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For most, the last entry in the Indiana Jones franchise was a huge disappointment, a throwback to a series that didn’t need a step back but one forward, and no matter one’s feelings for the casting or even the story, the movie failed simply because sensibilities change and the renowned character had more heart in our nostalgia than in our present.
That said, the film is not entirely without merit. In fact, there are several rousing moments and both star Harrison Ford and director Steven Spielberg show us why they became so popular for decades. Watching the film again, there is great warmth in Spielberg’s attention to details and for Jones himself, even as the story steadily let’s them both down before the end. The movie is high adventure but can’t sustain itself and eventually becomes too big. But, like every movie, it has one great moment.
The one thing that has long stood as reason why the Indiana Jones series has had such great impact is that Jones himself is a terrifically realized movie persona, a figure we look up to and identify with, his triumphs one we cheer and his vulnerabilities we understand.
In Crystal Skull, a great deal of effort is made to accept that Jones has aged and yet that he has not lost his zest for adventure, nor his ambition. That established, the film was meant to be a kind of hand off to a new generation, one that was thrust into the capable hands of young Shia LaBeouf, who plays Mutt Williams.
LaBeouf had just won audiences over in the first Transformers film and seemed like a perfect candidate for the next chapters, his appeal obvious. However, this didn’t happen for a number of reasons, and after the film met with critical and audience derision, he took a lot of it to heart and publically claimed responsibility for its failure, even if that is not actually true.
Either way, in the film, Mutt is a take on Marlon Brando, his introduction seeing him riding in through a puff of white smoke on a 1957 Harley-Davidson with a black leather jacket and vintage cap that recalls Brando’s famous look from The Wild One.
Mutt hails Jones from a train and the two end up in a crowded city diner, where they sit and have a chat, a very important one in fact. Turns out Mutt has some interesting information about a mysterious crystal skull, one that Jones believes could be tied to the legend of Akator, or El Dorado, the city of gold. Mutt explains that he’s got a letter from his mother, written in an ancient language that might lead to the city. Who the mother is becomes something of interest as well, but that’s for later.
Much more is told but I’ll leave it for you to discover so let’s consider why this moment is so effective. First of all, Mutt’s entrance is a good one. Spielberg knows best how to do this, especially in this series and to have Mutt burst on the scene as such is a great way to get expectations on the table about the character with nary a word spoken. He’s cool. He’s rebellious. He’s anti-establishment, and he’s modern (for the era). That exactly the right move in making the narrative shift. Notice how the old train is heading in one direction while Mutt glides by in the other, rumbling along disrupting the norm, a great visual in clearly defining the transition.
At the diner, watch closely the wonderful little dance that goes on with beer bottles and waitresses as the two men talk. As Mutt reaches for beers that aren’t his, Indy puts them right back, and the flow and timing is flawless. It’s funny and clever without distracting from the story, instead, further layering who Mutt is and how Indiana sees him. Already the two are in sync. But there is much happening in the dialogue as well and it’s important that we kinda follow. This is one of the quieter moments in the movie and is a risk really in giving us some exposition rather than action but notice how well Spielberg handles it.
He understands that the details of the plot point are necessary but not essential in keeping us onboard. He fills the time some great physical performances that deftly keep plates spinning by having an interesting background, some fun choreography between the leads, and great camerawork that steadily gets us in closer to the men as the meaning escalates. It’s a terrific bit of filmmaking that ends on a high note and a bombastic action piece that would come to define the tone of the film. While the movie becomes a bit bloated with these increasingly over-the-top sequences (mind you Indy at this point has already survived the fridge), it is this small bit of character interaction that remains one of the more relatable and entertaining moments.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a flawed film to be sure, but there is much about it that surely makes it worth a look. Another brilliant score by John Williams, some outstanding performances, and more exciting direction help to ease the woes of some missteps in the script and story. And a classic moment in a diner makes for a great cinematic moment.