Normally, when a new installment of a beloved franchise is announced, the internet blows up with excitement. It was practically a public holiday when a seventh “Star Wars” movie was announced, and an Untitled Marvel Movie getting a release date is discussed with more fervor than the actual releases of most films. And yet, when it was revealed last week that a fifth “Indiana Jones” film was in the works, with both Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford returning, and David Koepp writing the script, the reception was decidedly cooler.
Part of the response could be put down to concerns over age — Spielberg will be 73 when the film is released in July 2019, Ford 77. Some could be down to a sort of franchise fatigue, though giant box office for fellow Lucas/Spielberg franchises “Star Wars” and “Jurassic World” suggests not. It seems, in fact, from scanning the responses, that much of the skepticism around the fifth Indy film stems to the poor response to the fourth, 2008’s “Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.”
The film arrived on a wave of hype matched by few others: Fans had waited 19 years to see Ford don his hat and whip again after 1989’s 'The Last Crusade.' Reviews weren’t bad on balance (to this day, it has a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 65 on Metacritic), and box office was an impressive $786 million worldwide, but audience reaction was decidedly muted and only got worse over time, with the film getting a reputation in the vein of the "Star Wars" prequels.
So, with "Indiana Jones 5" coming, I thought it was time to look back at 'Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull' to work out what it was about the film that people didn’t respond to, and the lessons that can be learned from it going into the next one. Below are our 10 biggest takeaways for our first rewatch of the much-derided sequel since it was first released, in terms of what it did wrong, and how to fix it next time.
1. Keep it simple
The Indiana Jones series has never been the plottiest of franchises. “Star Wars” or the Marvel movies are a little more beholden to weaving a narrative, throwing in soapy twists and turns and the occasional shock. Even James Bond can go for a more convoluted story sometimes and it still works out. But at its best, with the first and third movies, "Indiana Jones" has never been that, with 'Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull' feeling unnecessarily convoluted in its plotting compared to the "finding an object the bad guys also want" of the first and third franchise films.
In 'Kingdom,' Indy and Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt find the MacGuffin, the titular crystal skull, less than an hour into the movie. Then, briefly, John Hurt’s Oxley becomes the MacGuffin. But we’ve never met him, we’re just told that he’s an old acquaintance of Indy, so we don’t really care about him. Then our heroes are essentially accompanying the Soviet villains (led by Cate Blanchett) to the hidden Amazon temple. It all feels weirdly nebulous and without a clear aim, compared to the other movies, where Indy always has an obvious objective — find the ark, find the sankara stones, find the Grail. It doesn’t mean you can’t introduce complications or reversals without those quests, but 'Crystal Skull' simply has too much going on, and ends up feeling uninvolving as a result. We hope that Koepp learns from his mistakes and gives the plot a clearer aim this time around. And perhaps that will be the case, with George Lucas, who came up with the story for 'Kingdom,' sitting this one out.
2. Get global
The idea of globe-trotting adventures (and the famous red line on the map) has always been a key part of the appeal of franchise, with Indy going to Peru, Nepal, Egypt, the Aegean Sea, Shanghai, India, Portugal, Venice, Germany and Turkey across the original trilogy. So it’s somewhat baffling that 'Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull' only takes place in two different countries. To be fair, so does 'Temple Of Doom' (the other not-great Indy movie, if you ask me), but at least those were more exotic countries. Here, nearly half the film takes place on home soil, in Nevada and around Indy’s college, before heading to Peru for the second half. It’s likely that the latter was something of an attempt to bring things full circle, returning to the place that we first met Indy in the prologue to ‘Raiders.’ But it all feels rather disappointingly small in scope, closer to, say, “The Rundown” than to a world-spanning adventure, and with so much of the world as yet unexplored by our hero on the big screen, we hope the fifth film takes Indy to places he’s never been, and more than one of them at that.
