Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

To fully understand my comments on this film, you should know that I’m an archaeologist. I worked for several years in the hot soil of California excavations and sorted thousands of sherds of smelly pottery and old nails. Most archaeology is excruciatingly dull work, under really awful working conditions.

The most interesting aspect of archaeology is the archaeologists. They’re highly educated in history, art, and science and being familiar with the ruins of civilizations, they don’t have too many illusions about modern life. Here’s the truth about archaeologists. They’re all sexy, brilliant, brave, charming, quick-witted, adventurous and wildly curious–and they do wear those Indiana Jones hats. But they do not go around looting cultural remains. Archaeology is the study of human beings–any trace of human history is valuable and valuable only when seen in its context. Real archaeologists handle artifacts gently, as if they were fragile flower petals, they use brushes not pick-axes. They would no more chop something shiny out of an ancient temple than cut off their arms.

Indiana Jones is not a real archaeologist. He’s an adventurer in a movie. He’s entertaining and he looks great in that hat, so we love him. But we’re also ready to pound him out for giving the impression that archeologists are nothing more than treasure hunters. (Same problem we have with Nicolas Cage in National Treasure.)

With that caveat out of the way, how’d you like the movie, Professor Miller? Except for one grossly offensive aspect — done twice –Crystal Skull is everything Indy fans want. It’s a big, noisy, entertaining escape from reality. It makes no sense whatsoever and who cares? When you leave the theatre, you won’t complain about the cost of the ticket.

The story takes place in the 1950s, when atomic annihilation is a real threat, Ruskies are the politically correct bad guys, and the Roswell incident in 1947 has many Americans seeing extraterrestrial activity everywhere, especially in mysterious archeological sites.

Professor Henry “Indiana” Jones leaves the university at the behest of a young messenger, Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) sent on behalf of a demented colleague, Professor Oxly (John Hurt) who’s been kidnapped along with the boy’s mother, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). The object Oxly tried to steal is an ancient skull sculpted out of one solid piece of crystal.

Whoever returns the skull to its place of origin, the legends say, will have the power to rule the world. Enter the Soviets, lead by psychic Col. Dr. Irina Spalgo (Cate Blanchett), who is determined to capture the skull for her pal, Joey Stalin.

Typical of all the Indiana Jones films, there’s never a dull moment in Crystal Skull, no matter how much you might long for a moment to catch your breath. Chases everywhere on any structure man-made or natural– cliff jumping, vine flying, dueling Jeeps, three waterfalls–and lots of sword fighting and whip snapping. Indy faces threats of ever-escalating danger, including the requisite quicksand and creepy snakes. There’s even the quintessentially preposterous scary event–an atomic blast, which he survives thanks to a nearby lead-lined refrigerator.

All the actors are terrific. Senior citizen Harrison Ford looks and acts positively amazing. Sean Connery doesn’t reprise as Indiana Jones’ beguiling father, but we do meet Shia LaBeouf, whose cheeky young punk character is an admirable chip off the old block and a cool hybrid of Edd “Kookie” Byrnes from TV’s 77 Sunset Strip and Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Cate Blanchett, with her jet-black bangs and skin-tight tyrant pants, does a hilarious rendition of Bullwinkle’s Natasha. Most enjoyable is Karen Allen as Indy’s old girlfriend, who’s been sorely missed since Raiders of the Lost Ark.

As worthy as Crystal Skull’s good parts were, I deducted a whole point off my rating for a seriously offensive element. On two separate occasions our hero stumbles into ruins that, surprisingly, are occupied by native people–supposedly living, breathing remnants of ancient civilizations. Any archaeologist in her right mind who encountered such people would have heart attacks of joy. Alas, Indiana Jones and crew not only don’t treat these amazing people with respect or curiosity, but they try to kill them off immediately. Director Steven Spielberg (Munich) doesn’t even give them any lines of dialogue–they’re just nameless faceless freaks wearing wild make-up, whose only worth in life is to get whacked by Indy. Even for a silly B-movie, these scenes, and the unconscious attitude behind them, are repulsive.

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