Now, most of us know and love the first three outings featuring a professor/archaeologist/adventurer with an impressive track record of Nazi butt-kicking and female wooing. Even the darker “Temple of Doom” — misunderstood in its time, and contributing to the creation of the PG-13 rating — is now hailed as a classic. Whichever movie you prefer, everything they have to offer — the fedora, the whip, and John Williams’ iconic theme — has become an indelible part of our culture, copied and parodied a million times over.
However, I want to use this big movie news to revisit the black sheep of the “Jones” canon: “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” the fourth and much-loathed addition to the series that gave “Happy Days” a reprieve by replacing the phrase “jumping the shark” with “nuking the fridge.”
While the first three movies occur in the 1930s, “Crystal Skull” takes place in 1957. Obviously, the filmmakers had to jump forward in time to account for Ford getting a little long in the tooth. More importantly, they needed a new villain. After thwarting the Third Reich twice, Spielberg had to find a new direction. He even went on record saying he couldn’t treat Nazis in the same campy way after directing “Schindler’s List.”
So who was the big geopolitical baddie of the 1950s? The Red Menace, of course! Communism! Espionage! The Iron Curtain! All that paranoid and mutually assured destructive jazz, which the decade is famous for. And, like any other Indy villain, the Soviets are after some sort of supernatural MacGuffin. In this case, it’s the knowledge and psychic abilities of an alien race in the heart of the Amazon Jungle.
That’s where it lost most people, if they hadn’t already checked out during the nuclear test site scene in the desert (an awesome way in which to establish the time period in which the film takes place). But here’s the thing: It’s a homage to the schlocky sci-fi B-movies of the 1950s! “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “It Came From Outer Space,” “Robot Monster,” “Lost Planet.” The list goes on, people. Aliens were a big part of Cold War hysteria, serving as an allegory for the fear of a foreign Communist invasion. In that context, “Crystal Skull” is not only an interesting pastiche, but also makes a ton of sense.
Still not convinced? Well, “Raiders” was meant to be a modern throwback to the adventure serials of the 1930s and 40s, where the hero would never lose his hat and always get the girl. Not to mention every Indy movie has dealt with some kind of otherworldly artifact, whether it’s the Holy Grail, the Shankara Stones, or the Lost Ark of the Covenant — which, incidentally, shows up in this week’s Torah portion of Acharei Mot, in which Aaron’s sons die entering the Holy of Holies. If you want to rule out the ridiculousness of aliens, then you must ignore the wrath of God. And funnily enough, it’s been Jews from all backgrounds like Spielberg, Ford, and Shia LaBeouf who have brought the great adventure to life for all these years.
Lastly, to the complaints about LaBeouf: His character is a reference to the badass roles given to actors like James Dean and Marlon Brando in the 1950s. Do “Rebel Without a Cause” or “The Wild One” ring a bell? They should, because “Crystal Skull” is not supposed to be a straight-faced adventure movie. In fact, the same goes for the entire franchise, which is a love letter to American cinematic and popular culture of bygone eras.
In other words, it doesn’t deserve the criticism. Quite the contrary. It deserves to be respected and treasured for the sendup that it is. Essentially: It belongs in a museum!
Josh Weiss is a student at Drexel University.