3. Make sure that your star is engaged
Rewatching ‘Crystal Skull’ this week, it struck me that the film’s biggest problem might not even have been the script. It’s that Indiana Jones doesn’t really feel like Indiana Jones. Harrison Ford’s reluctant-hero vibe has always been part of his appeal — indeed, it’s one of the reasons that his trademark roles took off so much, because Han and Indy both felt human and relatable even when things were crazy around them. But 'Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull' arrived after what might've been the worst decade of Ford’s career. Here are the movies he made in the lead up to playing Indy again: “Six Days Seven Nights,” “Random Hearts,” “What Lies Beneath,” “K-19: The Widowmaker,” “Hollywood Homicide” and “Firewall.” The only one that did any business was "What Lies Beneath;" everything else tanked. Ford’s public persona had become increasingly cantankerous, and the press he did for the movie gave the impression that he’d been dragged back kicking and screaming to his trademark role. As, frankly, does the performance: there’s something a little off for much of the film, Indy’s new "I’m too old for this shit" vibe coming across as contemptuous rather than winning for much of the running time (though he improves as he goes along, particularly when he gets to play off Karen Allen in the third act). Reportedly, he didn’t like George Lucas’ alien concept, which probably didn’t help. Flash-forward to 2016, and he seems like an entirely different person. Reprising Han Solo in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” led to Ford’s most engaged performance in a couple of decades (he was actually kind of great in “Age Of Adaline,” too). He seems to have finally come to terms with his two great genre albatrosses, appears genuinely moved by the fan adoration, and has a new twinkle in his eye when doing press. Just look at this recent Jimmy Kimmel clip, which sees him genuinely excited about the prospect of reprising Indy. If Spielberg can bottle that enthusiasm (and perhaps a sense that it didn’t go to plan last time is one of the reasons they’re getting the band back together), we could be in for something special.
4. Streamline the supporting cast
Similarly to the plot, it sometimes felt that Indy’s back-up team was a little overstuffed in 'Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull,' compared to previous installments. 'Raiders' was more or less a double-act with Indy and Marion (who are separated for much of the running time), plus some brief help from Sallah and Marcus Brody. 'Temple Of Doom' saw Indy backed up by Short Round and Willie, though we’d argue that neither of those were particularly welcome. And 'Last Crusade' was essentially a two-hander with the Jones boys, plus Sallah and Brody returning for some comic relief. But 'Kingdom of The Crystal Skull' is overrun with sidekicks: Ray Winstone’s Mac in the opening, Mutt for a while after that, and then both of them, plus Karen Allen’s Marion and John Hurt’s Oxley for the entire second half of the movie, and most are extraneous to the action. It feels like Oxley was perhaps intended to be the return of Henry Jones Sr., or to be Marion’s long-assumed-dead father Abner Ravenwood (in fact, it was initially announced that John Hurt was playing that role), but he’s neither. And while we’re always happy to see Ray Winstone, Mac is even more unnecessary. He’s clearly meant to be a sort of Lando figure, his loyalties going back and forth over time (he was actually Russian and called Yuri in Frank Darabont’s early draft of the script), but it’s just busy work, padding the runtime without adding much surprise or thematic weight. 'Indy 5' will undoubtedly need someone to join Ford in carrying the movie, whether it’s a returning LaBeouf or a new character, but we don’t need a whole team of back-up players diluting the movie.
5. Stick to the classic Indy tone
There’s a very particular tone to the best of the franchise: fleet-footed, light-as-air, comic but with real stakes, family-friendly but capable of EC Comics grossness and sadism when it wants to be. It’s a tone so tricky to pull off that even Spielberg’s only pulled it off half the time. 'Raiders' and 'The Last Crusade' nailed it, but 'Temple Of Doom' went too dark and grisly (famously, both the director and George Lucas were recently divorced and taking it out on the world). ‘Crystal Skull’ doesn’t feature heart-ripping and the like — it is still recognizably an Indy movie — but there are still some deeply odd moments. At times, the grislier moments work, such as the Russian henchman dragged away by ants, and Blanchett being vaporized by an alien. At others, it rings false, like the bad guys burned to death at Area 51 by the rocket sled, or the indigenous tribesman killed by his own poison dart (the racial stuff in the movie, by the way, is pretty questionable, too). And you get weird tangents, like the brief interlude where Indy is investigated by his own government, indulging the political side of Spielberg’s work that he explored more successfully recently in “Lincoln” and “Bridge Of Spies,” but which sticks out like a sore thumb here. It’s some of these tonal missteps that help to make 'Crystal Skull' feel like a cover version rather than the real thing.