Rip Van Indy: Reconsidering "Crystal Skull"

“What am I being accused of, aside from surviving a nuclear blast?”

An apoplectic Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) asks this of quarrelsome FBI interrogators in the long-awaited Kingdom of the Crystal Skull installment of the Indy franchise, but the dialogue humorously applies to the film itself arguing itself to a mass audience thumbing its nose in disappointment and disbelief. Indy, fleeing Soviet soldiers in 1957 Nevada, finds himself in a dummy-populated suburban neighborhood simulacrum that’s going to be incinerated by the U.S. government’s customary nuclear testing in 30 seconds. Indy’s legendary survival instincts lead him into a lead-lined refrigerator for safety; while everything else disintegrates in the horrific atomic cauldron, the airborne fridge crashes and bounces safely, securely distant from the mushroom cloud as Indy, who’s far outmatched any feline in terms of how many lives he’s used up, emerges from the household contraption and looks on at what the world has wrought since last we saw him, fighting Nazis shortly before the second World War. The FBI obviously doesn’t buy Indy’s story and, as perhaps director Steven Spielberg anticipated, neither did Indy’s audience. However many times a younger Indiana Jones cheated certain movie death against impossible odds, it was with “Frigegate” that Spielberg and series creator George Lucas went too far.

 But when Indy comes out of that fridge and looks at the mushroom cloud, Spielberg is, to me, alerting his audience just how strange the world has become, for both Indiana Jones and for us. Threats like machine guns, venomous snakes, impaling booby-traps, rolling boulders, plane crashes, crushing tanks, steep cliffs, and crocodiled ravines are old hat thrills that are tangible enough (I suppose), but Spielberg and Lucas’ audience ate up the sadistic supernatural scythes of death brought on from opening the Ark of the Covenant, Kali worship, and drinking water from the wrong grail. Now, with that mushroom cloud, it’s as if the sleeper has awakened. Crystal Skull quotes Oppenheimer’s famous “I Am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds” from, as Indy reminds us, the Hindu Bible, and that statement points us to what’s flowing beneath the entire movie. The supernatural gods of lost arks, temples of doom, and grail crusades have, in the atomic age, been toppled by humanity’s ingenuity and science. While Crystal Skull’s quest involves portals to other dimensions, those dimensions and their inhabitants aren’t the stuff of metaphysics, any more than that mushroom cloud. Humankind has encountered—and mastered—what before were “godlike” powers. And, just as significantly for Indy and us, between 1989’s Last Crusade and 2008’s Crystal Skull, it could be argued so has cinema. Spielberg, an epic chronicler of “seeing,” is suggesting that the sea-change for Indy between the 1930s and 1950s is somewhat analogous to our own disorientation, thrown from familiarity with an ‘80s blockbuster to the brave new world of digital creation and replication. As he always has done, and with increasing frequency in the 21st century, Spielberg is contemplating how our seeing changes alongside social and technological revolutions.

 Which is to say that perhaps, much like the challenge Francis Ford Coppola faced in 1990 in releasing a third Godfather film, a fully satisfying “classic” Indiana Jones movie successfully capturing the verve of the originals so many years later was an impossible proposal. And like Godfather III, Spielberg’s unfairly maligned film’s virtues can be parsed out in how it anticipates how times and tastes have changed, not conforming to the familiar and successful Coca-Cola formula but subtly subverting it, occasionally leaning on nostalgia’s crutch as our heroes (and their creators) have slunk deep into middle age as the world goes on accelerating. Now, as almost as much time has passed from Crystal Skull’s release as did between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade, and the film can be viewed in context of a director’s evolving late body-of-work, particularly in partnership with the recent, excellent Bridge of Spies, which has a strikingly similar Greatest Generation hero hurled into the doublespeak and perplexities of the Cold War 1950s. Spielberg also mines our cinematic memories, the imprinted pictures resisting lost time, his reflective late period beginning with the stored images and feelings inspiring an abandoned robot to seek its ersatz mother (AI: Artificial Intelligence), and a parent replaying holograms of a dead child (Minority Report), in both cases the simulacrum hollow measures to cope with loss. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as a pop product prompts the question, is it so with us as well?

