The Ten Worst Science Fiction Films of All Time: ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’

For more on how I am choosing these films, see my post on Battlefield Earth.

Here’s a science fiction story for you: some time after the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989, George Lucas was replaced by an untalented clone duplicate.

How else to explain the crap that has come out of Lucasfilm in the intervening years? Christ, this is the man who wrote and directed Star Wars, likely the best science fiction film ever made. Of course that was well before Star Wars became Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope: Special Edition: Guinness Book of World Records’ Film Title with the Most Colons in It Edition.

Lucas was also responsible, along with his best friend the more reliably talented Steven Spielberg, for the original three Indiana Jones films. The first, entitled only Raiders of the Lost Ark (not, as it would be later styled, I kid you not, The Adventures of Indiana Jones: Episode 29: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark) was just freaking brilliant, a perfect pastiche of 1930s movie serials, scientific romances and WWII spy capers.

When the second film, the prequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, came out three years later in 1984, I didn’t like it.  I realize now why – I have always said I hate sequels that are fundamentally remakes of the original, and yet I disliked IJToD precisely because it was so different from its predecessor. Watching it now, I realize it’s really an incredibly fun film.

The third film, Last Crusade, was similar in structure and tone to RotLA; but it was still a very enjoyable movie. (Spielberg and I are both Jewish; and RotLA featured Jewish mythology. Irrationally, the Hindu magic in IJToD did not bother me one bit; but the Christian magic in IJatLC, coming from a Jewish director, raised my hackles. As I said, this was perfectly irrational of me – all religions are equally superstitious and mythological.)

The Indiana Jones trilogy ranked second only to the original Star Wars trilogy in terms of pop culture touchstones for Generation X. While the Baby Boomers had John Wayne as The Ringo Kid and… um… Genghis Kahn, I guess, we had Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Indiana Jones.

When I first heard there would be a new Indiana Jones after a 19-year hiatus, I was skeptical. I have seen Harrison Ford in interviews, and he could easily get the role as the Cryptkeeper in Tales from the Crypt: The Movie. Even that stickpin of a wife can barely prop him up. Then I heard that a son was going to be introduced. Didn’t we get enough of the Jones family in IJatLC and Young Indiana Jones Chronicles?

Still, I was hopeful. It certainly did not occur to me the movie would be such a total clusterfuck.

Is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull terrible in the Ed Wood sense? Of course not. Like other films discussed in this series, its awfulness comes not from what it is, but what it should have and could have been.

Is IJKCS a science fiction film, or is it fantasy? With Indy living in the UFO-obsessed, paranoid 1950s, Lucas specifically wanted to create a science fiction film – Indiana Jones and the Moon Men essentially. He even said the “aliens” in the film were explained with string theory, somehow. Right, like George Lucas understands string theory.

Before I get into my Bitingly Sarcastic Plot Synopsis and tear this film apart, some things I liked:

  • I don’t know if it’s digital makeup, or prosthetics, or yoga, but Harrison Ford looks great. Indy is supposed to be 58 in the film, and the then-66-year-old Ford pulls it off fine.
  • I was thrilled when the return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood was announced at Comic-Con in 2007, and she was fine in the film.
  • It was a bit heavy-handed; but in an era when Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are lauding the destructive and (ironically) un-American legacy of Joe McCarthy, it’s great to see a summer popcorn picture reminding audiences what a terrible time the 1950s were in US history.
  • And that’s it.

And now: my Bitingly Sarcastic Plot Synopsis!

Dear George and Steven. Please give us a very cool opening, involving a car chase between typical 50s teens and a mysterious convoy of US army vehicles, that sets the period and tone of the film. Then ruin it with constant interruptions by bad CGI groundhogs. Thanks, Kunochan.

The army convoy arrives at a desert military base and the soldiers, who are really Russian spies, murder the guards at the gate. This will be important later, when Spielberg forgets that it happened.

Zeez are not zee droidz you are lookink vor.

