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Saturday, 22 January 2011

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

What is this film about? Indiana Jones. And aliens. And the KGB. And killer ants. And the guy from Transformers is in it. And a bunch of British character actors hamming it up. What is this film about?!? 'Don't toy with me Jones. What is the point of all this?' asks one of the characters. It's about Indiana Jones going to the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The film loses the plot about sixty-three seconds in, so there's very little I can add that's not self-evident from the title.

The Indiana Jones films have a soft spot for bibliographic culture. When, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, two army intelligence officers speaking mumbo-jumbo about Nazi shenanigans interrupt a lecture, Dr Jones makes everything clear by opening the ubiquitous leather-bound volume with odd alphabets and line drawings of mythical creatures. When he goes home to pack his bullwhip we see his impressive private library. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade features a Venetian library, where Indy, crashing through the floor, discovers a clue to the location of the Holy Grail. Libraries and books complement the character - learned, in some ways old-fashioned, reliable, and at times unexpected.

And in Crystal Skull, old. When the KGB attempt to nab him in a fictionalized New Haven, Indy and Mutt — his comic, younger counterweight — escape by motorbike, skittling through the university town by way of nods to a dozen mid-fifties cultural platitudes. They end up, for reasons which are unclear, careering through Yale's Sterling Memorial Library. The KGB are presented as acultural thugs, so presumably the library is a safe place to hide when you're on a 1320cc motorbike (in reality, the Soviet Union had more libraries and librarians per capita than any nation in history). When Indy rides out of the reading room he advises his students "If you want to be a good archaeologist, you've got to get out of the library," explicitly contradicting his opinion in an earlier film that "70% of archaeology is done in the library." He perjures himself again by returning straight home and opening a book (yes, you guessed it, a leather-bound volume with odd alphabets and line drawings of mythical creatures) to help solve an intellectual riddle.

What's the point of the digression? There are no librarians in this scene, and few books, so the library is immediately flagged as a mere simulacrum. Is it shown simply to provide an impressive setting for the screenwriter's quip? Or for a moment of calm (the bike eventually stops moving) packed with horn-rimmed glasses, chinos, corduroy jackets with leather buttons, and sweater girls wearing bobby socks to remind us that we're in the nineteen-fifties? Or, more likely, to provide a fifteen-second vignette of Indiana Jones before the plot needs to be pushed forward again. The aging professor giving advice both scholarly and paternal in the archetypal education environment; at the same time an all-American iconoclast-adventurer, who, having defeated the Nazis, is getting ready to take on the Evil Empire. A Harley in the library shatters all the rules, as does the entire film, pushing suspension of disbelief far beyond the usual norms.

Watching Raiders of the Lost Ark again last Christmas Eve, I was impressed by the witty direction, the cleverly acted performances, the light touches of style, the hints of Kurosawa. The second film is an enjoyable, if mostly forgettable romp, the third a return to form, one set-piece after another, Nazis and religion. In contrast, Crystal Skull is an uninspired mess. Populist and charmless, melodrama with tongue stuck too far into cheek, a movie that's been a work-in-progress for too long, and it shows. Some critics admired this film, contrasting the decentness of Jones with the brutality and nihilistic tendencies of twenty-first century movie heroes. I remain unconvinced.

Director: Steven Spielberg
Written by David Koepp, George Lucas, and Jeff Nathanson
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
Editing: Michael Kahn
Cast includes Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Shia LaBeouf, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent


  1. Might all the hits be linked to the label Sterling Memorial Library

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  3. Can you tell me where you got this picture? I was an extra in the movie and I am in this picture.

  4. Chris, I honestly can't remember, sorry. Which person in the picture are you? Have you got any interesting stories about the filming?

  5. I am the person sitting on the far left looking at the camera (perhaps the zuckerberg reference). It was a great experience, I met Spielberg (and his wife), Lucas, ford (and his wife), Shia and a bunch of stunt men. During this scene, one of the stuntmen lost a finger, after the take he hopped up and told everyone to freeze and try to find his finger, he had it reattached and a flesh colored cast later in the day. It was a great experience, made better by the fact that I made it into the movie and I was paid!