The Indiana Jones trilogy had the blessing of emerging alongside home video. While just about everyone of all ages caught the movies in theaters, viewers would rent—and eventually buy—the videocassette. And younger viewers, at least I’ll thusly testify, wouldn’t just watch the tape, rewind, and return. Rather, the ‘80s blockbusting boom of video stores of the period entailed repeat—as in loop—viewings. As I remember, an introduction to Temple of Doom’s thrills was followed by rewind and watch again—and, perhaps again. It was utter absorption into the movie’s vocabulary. With indefinite access to remote control and home video, the seeds of the current nostalgia boom, from franchise reboots to countless anniversary think pieces, were sewn (at least there runs my amateur theory).

Eyes and expectations so conditioned to the Indy films’ rhythms and palette, how are we expected to respond 19 years later, when Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park, no less than that film’s InGEN-hatched dinosaurs, ushered in a new period of special effects and manufacturing, the raptors eventually taking over the park and eating their flesh-and-blood creators? Lucas had already embraced the new palette with his Star Wars reissues and prequels, and while they made a lot of money, they also pissed off a lot of fans unable to believe what they saw: a rubbery canvas of animation having none of the speed and weight of the 1977-1983 trilogy’s photographic verisimilitude. While Spielberg retained his preference for filming in 35mm for Crystal Skull, the opening image where a Paramount logo becomes the mound of a cutesy digital prairie dog is an immediate portent of computer generated jungles, scorpions, monkeys, and ants which cannot match the gasps provoked by the tarantulas and cobras from Raiders of the Lost Ark, legions of live nesting insects from Temple of Doom, and mounds of rats in Last Crusade. Captivating stunts are deposed by videogame Pitfalling on jungle vines, and the industrial light and magic behind the Well of Souls and coarsely melting Nazi flesh has the perfection of a graphic design team’s extraterrestrials and wormholes. Our eyes cannot bridge the special effects paradigms of the 1980s and the 2000s. While cinematographer Janusz Kaminski claims to have attempted to capture Douglas Slocombe’s chiaroscuro cinematography of the first three films, Kaminski’s stark, trademark hot lights and contrasts indicate how totally the world is different. While the ‘80s trilogy were dreamlike descents into ancient caverns, Crystal Skull has the feel of steely cage-like entrapment, stuck in a simulacrum like those Nevada test site dummies.

We’re propelled into the film with a rock and roll desert road car-chase leading to the aptly named Atomic Café. Teenagers are getting their gas guzzling kicks alongside military personnel who amicably accept the racing invitation. This prologue, bearing no plot relation to what will follow, is similar to Temple of Doom’s “Anything Goes” intro, Spielberg neatly establishing a particular time and Hollywood style through homage. There’s not only an existential disparity between the ‘30s and late ‘50s, but a distinct cultural one, the old milieu now brusquely affronted by the styles of Brando and Dean, rock music, and the old Saturday morning adventure serials replaced by warped, paranoia-strewn science fiction inspired by panic of communist invasion. These friendly good-time soldiers, meanwhile, once they turn into Area 51, turn out to be villainous communist goons who have captured Indiana Jones and his longtime companion (and former MI6 agent) Mac (Ray Winstone), to help them find a sarcophagus in the facility bearing an extraterrestrial’s remains; as with the soldiers, Mac’s an amicable dude who turns out to be playing for the bad guys, led by “Stalin’s fair-haired girl,” the telepathic and rapier-wielding KGB Agent Spalco (Cate Blanchett).

A rhythm of head-spinning transitions is established under the tone of moral cloudiness, Indy’s toughness and ingenuity intact while his gears are a little creaky on this new computer palette where his body coasts and is pummeled alongside floating cinedust gunpowder. What’s authentic and real here? The rosy “I Like Ike” American household is perfectly decorated, with even the television on, but is peopled by dummies and has been meticulously erected to be quickly obliterated. After escaping the Soviets (and being born again from his refrigerator womb, surviving a nuclear blast), Indy argues with his bullying FBI interrogators about his war record of 30 missions in the Pacific, adding, “What side were you on?” At the school where Indy teaches, the new Dean (Jim Broadbent), mentions, “I barely recognize this country anymore. The government’s got us seeing communists in our soup,” adding, “You have reason to question your friends these days.” Indy, meanwhile, has to go on mandatory leave and considers taking a new teaching post in Germany—the dangerous lion’s den of the original Indy films, now more welcoming to our hero than his own nation.