So here we are at Area 51, which is apparently guarded by the five guys at the gate and no one else. Good work, Ike. Here’s Beowulf, except now he’s British and fat. And look! Here’s Galadriel!  Oh, except with a bowl haircut. And she lost 80 pounds. And she sounds like Chekhov from Star Trek.

Galadriel is looking for the remains from the Roswell crash. It seems that Indy was one of the experts flown in to examine the remains back in ’47; and that means he will somehow have mastered the special Dewey Decimal System they use at Area 51 (which seems to be “hey, put it anywhere”).

This is “magnetism” like Scientology is “scientific.”

Indy remembers that the remains were highly “magnetic,” and uses this knowledge to locate the crate. This is important to why this movie sucks so hard, so let’s examine it for a moment. The “magnetism” displayed by the alien artifacts in the film betrays almost no relationship to actual magnetism. Indeed, several characters remark on this. Of itself, this is okay – we can imagine that the Inter-Dimensional Beings from Beyond the 11th Dimension have some weird technology that makes their crystals behave in a way that seems like “magnetism” to the uneducated Earthling.

See, the buckshot is attracted by the “magnetism,” but the guns? Nada.

But in a science fiction story, the weirdness must be internally consistent. The storyteller must establish rules and stick to them, otherwise the audience cannot believe in the reality of the story. Spielberg’s alien crystals needed to have the same effect on metal at all times; but they do not. The “magnetism” is inconsistent with scenes, even within shots.

I don’t know why Spielberg forgot this. While Lucas may have directed the best sci-fi film ever, Spielberg made several of the other top nine. (Those don’t include this one. Or A.I.)

Look everybody, the Lost Ark! It’s right there! No, there! In that box! No, the broken box!

Anyway. Galadriel gets the remains; Beowulf betrays Indy; and we get an obvious, close-up look at the Lost Ark. Yeah, we already figured out this was the warehouse from the end of RotLA. Thanks for telegraphing the joke, Steve. You know what would have been cool? Burying the Ark in the back of a shot, so that fans had to look for it.

Indy and the Main Soviet Thug crash through into a fully-operational, fully-powered-up rocket lab. Why isn’t anyone here working in the fully-operational, fully-powered-up rocket lab? Is it Labor Day?

The Thug (the character’s name is Colonel Dovchenko, but how the hell would we know that?) and Indy blast across the desert in a rocket car, and Indy escapes. By the way, it’s night now. I don’t know why it’s night now, but it is. And there are more CGI groundhogs.

Jesus Fucking Christ, you must be joking.

Now we come to nuking the fridge. Like the magnetism issue, this requires an aside. It’s when they nuked the fridge that I knew this movie sucked. And there is a perfectly good reason why “nuking the fridge” has entered the English lexicon to replace “jumping the shark” (funny, both phrases involve greasers).

Let’s not nitpick. We won’t ask why the government went ahead with a highly sensitive nuclear test when five gate guards had been killed the day before. We won’t ask why the refrigerator traveled faster than the shock wave. We won’t even complain that there was ANOTHER GODDAMN GROUNDHOG.

No, we’ll just deal with the fundamental problem that even in a universe where men can ride halfway across the ocean on top of a submarine, where Lost Arks melt the faces of Nazis, where sacred stones burn through backpacks and priests can pull beating hearts out of the chests of living victims, where medieval knights who speak modern English live in caves for centuries protecting carpenters’ cups; even in that universe, you can’t survive a nuclear blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator.

Look, at first I loved this scene. I figured out at once this was one of those fake towns the military used to nuke to supposedly figure out the effect of blasts on civilian targets. I was amazed and agog that Indy was in such an impossible situation, and I had no idea how he was going to get out of it. I guess the child inside of me still had enough faith in Spielberg and Lucas that they would somehow solve this insoluble problem.

I was wrong. Instead, they cheated. They betrayed the audience’s trust.

Wheeeeeeeeeee!

