Unpopular Opinion: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Isn’t That Bad

Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, John Hurt, Shia LaBeouf, and Ray Winstone in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

There’s nothing fans hate more than a disappointing sequel. After all, just look at the hostile response many folks had towards the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy or the Sequel Trilogy – continuations of a beloved sci-fi universe that many fans eagerly awaited for decades. Like most series, Indiana Jones is not immune to this phenomenon, with many die-hard Indy viewers tending to see the long-anticipated sequel, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, as a serious low point in the franchise.

However, it’s worth noting that most fans have a tendency to take an unfair stance against newly-released sequels, cynically deriding it for failing to stand up to its original precursors. And while Kingdom of the Crystal may admittedly not stand quite as tall as Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Last Crusade, it’s still a supremely enjoyable movie, even if most hardcore Indiana Jones fans won’t openly admit it.

Why Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Is Actually Great

Harrison Ford Films Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull 2008 Paramount Pictures 2
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

In terms of production, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was released 19 years after its predecessor, The Last Crusade – a film that was designed to wrap up a canonical trilogy, effectively concluding the story of the globe-trotting archaeologist, Indiana Jones. While Steven Spielberg might’ve been happy leaving the Indy series behind there, George Lucas never intended to end the franchise with The Last Crusade, formulating ideas for a potential fourth entry in the franchise within a few short years of The Last Crusade’s release. With some repeated urging from Harrison Ford – who also expressed enthusiasm at the prospect of playing Dr. Jones again – Spielberg ultimately relented, clearing the way for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s release in 2008.

There’s a lot going on in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, most of which have triggered fans’ ire in some manner of another. Set in 1957 – 19 years after the events of The Last Crusade – there’s an older, more grizzled Indy, a returning Marion Ravenwood, an illegitimate greaser son born to Dr. Jones, a fabled city in South America, and, perhaps most infamously, aliens from another world; and that hardly scratches the surface for other things fans frequently mock and ridicule, like the parapsychology-obsessed KGB antagonists, a colony of carnivorous “big damn ants” that terrorize Indiana and his friends in the jungles of Peru, and the ability to survive a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator.

But when you look at each of these elements individually, they all make sense in the grand scheme of the story. Far from jumping the shark in terms of narrative reality, they were all deliberately added to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to reflect a distinct genre or historical element inherently tied to the Indiana Jones universe.

At its heart, each film in the Indiana Jones franchise is an homage to a bygone era of film. In particular, the first three movies were especially designed to act as a postmodern riff on the serial adventure films of the 1930s (the decade that the initial three films are set within).

To illustrate the new decade Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was set against, Lucas had the idea to move away from the ‘30s adventure movies and look towards 1950s B-sci-fi films for inspiration – perhaps the most popular genre of film at the time. It’s for this reason that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull heavily emphasizes the idea of alien creatures on Earth, keeping in line with movies like It Came From Outer Space and The Thing From Another World.

Fans might openly lambast this idea, viewing it as the moment that Lucas and Spielberg went too far developing the narrative concepts behind Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But these fans seem to forget that each movie prior to Kingdom featured detailed explorations of Judaism, Hinduism, and Christianity. In a fictional universe where the Holy Grail, devil-worshiping cults, and the literal light of God melting Nazis’ faces are all a given, why exactly do viewers consistently draw the line at aliens? It’s an unfair critique that is, above all else, inconsistent with fans’ response to the rest of the series. By that same margin, the unique powers behind the Ark of the Covenant, the Sankara stones, and the Holy Grail should be viewed in the same dismissive light as the aliens in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Similar historical elements that fans continue to admonish are also open to further exploration. For example, the Soviet scientist Irina Spalko (brilliantly played by Cate Blanchett) has been looked upon as a bizarre choice for a main antagonist, if only for her strange obsession with ESP. However, it should be remembered that, throughout the Cold War, both American and Soviet scientists were launching detailed experiments into the capabilities of the human mind.

According to a 1975 CIA report (declassified and made public in 2004), Soviet and Czech scientists reported widespread cases of ESP in controlled lab settings. In the 1970s, the U.S. even launched a secretive government program dubbed Project Star Gate to use men and women with supposed ESP capabilities to spy on Soviet activities. As odd as it may seem on the surface, extrasensory perception’s influence on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is accurate, with the truth – in this case – being stranger than fiction.

Likewise, then, it makes sense that the primary villains of the movie are Soviet KGB agents, further tying into the distinct genre Spielberg and Lucas looked to for inspiration. In essence, alien invasion movies of the 1950s were political allegories for the Cold War itself, with most Americans consciously afraid of a technology-superior invader devastating their home. In this regard, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull once again succeeds at portraying both its fictional and historical precedence with clarity, bringing both actual aliens and Cold War paranoia into its narrative continuity.

The Case Against Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Shia LaBeouf Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Aside from its inclusion and heavy emphasis on aliens, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull continues to receive a ton of unfair flack towards other questionable elements, especially the physics behind some of the movie’s more action-packed moments. Most notably, many viewers continuously point towards the notorious nuke scene in the first act of the movie, which sees Indiana escape a nuclear explosion by hiding in a fridge, bouncing out of the blast radius, and exiting, unharmed, from his kitchen appliance bomb shelter.

