feeble, CGI aspect of the film. No real bugs or creepy crawlies, like before? But the red ants are a great homage to the 1950’s B-movies of the era it is set in, like THEM! AND they are in Darabont’s script! At least here a massive swarm of them can carry a man off. Before they turn up, Darabont has Indy swallowed by a snake with a head “bigger than a horse’s“. You read that right. The snake swallows him whole, including his hat, then climbs a tree before Indy machetes his way free from inside. Have you ever seen a python on a natural history program swallow a large mammal? It takes flipping ages. Wouldn’t the film just grind to halt for this period? You’d be shuffling your feet and glancing at your watch during this white knuckle moment. Darabont also has our heroes tossed end over end in a truck into a tree, then down into a river when fleeing the ants – almost like in the finished film – another moment derided.

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Then there is the climax. True, if you’ve made it this far, I tip my bush hat to you. Watching a temple break apart and swirl around like so many bits of Lego is no match for angelic ghouls melting Ron Lacey’s screaming face off. But I guess that is modern film ratings fault. Darabont’s script follows this filmed end fairly closely, by the way.  The great strengths of his script mostly lie in the characters interaction – he gets Marion spot on, and another surprising traitor works well too. Although when we get to Indy and Marion’s wedding, he has it witnessed by Henry Snr (Sean Connery) and Sallah. Now, why Sallah would be invited is beyond me. He struck me as no more than a trusted local contact of Indy’s. And Sean Connery was way beyond turning up for a few minutes face time by now, and way too expensive. He already collected that cheque in Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves.

You may have noticed I haven’t been defending every beat of this film to the hilt, every action moment, fist fight, whatever. The truth is, I wasn’t yearning to see Indiana Jones back in action again, older, slower. Who really was? I’m just grateful it wasn’t as bad as I feared it could be. When even director Steven Spielberg has to be cajoled into returning to this world again, that should be a sign it’s time to say, see you guys, but no more “fortune and glory“, please.

Thanks to @LoSceicco1976 for the Darabont script link

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