“It’s not the years, honey. It’s the mileage.”
Indiana Jones was practically a pup in 1936 when he rattled off that line in Raiders of the Lost Ark. As Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull opens—21 years afterwards, Indy time—it’s pretty clear the odometer of our fedora-wearing hero has long since flipped.
Oh, sure, Indiana still has some significant vim in his vavoom. His fist packs the same wallop as always. But decades of constant adventure and peril wear down a guy. His hair has gone from brown to gray. His face is creased. His students no longer write “love you” on their eyelids. And Austrian double agents have given way to Cold War Commies. You might think that, instead of spending his sabbaticals cracking whips and running from boulders, Dr. Jones might like time reading the afternoon paper and sipping Earl Grey.
Fat chance. Not with evil Communist interlopers kidnapping him and demanding he reveal what he was doing in Roswell, N.M., circa 1947. They haul him to a massive, and oddly familiar, warehouse in Nevada, piled to the rafters with crates. Then they demand he lead them to an odd metal box—containing an odd magnetic corpse—which he dug up years earlier.
Indy is less than cooperative. “Drop dead, comrade,” he says. And, after a few fits and starts, he sparks a massive action sequence involving guns, swords, trucks, whips, chains, rocket backwash and—naturally—a nuclear explosion.
He survives it all with nary a scratch, suggesting that whip-wielding archaeologists, like cows, get tougher with age.
How ironic, then, that we haven’t even scratched the surface of the storyline, which mashes together crystal skulls, iPod-size ants, aliens, the lost city of El Dorado and one of the most awkward family reunions ever. That’s a lot of ground to cover for a college professor—even one with tenure.
“You’re a teacher?” asks incredulous greaser Mutt Williams, who by plot contrivance becomes Indiana’s sidekick.
“Part time,” Indy says.
I’m 39. I was 12 when Raiders of the Lost Ark came out, so seeing Indiana Jones still moving around without the aid of a walker is encouraging.
Indy has gathered a bit of wisdom through the years, too, and he offers some of it to Mutt: 1) Fixing motorcycles for a living is fine as long as you truly love it, and 2) Stay in school so you don’t have to fix motorcycles for a living.
Education, naturally, would be an important thing in Indy’s ethos, and he tells us (though not in so many words) that knowledge is worth more than gold or silver. But he also advocates a bit of balance in life. “To be a good archaeologist, you gotta get out of the library,” he tells a student as he speeds away on a motorcycle.
Indy is reunited with Raiders paramour Marion Ravenwood, and we learn that the two (despite some rocky times and poor relational decisions, which I’ll detail later) never lost eyes for each other. It’s refreshing, frankly, to see Indy and Marion exchange mature affection—manifested in hugs and smiles and the occasional kiss, and then coming to fruition through a traditional marriage ceremony—instead of just rolling around in the hay.
Indiana cautions Mutt to treasure his mother (“You only get one, and sometimes not for that long”). Also, a character’s greed leads to his downfall, while disloyalty is vilified.
I may spoil a plot point or two in this section, but a discussion about crystal skulls must be had. The film’s title demands it. Stories about Mesoamerican crystal skulls litter the occult, but Indiana Jones 4, while nodding in that direction, takes a different tack. Seems these skulls are actual bones from an alien culture, which thousands of years ago set up an outpost on Earth and taught the citizens of the ancient city of Akator (that’s El Dorado to you and me) about irrigation, agriculture and perhaps even Google.
These aliens apparently were psychic beings, and their long-dead skulls still retain some of those abilities. Legend has it that if anyone returns the missing skull to the city, he or she will be imbued with a gift of untold supernatural power.
That’s weird, perhaps, but it’s not exactly spiritual. This, however, is: While Indy never suggests these creatures were gods, they were worshipped as such. The first skull is found near Peru’s mysterious Nazca Lines—lines that form pictures only decipherable from the air. They’re known as the lines that the gods can read “because the gods live up there,” Indy says.
He notes that the Incas used to bind their infants’ heads to elongate them as a way to honor their gods. When Mutt points out that God doesn’t have a pointed head, Indy says, “It depends on who your god is.” Indeed, we see several ancient glyphs of long-headed creatures being venerated.
The skull is returned, of course—topping a crystal skeleton, which then meshes with 12 other alien skeletons to become one living alien. The temple complex is revealed to be a temporary garnish concealing both an interdimensional portal and a gigantic spaceship, buried for eons.
On the fringes of this, there are a few acknowledgments of Christianity. Indy and Mutt travel to Peru and talk with nuns about a missing archeologist. A couple gets married in an old-fashioned church.