Is this scene realistic? Of course not. (Even if he’d somehow survived unscathed, the radioactive fallout alone would kill him in a matter of weeks – not to mention the fact that he’d go blind staring up at a mushroom cloud from such a short distance away.) Once again, though, it’s important to keep in mind: Indiana Jones is a movie, and part of a series that frequently features questionable representations of reality. The same fans that make fun of Kingdom’s fridge scene barely question the physics behind Indiana, Short Round, and Willie surviving a free-fall from an airplane by using an inflatable raft in Temple of Doom, or Mola Ram using his bare hands to rip a man’s beating heart out – and for the guy to go on drawing breath without the most important muscle in the human body.

At the end of the day, people tune in to Indiana Jones to see a larger-than-life portrayal of action and adventure, not to get bogged down with the limitations reality imposes on the actual world. If you removed any of those elements – citing them as “unrealistic” – you wouldn’t have an Indiana Jones franchise to speak of. Roger Ebert, who gave the movie a more than respectable three-and-a-half-star rating, said in his review of Kingdom: “What I want is goofy action – lots of it. I want man-eating ants, swordfights between two people balanced on the backs of speeding jeeps, caverns of gold, vicious femme fatales, plunges down three waterfalls in a row, and the explanation for flying saucers.”

This is a sentiment we can probably all agree with, and is the same reason we’ve so avidly consumed MCU projects, Fast & Furious films, and the numerous Mission: Impossible movies.

A Pop Culture Phenomenon Across the Generations

Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

If we watch Indiana Jones primarily for its pulp aspects, why then do fans harbor such a deep hatred for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in particular? While there’s no precise explanation accounting for this, hating a sequel just because it’s different than anything that came before it is not exactly a new cultural phenomenon, with obvious parallels existing between Indiana Jones and George Lucas’s other pop culture creation, Star Wars.

Upon its initial release in 1977, Star Wars quickly became one of the most popular movies of its era, winning over fans with its rich sci-fi universe, fascinating characters, and stunning special effects. Completing a rare feat in the film industry, its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, earned similarly rave reviews, with many even considering it a superior film to its predecessor.

By the time of Return of the Jedi, something had begun to shift among contemporary audiences at the time. Though today it’s viewed as a classic in the Original Trilogy, Return of the Jedi somewhat perplexed audiences, many fans taking a particularly hostile view of the film’s inclusion of Ewoks, the dramatic precursor to other equally controversial Star Wars creations like porgs or Jar-Jar Binks.

In the late ‘90s, when Lucas set out to create his Prequel Trilogy, this fan hostility only increased, with most viewers taking a heated stance against The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and some aspects of Revenge of the Sith. A decade later, the negative reception spread to Disney’s Sequel Trilogy, with critical appraisals towards the Prequels warming significantly by comparison.

How does one explain this gradual transformation from fervent hate of the Prequels to adamant love? In part, it’s audience members who loved the Prequels as children growing older, seeing the films through a nostalgic lens. But perhaps more than that, there’s a tendency among modern viewers to take an increasingly appreciative view of older films with time, willingly looking past their weaknesses and enjoying them instead for their strengths. This exact thing happened with Return of the Jedi and the Prequels, and I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if, in another ten years or so, the same thing occurs with the Sequel Trilogy.

If Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seems kitschy or far-fetched today, that’s because it was designed to be that way, modeling itself after a ‘50s B-movie in the same way Star Wars was modeled as a ‘30s space opera or Django Unchained were modeled after ‘60s Spaghetti Westerns. Hopefully, with time, audiences continue to warm up to the final Spielberg-directed entry in the franchise, enjoying it for its abundant strengths as opposed to its relatively minor flaws. By doing so, you’ll be entreated to an incredibly fun adventure film that mixes sci-fi, history, romance, action, and a Cold War thriller to supreme effect, delivering a movie truly worthy of the name Indiana Jones.

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Richard Chachowski is an entertainment and travel writer who has written for such publications as Wealth of Geeks, Looper, Screen Rant, Fangoria, and Sportskeeda, among many others. He received his BA from The College of New Jersey and has been a professional writer since 2020. His geeky areas of interest include Star Wars, travel writing, horror, video games, comic books, literature, and animation.

Richard has been an avid consumer of movies, television, books, and pop culture since he was four-years-old. Raised on a diverse mix of Clint Eastwood Westerns, Star Wars, sci-fi and horror films, Alan Moore comics, and Stephen King novels, he eventually turned his various passions into a creative outlet, writing about film, television, literature, comics, and gaming for his high school and college newspapers. A traveling enthusiast, Richard has also managed to create a career out of journeying abroad, venturing to such awe-inspiring places as the Sonoran Desert of Mexico, the rainforests of Costa Rica, and the scenic coastline of Haiti. Upon graduating from TCNJ, Richard set his sights on a career in journalism, writing extensively about the art of traveling and the entertainment medium for various online publications. When he’s not busy making his way through The Criterion Collection, he can be found either reading or planning a trip somewhere (preferably someplace with a scenic hiking trail).