“The writer is too well acquainted with the laws of narration to be unaware of the nature of the pledge given by this brief preface; but, at the same time, he knows enough of the history of the Thirteen to feel confident that he shall not disappoint any expectations raised by the programme. Tragedies dripping with gore, comedies piled up with horrors, tales of heads taken off in secret have been confided to him. If any reader has not had enough of the ghastly tales served up to the public for some time past, he has only to express his wish; the author is in a position to reveal cold-blooded atrocities and family secrets of a gloomy and astonishing nature. But in preference he has chosen those pleasanter stories in which stormy passions are succeeded by purer scenes, where the beauty and goodness of woman shine out the brighter for the darkness. And, to the honor of the Thirteen, such episodes as these are not wanting. Some day perhaps it may be thought worth while to give their whole history to the world; in which case it might form a pendant to the history of the buccaneers—that race apart so curiously energetic, so attractive in spite of their crimes.”
- Honoré de Balzac, from the Author’s Preface to History of the Thirteen
The Thirteen in question in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are a so-called “hive mind,” a race of beings that the mad-as-a-hatter Professor Oxley (John Hurt) might describe, quite seriously, sans irony, as “interterrestrials.” Call them—in deference to the late-50s setting of this fourth Indiana Jones adventure—fellow travelers, those creatures that move around, per Oxley again, in “the space between spaces.” Alien life forms not from without, but within. To some they are gods; to Professor Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr. (Harrison Ford) they are the supernal means to a seemingly fateful end (for the immediate moment, at least).
An end needs a beginning: here it is a Nevada desert molehill, wittily juxtaposed with the snow-capped Paramount Pictures logo (returned to a rough ’n’ ragged two-dimensionality, circa-1981), then destroyed, dually, by joyriding teenagers and a “Hound Dog”-bleating Elvis Presley. Roll opening titles. What’s past is past and time waits for no one, not even Indiana Jones, currently locked in the trunk of a car driven by stoic KGB agents, who lighten up long enough to engage the fresh-faced Presley fanatics in a friendly bout of vehicle-to-vehicle combat (the white picket fence vs. the Iron Curtain). Nobody wins, they only diverge, the lonely Atomic Café marking the spot that leads either away from or toward the purported mother lode: Area 51. (But whichever way we go, we have to always, always be looking.)
Every Indiana Jones film tells us, upfront, how to read and experience it. It’s clear now (if it wasn’t already) that each installment, whatever the shared similarities, has its own tenor, rhythm, and approach. As compared to what has come before, the dissonance of Crystal Skull’s credits sequence and the immediately following chase through, around, under, and out of a government facility cosmopolitan enough to contain both the Ark of the Covenant and the Roswell UFO remains is bracing and beautiful, the Spielberg shorthand (oft-profound, as often piteous) in full-on, awe-inspiring bloom. A bloom of another kind climaxes Crystal Skull’s prologue as Indy—betrayed by his wartime buddy ’Mac’ McHale (Ray Winstone) to a Russkie mafia led by the Garbo-cum-Brooks-sculpted sword-swisher Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett)—races around a plasticine 50s suburbia, a horror show of brightly colored homes and gaping, gawking mannequins (several of whom, in their jaw-dropped countenances, recall Raiders of the Lost Ark’s awestruck, flesh-melting Nazis). It’s a brilliantly banal pantomime of watering lawns, walking dogs, and watching Howdy Doody. It also happens to be an atomic bomb test site, and the countdown’s already begun.
In conception, Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp’s analogy is bludgeoning (the nuclear family laid literally, brutally to waste), but in execution it is thrilling and, in retrospect of the film entire, deeply moving. This is no world for Indiana Jones, who climbs into a lead-lined Frigidaire (brushing aside, at the last second, an obstructing container of Crisco™) and is then launched miles through the air, deep into the barren desert, expelled from Ike-era Eden. Nary a surface scratch, of course, when he finally emerges (shaken, not stirred), but the pluming mushroom cloud wreaks havoc with the heroic iconography. Was a time when Spielberg might have had Indy rising into frame full-face and body, the blast behind him merely a source of Slocombe-superintended backlight. But here, in concert with his visual Herrmann—from Schindler’s List on—Janusz Kamiński, he makes sure to dwarf Indy, obliterating him (as per the final sequence of Last Crusade) into silhouette, forcing character and audience alike to bear witness to the glory and the horror, to reconcile the realities of mankind with its no less tangible myths.