Reality in the atomic world, like our moving images in the present, is no longer grounded in a firmament on which we can depend, or as Spielberg chum Martin Scorsese mentioned while discussing the new digital paradigm in promoting his own 1950s paranoia-soaked thriller Shutter Island, “There’s no such thing as a true image anymore.” Crystal Skull scores easy nostalgia points with Indy looking wistfully at his late father’s photograph on his desk, but the suspended moment of a haggard Harrison Ford musing on Sean Connery has the poignant longing for an earlier time’s ostensible clarity, before Spielberg the filmmaker gave us the inhumanity of the holocaust in Schindler’s List (1993), the meat-grinder of Normandy in Saving Private Ryan (1998), and the insolubility of a geopolitical conflict in Munich (2005). Meanwhile in AI (2001), he had deconstructed his own formula of manipulation and sentiment, acknowledging the elaborate designs that hold up a mask of meaning in an impersonal and endlessly transient universe. The pillars of benevolent (or hostile) divinities are in exile. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t have the awe of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the nightmarish dream abyss of Temple of Doom, or the emotional highs of Last Crusade (or the humor of any of its predecessors); it’s suspended in a limbo of confusion and malaise, distrust and uncertainty. Nature is now rendered in binary code, and there’s an arbitrariness to events, whether it’s the sudden appearance of dangerous acrobatic skeleton-faced warriors or one’s own biological offspring—as in motorcycle-riding Mutt (Shia LeBeouf). Things are much less analogue here, where identities, attitudes, and, as with that Nevada testing site, whole cities evaporate in a blinding flash. Indy and his audience have mutually stepped into the muddied consensual hallucination of cyberspace, and while both parties have lived with it for a while (Indy since WWII, we since Jurassic Park), in this long-anticipated reunion after a 19 year estrangement, the dissonance takes hold.

It’s a world where everything is uncertain and yet, as a film, it’s much more controlled. As Indy and Mutt search for the abducted Dr. Oxley (John Hurt) and combat Spalco to return a mysterious, titular skull to its original destination, they decipher pictures of ancient civilizations who made symbols in the land that could only be seen from the sky—where the gods live. But now the gods don’t see from there; cameras on planes do. It’s implied that the creatures to whom the crystal skull belonged had “technologies with paranormal abilities.” Spalco, who’s captured Indy and Mutt along with Oxley and Indy’s old flame (and Mutt’s mother), Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), speaks of the crystal skull’s powers. “Think of the truth behind those eyes,” she says. “Whoever finds [the skulls] will control the greatest natural force the world has ever known.” Note how she says “natural,” as these peculiar, crystal skeleton beings, though godlike, are biological creatures. Indiana Jones has stepped out of the metaphysics of the eternal and into a Marxist/Hegelian historical axis, where Spalco’s desire is to manifest space totally, psychically wielding a global Panopticon. “We’ll be everywhere at once, more powerful than a whisper, invading your dreams, thinking your thoughts for you while you sleep.” Wielding the crystal skulls’ power is reminiscent of communist paranoia scenarios, chiefly satirized in Dr. Strangelove’s “fluoridation” concept. Here, even John Williams’ score touches a spooky vibe in line with a ‘50s B horror film as Indy is hooked into a monitoring contraption and forced to look into the skull’s eyes. The mien resembles Plan 9 from Outer Space more than 2001: A Space Odyssey, with Spielberg and Lucas embracing the conceit with a cackle.

Oxley, transfixed in a state of madness by the skull’s power, is a cipher to what’s at the end of Spalco’s ambition. He quotes poetry, namely Milton’s Comus, a “Mask” from 1634, filled with Platonic imagery implying a desire to get to the absolute truth, the Ideal Forms, behind crude proverbial matter: “To lay their just hands on that Golden Key that ope’s the Palace of Eternity,” he says, soon after quoting T.S. Eliot, “Eyes that last I saw in tears / Through division / Here in death’s dream kingdom / The golden vision reappears,” about the impossible task of recapturing a lost moment. Oxley himself becomes an automaton, a machine programmed to draw certain pictograms and ideograms. Can the machinery of progress, whether geopolitically or cinematically, get to some permanent Ideal Realm obfuscated by the imperfections of malleable phenomena? Spalco herself reconciles the photographically tactile and non-space digital at one point, crushing a carnivorous CGI ant between her knees, the creature’s cyber innards splattering the camera. But as in Jurassic Park, the relationship between meat-space and cyber creations is quite precarious, as we soon later see a Soviet officer fall into the ant swarm, dragged back to their enormous hill, and eaten inside out, one of the most sadistically horrifying deaths in the entire Indy series.