I’ve argued online with members of the Stupid-American community who say there’s nothing wrong with this scene. They either believe you can survive a nuclear attack in a fridge (in which case, I have nothing but pity for them); or they think because this film is science fiction, facts don’t matter. This gets science fiction completely wrong – hell, it even gets fantasy and occult/horror wrong, because even though those genres don’t have to conform to the laws of physics and to reality, they do have to be internally consistent. Even Gandalf the Grey can’t survive a nuke by hiding in a refrigerator.

No, Indiana Jones would have been liquefied when the blast wave hit the house containing the fridge. Then, even if the fridge had remained in one piece (with the unlatched door inexplicably shut), his liquefied remains would have been atomized when the fridge hit the ground again. And finally, those atoms would be highly radioactive for several thousand years.

All we would have left of Dr. Henry Jones Jr. would be a pile of melted lead slag and a radioactive fedora.

Hey Indy, you might want to have your lymph nodes looked at.

I have to admit, the closing shot in the sequence, of Indy watching the mushroom cloud, kicks ass. But Indy will not live to be an ancient one-eyed centenarian of YIJC. He’ll be dead of lymphoma within five years.

Now we learn how Indy spent the last two decades. Having temporarily turned aside from archaeology, he fought in WWII and then joined the OSS.

Indy is interrogated by a couple of federal agents, who impugn his loyalty to his country. When he describes Galadriel, he says she “carried a sword of some kind – a rapier, I think.” You think? You’re Indiana freaking Jones. You would recognize various types of swords, dude, just like you know your Greek amphorae and your Tocharian B. It’s your thing.

AAAAAUGH! Indy just said “new-kew-lar!” He’s a frickin’ university professor! Maybe that’s why the FBI gets Indy blacklisted from the University. Henry Sr. and Marcus Brody are dead, and Indy is going to have to take a teaching position in Europe. Funny, in the real world that’s an honor – but in Hollywood movies it’s a journey of shame and regret.

Enter “Mutt,” the world’s cleanest greaser. His stepfather, Oxley, used to hunt crystal skulls with Indy. He found one, and tried to return it to El Dorado. Blah blah blah exposition exposition backstory exposition motivation. I don’t care – I’m still reeling in astonishment and disappointment from the nuking of the fridge.

There’s another car chase, as “Mutt” and Indy flee from some hulking Soviet agents. I’m sorry, I can’t type “Mutt” without the quotation marks. It’s ridiculous. Yes, we get it, he’s named after the dog too. Great.

After more pseudo-archaeological hoo-ha, Indy and the kid we’re not supposed to know is his son but of course we do because we’re not stupid fly to Peru. Good thing Indy has an unlimited grant from the Traveling Around the World Destroying Archaeological Sites and Stealing Artifacts Foundation.

In Peru, Indy discovers that Oxley left a Room Full of Clues, which is a great way to get the plot moving without actually figuring out what the plot is. Then we teleport to the first actual archaeological site in the movie.

I majored in Archaeology in college – no, really. So while we all loved Indiana Jones, we also understood that he was the worst archaeologist ever. Here’s the breakdown for the Henry Jones, Jr. School of Archaeology:

  1. Locate a site of great archaeological interest. Don’t bother contacting the local government, or getting permits.
  2. Use whatever force is necessary to break in, no matter how much damage you do.
  3. Improvise as far as equipment. For instance, wrap a rag around a human shinbone and use it as a torch.
  4. Show no respect for human remains (see #3).
  5. Don’t take notes, or make drawings, or take photos. Who needs all that?
  6. Find the single most valuable artifact, and steal it.
  7. Escape while the entire rest of the site collapses around you.

Here, after handily defeating the racially sensitive Mesoamerican Monkey People, Indy and “Mutt” just break into the tomb and start slicing open priceless mummies with a switchblade. I don’t remember seeing that in Renfrew’s Archaeology.

As “Mutt” and Indy escape from the tomb (we don’t see this, but it undoubtedly collapses), the Commies are waiting for them, in a scene I liked a lot better when it was in RotLA.