Elsewhere, a character makes a reference to the “destroyer of worlds,” which Indy notes is a quote from the Hindu “bible.”
Indiana is naked while in a radiation-banishing shower. (We see him from the waist up.) He and Marion kiss.
[Another Spoiler Warning] Indy admits a couple of times that he’s been with (in the biblical sense) lots of women. None of the relationships ever lasted, though, because none had Marion’s special spark. And speaking of Marion, we learn that Dr. Jones and Ms. Ravenwood were engaged to be married, but Indy left her shortly before the ceremony. (He believed the marriage would never last.) Turns out Marion was pregnant with Indy’s child though, who—in a Superman Returns-type twist—turns out to be (surprise!) a critical character in the story.
Action/adventure violence is what Indiana Jones films are all about, and Crystal Skull doesn’t let its predecessors go it alone. Extras are mowed down with gusto, and sometimes with gruesome flare. The worst way to die here is via those iPod-esque Amazonian ants, which swarm characters and apparently eat them alive. We see one bad ‘un screaming as the ants envelop him, crawling into his mouth and ultimately dragging the struggling man to their massive anthill.
One evildoer also gets killed by the aliens: A fiery white light explodes out of her eyes before she disintegrates into glittering particles. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people are shot or fall off cliffs or die in car crashes or get blown to smithereens by atomic bombs. (Mannequins and their suburban test community are melted and obliterated in a disturbingly realistic fashion.) Indy kills one assailant by blowing the man’s own poison dart back into his throat. Several others are burned alive.
Indy and Mutt escape the clutches of Communist agents by starting a rumble in a soda shop. They careen through city streets on a motorcycle. Indy and Marion almost sink to their deaths in a quicksand-like pit. And the grand remains of an ancient civilization are destroyed in a catastrophic CGI storm.
There are many, many, many bloody fistfights. And several grisly corpses are encountered.
Irina (the Communist antagonist) is attacked by monkeys. During a car chase she also engages in a long-running sword fight with Mutt. While straddling two vehicles, Mutt is repeatedly smacked in the crotch by passing branches. Turning the adventure into a cartoon, our heroes tumble over mighty waterfalls, and Indy survives a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator—which flies through the air and lands several miles away. (The fridge, we can only surmise, was equipped with airbags.)
Mutt uses the s-word twice. God’s name is exclaimed a half-dozen times. Other swear words, such as “d–n,” “h—,” “b–ch” and “bloody” are sprinkled in between.
Indy drinks a glass of wine with a college administrator. An old partner of his drinks vodka (acting pretty drunk) and smokes a cigarette. Another man smokes a cigar. Mutt swipes a beer off a server’s platter at a diner before Indy gracefully returns it.
When we first meet Mutt, he looks like the rebellious Marlon Brando from The Wild One—a film released four years before Crystal Skull takes place and, perhaps, a tip-off that Mutt is trying extremely hard to look like a tough guy.
Beyond the chase scenes, joyriding teens race alongside a military convoy, often on the wrong side of the highway.
The Indiana Jones movies—in many ways archetypes of the modern action flick—are based, according to creator and producer George Lucas, on the cheap, fun serial movies of the 1930s and ’40s. As such, they’re not supposed to change your life: They’re just supposed to be thrilling.
“The idea was, you take that B genre and move it to the next level,” Lucas told Vanity Fair.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the theater. At least a couple of these supposed trifles surpassed their ambition and became not just adrenalin-laced actioners, but classic films, filled with passion and subtext and even touches of spiritual significance. Consider the scene in Raiders where Indy sees God’s true power, even with his eyes tightly shut. Or consider The Last Crusade, in which Indy learns that our true treasures are those who walk with us, not objects we lust after. Sure, those films were a blast—and by this I’m not saying they avoided problems—but some had enough positive weight to stick with us a while.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is more in keeping with Lucas’ original B vision. It’s sometimes fun, sometimes thrilling. It’s as violent as you’d expect it to be. It has about as much profanity as you’d assume. It is a PG-13, Saturday-afternoon serial spiked with CGI. And it does not achieve, nor does it aspire to be, anything greater. This is the quintessential popcorn flick held under heat lamps and topped with tasty-but-artery-clogging butter—something Indy’d better start cutting back on, considering his age and all.
A postscript: It’s no accident that Crystal Skull is a PG-13 movie. After all, it was complaints about the violence in the PG-rated Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that helped spark the launch of a rating that rested in between PG and R.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.