With those ant guts followed water splashing on the camera during an Amazon River chase to the final destination of a Mayan temple, the film is digging its fingers beneath the selective mask of photography and real-space; appropriately, Indy and his companions have to smash off ancient masks on a pillar in order to open up a hidden stairway leading to the pith of the interdimensional machine where the extraterrestrial beings’ skeletons rest and wait for the skull that opens the Miltonian “Palace of Eternity.”

While attacking Mayan tribespeople emerge “out of the past,” as it were, they are quickly mowed down by Spalco’s superior military machinery. The Futurist wipes out the past’s obstacles, with hubris overstepping antiquity’s superstitions and primitive technology while nonetheless devoted to a hidden world with her own Gnostic fervor. At last planting the crystal skull atop the one headless skeleton in a circle of them, her eyes light up to the awakening extraterrestrial like Maria Falconetti looking heavenward in The Passion of Joan of Arc. She is certain of achieving the ultimate end and consilience of all things, seeing the creatures as “one being physically separate but with a collective consciousness, more powerful together than they could ever be apart.” There emerges a woken, fully-fleshed being with skin, veins, and conscious eyes. Spalco remains fearless in her rapturous excitement. “Tell me everything you know! I want to know everything! I want to know!”

While Indy, Marion, Mutt, and Oxley flee, the double agent Mac scrambles to collect as many precious antiquities as he can (the extraterrestrial creatures, Indy notes, were, like him, archeologists). The temple begins revolving, the walls falling apart and revealing gears like an enormous clock. Oxley, now out of his trance, calmly mentions how these weren’t spacemen but that the entire chamber is an interdimensional aircraft. As ludicrous as it is fascinating, the spectacle of the film overreaches in the bombast of physical space overwhelmed by a new paradigm of imagery. Spielberg, whose principle theme is illumination, comes to the precipice of showing too much while resisting what’s on the other side of that portal, in that light, in which Mac and numerous Soviet soldiers are sucked along with priceless historical objects. The flagrantly computer generated creature then, sharing its “knowledge” with Spalco, comes to nearly break the 180 degree rule and look at the audience. Spalco says she can see, but like a religious fanatic who sets herself on fire believing she won’t burn, her eyes flare up and the rest of her evaporates; the corporeal liquid and earthy dust of previous Indy deaths is now cyber-air.

History and knowledge are sucked away into the ether with the machinery, eating itself up, and in grand Spielberg fashion the dissembled family is restored, the survivors coming from the Mayan Temple as new children of a new age. Indiana Jones will put aside his bachelor carousing, take a post as Assistant Dean, and marry the feisty Marion Ravenwood, their son Mutt looking on in an evenly lit, brightly decorated church, a set that sharply stands out in the earthy and shadowy tetralogy. The “professor of archeology, expert on the occult, and obtainer of rare antiquities” can seemingly relax in the flowing present moment. Yet fans shirked this closure and celebration.

How could they? While the religious undercurrents of the first three films demonstrate to a chronic unbeliever that there’s “More Than This,” this strange ‘50s Sci-Fi Platonism has the Ideal Forms of that “Space Between Spaces” that Oxley mentions fully lit and out of the dark. In a way, the ingenuity of our filmmaking tools has given us the ability to get behind the mask of trickery and yet we’re taken away from our imaginations and given an objective totality, the “Everything” Spalco seeks, that the limitless panoptic camera-eye strives to absorb. The Gods here are just another advanced organism, the frightening consequence being an implication of our species’ own increasing insignificance and transience, made apparent by the blinding atomic light, with advances culminating in artificial intelligence in the filmmaking process (among the Crystal Skull DVD extras is Spielberg working on pre-visualizing computer software for the action scenes).

Crystal Skull 5.jpg

That’s Indiana Jones’ sin, perhaps, in surviving that refrigerator. The sequence demonstrates the problem of our expectations in light of advances that make fading antiquities out of our memories, unable to be retrieved and held any more than the Holy Grail or Ark of the Covenant. Spielberg and Lucas could not, in this fresh moviemaking financial and technological apparatus of 2008, make the “old Indy.” While the digital palette is certainly problematic in this film (a picture which also has a terrific stunt-laden car chase, as Indy hops on Mutt’s motorcycle, in a sequence that goes from a classic ‘50s diner through a library and an anti-communist student protest with augurs of Doomsday), it nevertheless works in conjunction with a story about an aging hero dangling in an unfamiliar, dreamlike and porous landscape in lieu of solid matte paintings, where the speed of life is accelerating into a whir. In both special effects and information age identities, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is very reflective of its times.

