Someone once said that movies are not about reality, they are about other movies. This is never more true than in the films of Steven Spielberg, and especially in his Indiana Jones series. These are movies about the rousing spectacle that the moving image provides—the exotic adventures in faraway lands, outlandish stunts, and over-the-top action sequences that have been, since the very earliest days of silent cinema, the bread and butter of popular moviegoing.
The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is no different, and I’m so very glad. I loved loved loved this movie. Of course it helps that I’m something of a 50s-phile. The American postwar era in all of its technocratic, Levittown, Howdy Doody glory (with a little Cold War paranoia thrown in!) is my favorite of all historical periods. I nearly leapt out of my seat with glee at the rousing shot of Indy’s profile as he stands in front of the mushroom cloud. That amazing shot should’ve been the billboard for the film: welcome, Indiana Jones, to the Nuclear Age! Instead of Nazis there are now menacing Russians—vicious, cold, communist Russians, bound and determined to win the race for that most precious of Sputnik-era commodities: knowledge.
Skull lives and dies (mostly lives) by its placement within a Cold War context. But more than a real historical setting, Skull exists in the cinematic history of the era. Spielberg has an obvious affection for B movie kitsch of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, and it shows in the Indiana Jones films. The earlier trilogy was set in the 1930s, and as such was heavily constructed from the films of that era, whether jungle serials, adventure films (such as 1939’s Gunga Din which served as the inspiration for Temple of Doom), musicals (as in 1936’s Anything Goes, also referenced in Doom), B westerns (The Last Crusade), and various war/anti-Nazi films of the late 30s.
With Skull, which is set in 1957, Spielberg is in full on 50s mode, and he excels at recreating this decade. The pop culture of the era is excavated in Skull as if it were an Indy-commissioned archeological dig. We get some Elvis, greaser gangs, poodle skirts, burger joints, Red-scare protests, and Area 51 UFO paranormal anomalies, among other things.
Unsurprisingly, Skull is also chalk full of cinematic references. The dramatic entrance of Shia LaBeouf is a can’t-miss nod to Marlon Brando in 1953’s The Wild One, and at other times Shia invokes such cinematic icons as Tarzan, Spiderman, and any number of Errol Flynn-era swashbuckling swordsmen. There are also vestiges of classic Cold War sci-fi cinema here—films like 1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still and 1954’s buggy Them!
Of course Skull is also heavily self referential, with loads of nods to the other Indy films, as well as Spielberg’s broader cinematic portfolio. The film opens with a nice homage to Spielberg’s very first film, 1971’s Duel, and later contains direct references to George Lucas’ 1973 classic, American Graffiti. Of course, by the final scene we see that Spielberg is borrowing heavily from his various alien films too (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., A.I. etc), with special affinity with the whole “they’re been here for a long time” plot of War of the Worlds.
Indeed, while many fans have decried the outrageous ending of Skull (as somehow going “too far”), I absolutely loved it. Is it really that much more ridiculous to imagine an ancient civilization being built by aliens than it is to believe that the Ark of the Covenant melts peoples’ faces off? Or that Indy can walk on air to get to the Holy Grail? C’mon, people: these films are not about verisimilitude or physical reality. They’re about the fantastic and wonderful possibilities of cinema to throw some craziness in front of our eyes.
I thought the ending of Skull was in perfect keeping with what the film is ultimately about: 1950s culture. Science fiction paranoia (an outgrowth of Cold War uncertainties about nuclear technology) was crucial to that time period, never more than in the movies that came out of it. And the whole “I want to know” theme of Skull also reflects the tenor of the time—when the military industrial complex was reliant on specialized scientific knowledge, Freud-inspired psychoanalysis was in vogue, and education (the systematic accumulation of knowledge) was the highest-stakes battleground in the Russian-U.S. power struggle. No wonder Indy is so concerned that Junior go back to school!
As smart as it is in its commentary on Cold War America, Skull is, at the end of the day, mostly just a thrill ride of a movie (quite literally). Film historians often look back to Temple of Doom as the first “theme park” movie: what with its roller coaster mine sequence, snow-and-whitewater raft adventure, etc. Skull features (on my count) at least six sequences that could be turned into thrill rides at Disneyland: the nuclear launcher ride that Indy shares with the Russian thug, the flying refrigerator, the motorcycle chase, Mutt’s flying trapeze adventure, the boat-over-waterfalls sequence, and the spinning alien saucer launch sequence. I can’t wait for the ride!
Honestly,I don’t think Skull could possibly have been any better than this. As a 20-years-later installment with a 65-year-old lead actor and two decades of imitators (The Mummy, National Treasure, etc) to overcome, Skull faced a major uphill battle. Amazingly, it all turned out brilliantly—with a little originality mixed with a LOT of referentiality, some appropriate newness (CGI, Shia LaBeouf) complimenting a huge amount of necessary old stuff (the hat! the snakes! the bugs! the music!), and a formidable sense of blockbuster exuberance that Spielberg has—since Jaws—evoked better than just about anyone.