Later in the jungle, in the desert tent from RotLA, Galadriel forces Indy to look into the eyes of the Alien Space Skull from Space, the very thing that drove Oxley mad. This is meant to be dramatic but isn’t, because a.) Indy isn’t driven mad, and doesn’t even pretend to go mad for Galadriel’s benefit, and b.) I’m still upset about nuking the fridge.

The Commies are holding Oxley and Marion Ravenwood hostage, which is a great way to get all the main characters together without developing the plot. “Mutt” instigates an escape, and soon Marion and Indy are trapped in a sand pit. While the others go for help, Marion tells Indy what everyone else on Earth already knew, that “Mutt” is his son. “Mutt” returns and uses a giant snake to pull his parents out of the sand pit, which is hilarious because Indy is afraid of snakes, except it isn’t. And Oxley returns with “help” in the form of the Commies, which actually is hilarious, maybe the only joke in the movie that works. (And anyway, where else was Oxley supposed to go for help? They’re in the middle of the South American jungle, and the Soviets are the only people around.)

For some reason Galadriel and her men have a giant weed whacker-cum-tank, and they’re using it to create a road through the jungle. Indy escapes and blows up the tank, but from this point on a road magically appears, because why should our characters’ actions have consequences? That would be called a “plot,” and this movie doesn’t want one of those.

The ensuing car chase is very exciting, very clever, and would not even have been ruined by the on-again, off-again nature of the crystal skull’s “magnetism.” Wouldn’t it have been cool if the “magnetism” had been worked into the chase, if Indy or some other character had used it to his or her advantage? Oh well.

Watch for that — AaaaaAAAAaaaaAAAAAaaaa — TREEEE!!!!

No, that’s not what ruins the very exciting, very clever car chase. That’s not what had the audience in my theater groaning the first time I saw this. No, the very exciting, very clever car chase was ruined when “Mutt” swings through the jungle vines like Tarzan. And to think, I was just beginning to get over nuking the fridge.

Fuck you, Lucas. You too, Spielberg.

Then, the army ants. God, are there any decent CG animals in this flick? By the way, I have a question. By this point, Beowulf has convinced Indy that he’s a double-agent, still working for the CIA. Okay, so now Indy trusts him. But why do “Mutt” and Marion?

Look out, Indy! There are no spinning propellers this time!

Indy gets his big fistfight with the Main Soviet Thug, Colonel Whassisname. He looks like the plane mechanic on RotLA, and his Soviet uniform looks like a Nazi uniform. You know, Steve, there’s self-referencing, and then there’s self-plagiarism.

Boba? Boba Fett? Is that you down there, buddy?

Oops! Colonel Whassisname goes down the Sarlacc pit. You know, George, there’s self-referencing, and then there’s self-plagiarism.

Off our heroes go, down three consecutive giant waterfalls. This kind of thing is standard in an Indiana Jones movie, but would Oxley really have the strength to survive all this, while hanging onto a crystal skull with an iron grip?  He didn’t have to be written as old and weak, you know.

So we come, through Indy’s interpretation of Oxley’s cryptic mumblings, to El Dorado. But – oh no! – someone is dropping homing devices so Galadriel and her Soviet Elves can follow! And since Spielberg was afraid the average American moviegoer was too stupid to understand that a little metal thingy with a flashing red light was a homing device, he added a loud beeping sound that somehow Indy, Marion and “Mutt” are too deaf to hear.

Anyway, we get more ethnic sensitivity with an attack of barbaric, primitive South American monkey-men all tarted up in the ceremonial gear that natives only wear for tourists and National Geographic film crews. I’m pretty sure that by 1957 most native tribes had been disrupted, their members conscripted into working on clear-cut factory farms, or in oil refineries. But whatever. Lucas also gave us the all-white Star Wars, and the ethnically offensive aliens in Phantom Menace.

Steven, Mommy says you’re not allowed to play with that naughty little Georgie anymore. Now go to your room and work on Tintin.

