People hate Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. A lot. Many consider it a blasphemous stain on the Indiana Jones legacy. It gets lumped in with the (genuinely dreadful) Star Wars prequels as an example of crass commercialism spoiling a great franchise.
But the film is not quite as bad as geeks often claim. While it’s no Raiders (or even a Last Crusade), it’s a halfway decent movie, and it nearly earned a rightful place alongside the earlier Indy trilogy.
Here are some reasons why Crystal Skull isn’t all that bad:
The nuclear test site. The phrase “nuking the fridge” has replaced “jumping the shark” as shorthand for the moment that wrecks a beloved franchise. Naysayers cite the fridge scene as some sort of self-evident example of how Skull flew off the rails. Here’s the thing, though: the scene is awesome. Of all the sequences in this movie, the nuclear test felt the most like Indiana Jones. It was funny, tense, and ridiculous. Like Dr. Jones meeting Hitler. If nothing else, it established one of the series’ most iconic images: Indy silhouetted by that mushroom cloud.
The university stuff. The scenes of Indy getting canned, meeting Mutt, fleeing Ruskies… These early scenes do what they need to do and do it well. First, they advance the Indiana Jones character in ways that feel true to the era. It makes sense that Jones would get caught up in the Red Scare, given the opening scenes at Area 51. Additionally, this plot move also allows the film to explore Indy’s university life again, without rehashing earlier films. Second, the motorcycle chase feels energetic and fun; the movie benefits here from on-location shooting (instead of green-screen shenanigans).
Of course, there were some missteps here, too; Indy and his boss waxing nostalgic about Marcus Brody and Dr. Jones, Sr. felt a bit ham-fisted—a cringe-worthy wink thrown to the audience.
The MacGuffin. Let’s get this out of the way: there’s nothing inherently problematic about putting aliens in an Indiana Jones movie. Sure, the best Jones films centered around Judeo-Christian mythology. But that line was tapped out; Indy had already found the greatest single artifacts from both the Old Testament and the New. You can’t up the ante once you’ve played the Holy Grail and the Ark. Since the film is set in the 1950s, it made perfect sense to shift the supernatural MacGuffin from the religious to the extraterrestrial.
The obvious objection here? Indiana Jones, the character, seems like a fish out-of-water in 1950s sci-fi. Thus we get a weird amalgam of sci-fi elements and archaeological exploration. I’ll admit; it doesn’t quite work. But that’s a problem with the execution—not with the concept. What if the filmmakers had gone all-in with the sci-fi genre and dumped the adventure serial? Explored a different aspect of Indy’s character? What if this movie had painted Indy more as a scientist than a swashbuckler? Given Harrison Ford’s age, this would’ve made more sense: show us an elderly Indiana Jones, cerebral and clever.
Mac. Indy’s old friend helped the audience fill in the twenty years between Indiana Jones iterations. And Mac’s mercenary, greedy nature contrasted nicely with Indy’s over-serious goody-two-shoes routine. While the character was underdeveloped and his motivations confusing, Mac could have fit in well alongside former sidekicks Sallah, Short Round, and Jones, Sr.
The opening shot. Prairie dog mountain crossfade? Genius way to pay cheeky homage to earlier films. Drag race between preppy teens and Russian infiltrators? Love it. Iconic American Southwest landscapes? Beautiful. For at least a little while, the film felt real!