19 years is a long time between sequels, and it’s that kind of passage of time that gets the mind to wander — exhaust possibilities until expectations are so far beyond reasonable that disappointment is practically imminent. When Indiana Jones was confirmed to be returning in a new installment in the mid aughts, at the height of internet message boards and the dawn of social media, speculation ran rampant. Looking back, it’s truly commendable that Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Paramount Pictures were able to shroud the film in secrecy up until about a month and a half before its release.
To give you an idea — or maybe remind — you of how under-wraps Paramount kept the fourth Indiana Jones film, they registered five fake titles with the Motion Picture Association of America. Some included: “The City of Gods,” “The Fourth Corner of the Earth,” and “The Quest for the Covenant,” all believable in their own right.
What we got was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which would never live up to the expectations held by the most ardent Indy loyalists. Pressing play on it almost 15 years later, far removed from all the pre-release hype, speculation, and initial reactions, appreciation is easier to come by than disappointment. If you consider the best parts of the series, you’ll realize the fourth film does indeed have them. Most of its underwhelming attributes stem from the law of diminishing returns. Nothing could ever come close to Raiders of the Lost Ark simply because it was the first of its kind — our introduction to a long-standing trilogy that is able to stand with the likes of the best in the history of motion pictures.
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull opens in 1957 Nevada, where Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his new sidekick, Mac (Ray Winstone), are taken prisoner by a villainous Soviet woman named Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett as a fiery femme fatale). Irina takes the men to a warehouse where all American military artifacts are stored. Well, all but one. Irina wants Indy to find a mummified alien corpse from the Roswell UFO incident. He succeeds, but is double-crossed by Mac, and a fiery escape thanks to a lead-lined refrigerator assures he can go back to teaching a college archeology class.
Not so fast, however. Dean Stanforth (Jim Broadbent) puts Dr. Jones on leave shortly after his return. Soon thereafter, Indy meets Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), a leather-jacketed greaser who looks like he was more than 10 years too early to play a Shark in Spielberg’s West Side Story remake. No less, Mutt implores Indy to help him find Professor Oxley (John Hurt), who is ensnared in a quest to find one of the 13 missing crystal skulls. When put together, the skulls transform into something other-worldly. This leads the two men to South America, where they eventually find themselves back in the presence of Irina, and an old friend they haven’t seen in a blue moon: Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen).
Trying to relay the plot of an Indiana Jones movie is a fruitless endeavor. These are pictures meant to be watched and enjoyed in the moment, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has a lot going for it to make that possible. A swath of obstacles hurl towards these characters like a hurricane, including man-eating ants and dozens of acrobatic monkeys. One of the most thrilling sequences involves a car chase through the rainforest. The cars are on parallel roads, riding perilously close to the edge of a steep cliff, concluding with a car chase that has one car crashing atop and speeding over the other. It’s harrowing stuff. Anyone who spent hours on the internet bitching and moaning about the plausibility of Indy surviving an explosion by encasing himself in a lead fridge must’ve exhausted all their fruitless critical thinking by that point.
Perhaps the presence of interdimensional beings — a decision I’m still not quite sure I appreciate, but oh well — is what makes Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feel more like a Lucas production than a Spielberg one. The age of the previous three features has caught up to it in minor ways, rendering the original trilogy more in-line with the technically imperfect appearances of the early American serials that inspired them. This installment feels much more polished, with its rampant CGI.
The core cast fits back into this world gracefully. The return of Allen’s Marion is long overdue, but it ultimately helps the gravity of the plot-point. The sexual tension between Indy and Marion is notably muted when compared to Raiders of the Lost Ark, yet the undying love and pervasive bickering pleasantly remains. Shia LaBeouf is a worthy addition as well, offering a younger counterpart to the elder Indy who doesn’t simply exist to make “old man” jokes. Indy cannot be one-upped, and screenwriter David Koepp was wise not to make Mutt a caricature.
You could consider Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull an early example of a “legacyquel,” although it is tough to note where the fan service ends and the new storytelling begins. That’s not due to the fact that Spielberg, Lucas, and Koepp are keen on delivering callbacks to the earlier films, but moreso the fact that the Indiana Jones series is one big homage to early adventure films and serials. This adventure doesn’t come close to breaking the same ground as even The Last Crusade managed, yet it doesn’t take the franchise in a wildly different, disloyal direction either. Times change, but Indy stands tall, as bold and as laudable as any adventure hero we’ve come to know.
NOTE: As of this writing, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is streaming on Paramount+.
Starring: Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Karen Allen, Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, and Jim Broadbent. Directed by: Steven Spielberg.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!