Yes, yes, we get it already.

Oxley, who left behind all the clues so Indy didn’t have to do any work, has also figured out how to get into the city and find the aliens. In fact, the only time Indy has actually done anything in this whole film is when he used the gunpower to find the Roswell remains. And that was an hour and forty minutes ago.

Alright, let’s discuss the climax; because except for the “magnetism,” and “nuking the fridge,” and the CG groundhogs, and “new-kew-lar,” and “Mutt,” and “Mutt” as Tarzan, this is the worst part of the movie.

Hey Shia, you getting any of this shit? Cuz I sure ain’t!

Let’s break this down. Thousands of years ago, a flying saucer full of inter-dimensional grays with crystal skeletons arrives on Earth. As inter-dimensional archaeologists, they gather up priceless artifacts from cultures around the world; although taking artifacts from living cultures sounds like stealing, not archaeology. (Someone should inform the Vatican of this.)

These aliens also teach the native South Americans about agriculture, astronomy, 2012 — all that Von Daniken stuff. They bury their saucer under the city of El Dorado, and create a wonderful center of learning.

Then for some reason the aliens shed their skins and go sit in a circle, on thrones, in the form of crystal skeletons. Are they artificial lifeforms? Are they communing psychically? Are they exploring the Earth with their minds? Did they die? WTF?

Hey Steven. I’m here to drop off Richard Dreyfuss and get my royalty check.

Then one day a conquistador comes along and steals one of the skulls. Why did the aliens allow this, unless they are dead? How does there come to be a legend of a great reward if the skull is returned? How is it that the throne chamber is resealed with a puzzle door that can only be opened by someone holding the skull?

Then Indy and Oxley bring back the skull, although it’s Galadriel who actually returns it to its proper place, hoping to get the reward of infinite knowledge. Now with the skull returned, the aliens prepare to leave, and all the good guys run for it. The aliens kill, or at least atomize, Galadriel. Why did they do that? Are they Mensheviks?

All the aliens did was show her Phantom Menace.

In a scene stolen right from IJatLC, Beowulf refuses to leave without some treasure, and gets sucked into the alien ship. Indy, Marion, “Mutt” and Oxley escape just in time to watch the city of El Dorado be destroyed and the alien saucer take off for the 11th Dimension or what-the-hell ever.

What?

Okay I love you buh-bye.

I have no problem with the aliens being mysterious, but we have to have some clue as to what they are doing. Why would uber-powerful aliens sit around and wait for someone to return the skull? Why not go get it themselves? They have a spaceship. Or they could psychically induce someone to fetch it. Hell, they could have prevented it from being stolen in the first place!

And if the aliens are inter-dimensional archaeologists, why do they destroy all the artifacts they collected, and the entire city of El Dorado, as they leave?

Spielberg knows how to do aliens – E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, War of the Worlds. (No, those weren’t aliens at the end of A.I., and if you thought they were, go buy yourself a helmet and a drool cup.) How could he fuck up these aliens so badly?

Oh yeah. George.

A few last questions. How did Indy get his job back, much less a promotion? Did the FBI believe his story about the Soviets getting atomized by Inter-Dimensional Beings from Beyond the 11th Dimension?

And how does Indy lose his eye???

End of Bitingly Sarcastic Plot Synopsis

Listen, George and Steven, and let me tell you something you should have already known. Some things are good just as they are, and don’t need to be improved or expanded. CE3K did not need a Special Edition – it was fine the way it was.  Indiana Jones did not need more adventures – he was fine the way he was. E.T. does not need its government agents carrying flashlights, it was fine the way it was. Star Wars did not need Greedo shooting first or a terrible GC Jabba, it was fine the way it was.

There’s even a saying: “don’t fix what’s not broken.” Steven, concentrate on new projects, new ideas. We’d love to see them.

George, go count your money. By hand. That should keep you occupied until you drop dead.

Next time: Prometheus (2012)

10 Comments

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