Indy here anticipates lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) in Spielberg’s latest film, Bridge of Spies.[1] Donovan similarly emerged from the rubble of WWII (fighting the Nazis in the war and prosecuting them at Nuremburg) and finds himself in a fearful atomic world of doublespeak and transient identities (the landscape of cognitive dissonance is why the wryness of the Coen brothers’ writing on the film melds well with Spielberg’s hagiographic sentiments). Both heroes’ journeys end with restored order and warmth, but that doesn’t eradicate the specter of nuclear obliteration in addition to the how information and prevailing attitudes are steered by disembodied lenses, be it the media with flashing bulbs and headlines or 4500mm lenses on a spy plane.[2] Struggling for information in the Cold War comes down to obfuscated perspectives (look at Kaminski’s camera as FBI agents struggle to keep up with Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, played by Mark Rylance) and imperfect, stuttering translation (Donovan negotiating with communist bureaucrats and street thugs, Spielberg pointedly not giving us subtitles). Objective, “total” knowledge, where something is defined with absolute certainty is tantamount to building imperious walls or shutting down dialogue within a frame that demands dialogue and debate (such as Donovan argues of the Constitution), and in this sense Spalco is perfectly congruent with the latter film’s Soviet counterparts, just as the home-based paranoia, assessing the guilt and complicity of Indy and Donovan, is parallel.

There’s a moment towards the end of Bridge of Spies when Donovan tells the young pilot, released from the Soviet Union but despised by Americans because of the information he may have spilled under torture and duress, “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. You know what you did.” Away from the neatly canvassed Panopticon of dummies, media coercion, and encapsulating surveillance is one’s inner thoughts and memories. That of course applies to everyone in Bridge of Spies, as Donovan is moved by Rudolf Abel’s portrait of him, a gesture of friendship stressing the importance of private, inward imagination and interpretation. And it certainly applies to Indy (whom the telepathic Spalco calls “a hard man to read”). The mask being lifted, leading to the “Palace of Eternity” is a void of diminishment and numbness, the omen of cosmic insignificance. That’s why I think Indy’s remark to Mutt that “Somewhere your grandfather is smiling,” a nod to the spirit of Sean Connery’s lovable Henry Jones Sr., has a sad echo of an impossible hope, a prayer for familial permanence (or a franchise’s permanence) against the reality of time, change, and an expanding universe collapsing on itself. This is central to Spielberg--that’s the theme of AI’s sublime epilogue, which sets the mood for his whole late body of work.

  Bridge of Spies  (2015)

Bridge of Spies (2015)

We too are stuck on images, like from the Eliot poem quoted by Oxley, desperately trying to relive them, fixing the past into the present and retrieving something lost. That’s the principle engine for the success of The Force Awakens (I don’t know if a just-fine piece of corporate manufacturing laced with calculated nostalgic sentiment has ever been so loved; in trying to reach for what its peers Crystal Skull and Godfather III transgressed, it was as more successful than those films as it is, and I mean this, less interesting, memorable, and rich), and whole new enterprises for resurrecting childhood, which in a funny way is what so many Spielberg heroes pursue and can’t quite reach. In coming to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in the summer of 2008, how dissimilar would a pleased audience be from those Nevada dummies seated for Howdy Doody? In getting a vituperative reaction from most of us, Spielberg moved us when we could have otherwise have been pleased and docile. Indy’s world changed, we’ve changed, and Spielberg has changed too. Maybe he as a filmmaker has become his own kind of Death, the destroyer of beloved franchises. And with that, underneath the masks of cinematic trickery in this new palette of bold endeavors and intelligences, where advanced algorithms and axioms bring to light the digital space between spaces, it’s his consideration of inward knowledge in the shade of subjective expression that can lead to more reflective blockbusters in confusing times where truth and lies coexist at 24 frames per second.

Originally written Spring 2016.

[1] I initially brought some similarities between Bridge of Spies and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in an essay dealing with the former film, for The Point Magazine, https://thepointmag.com/2015/criticism/bridge-of-spies.

[2] One could also point out how at several points in Bridge of Spies, James Donovan evokes Indiana Jones in how Spielberg emphasizes the recovery his hat—while it also could be a playful ode to the film's writers, the Coen brothers, and their 1990 film Miller’s Crossing