Note Indy’s placement in the image—frame-right, diminutive, photographed, with Antonioni-esque remove, from behind. It will find its mirror opposite at Crystal Skull’s end when he comes face-to-face with another icon of 50s-era fascination, this one fictional, though still carrying the heady, expansive weight of metaphor. The hemisphere-traversing journey between these visual bookends is best explicated by an offhand order the soon-to-be-blacklisted Indy gives to his university class: to study and then expound on “the difference between migration and exodus.”
The Indy series’s push-and-pull between the secular and the spiritual is as strong as ever, though it takes on a more labyrinthine resonance here what with primary characters’ quotations of Oppenheimer (“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”—itself a sadly knowing invocation of the Bhagavad Gita) and Milton (from Comus: “To lay their just hands on that Golden Key/That ope’s the Palace of Eternity”), to say nothing of the thematic meta-mix of practical sets and locations (expected) with Computer Generated Imagery (unexpected). The lie of CGI (one at times perpetuated by Spielberg and his peers) is that it is meant to extend reality, when the truth is that, in its best uses, it is a falsity that helps us to see, feel, and experience more clearly.
There are points, few and far between, when Crystal Skull’s effects distract (mostly in regards to animals, one scene in particular conjuring up memories of executive producer George Lucas’ sad bit of monkey-on-the-back graffiti in the re-released THX-1138), but Spielberg’s sheer talent for everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink-and-more momentum pretty much smooths out the rough patches. More often, the effects work/production design helps to sell this particular installment’s immersive, illusory sheen. It’s probably the “falsest” looking Indiana Jones film, but to a degree that near-entirely enhances the fantasy and its signifiers.
More than once, Jones and his companions—among them Shia LaBeouf’s switchblade-wielding greaser Mutt Williams and Karen Allen’s Raiders-returning love interest Marion Ravenwood (she of the infectiously beatific smile)—engage in ingenious semiotic play. Marion and Indy have a hot-blooded reunion (piled on high with acerbic remarks and familial revelations) while sinking in quicksand, the sequence climaxing with an extended gag involving a snake that Indy hilariously insists on calling a “rope.” The wordplay extends to the primary quest (a search for a lost Mayan city to which Indy and his companions must return an oblong-shaped and psychic mind-melding Crystal Skull), which hinges on the multiple meanings inherent within a long-dead language (“gold” equals “knowledge” and vice-versa).
A particularly memorable Kaminski composition has Indy and Spalko placed on opposite sides and varying regions of the ’Scope frame, their shadows cast onto a foreground scrim so that they are encompassed within their own outlines. The implicit query: Which is the true self before us—the flesh-and-blood, walking-and-talking facsimile or the dark-night projection? Do the characters, like the movie they inhabit, contain worlds, or are they empty vessels fed by a potent mix, from Creator and viewer alike, of nostalgia and memory?
Tempting to call Crystal Skull Spielberg’s own Youth Without Youth (a perfect subtitle for this enterprise in more ways than one). It shares with Francis Ford Coppola’s unjustly maligned time-traversing romance an elder man’s world-weary sensibilities—“We’re at the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away,” says Indy’s academe confidante Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent), paying homage to the story-deceased Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and Henry Jones Sr. (Sean Connery)—as well as a penchant for refracting era-specific fears and proclivities through the prism of pulp fiction. Yet this Indiana Jones distinguishes itself, too, as the first film in the series to take place during a time of which Spielberg has actual recall. No longer solely couched in a movie-geek’s distanced obsession with old-time serials, Crystal Skull is a simultaneously multifaceted ode to an artist’s formative years, to an imagination stoked as much by the possibilities of destruction as by the worlds out of sight.
It is the collision of such extremes that results in Professor Oxley’s “space between spaces,” though even this observation has its grounded, mortal corollary, as the suddenly sane Oxley is later heard to express (during a sublime moment of long-delayed sanctification, complicated by its numerous parallels to the prologue’s nuclear suburbia) “how much of human life is lost in wait.” As befits Spielberg’s artistry, the statement resonates at once backwards and forwards: back to Irina Spalko’s ultimately self-destructive desire to possess all the knowledge of the ages (a Thirteen-bestowed “gift” no one human being could ever hope to retain); forward to, in the final shot, Mutt’s raw, instinctive presumption to assume, via Indy’s chapeau, a singularly iconic mantle. It’s a pure John Ford setup (jokey and profound all at once, touched—deliriously, irrevocably—by both glee and loneliness) with the added benefit of Spielberg’s inimitable hovering camera, which acts as an expressive “god’s eye” conduit. Is this the artist’s perspective, the viewer’s, the Thirteen’s—all of us, whether fictional or actual, inhabiting some nonpareil form (sometimes harmonized, as often discordant) of inner space?
Final thought, on that note, from Indy: “Depends on who your god is.”
Keith Uhlich is Editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.