Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the fourth installment in the Indiana Jones series created by George Lucas, produced by Frank Marshall, and starring Harrison Ford. Released nineteen years after the previous film, the story acknowledges the age of its 64-year-old star Harrison Ford by being set in 1957.
The cast includes Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, and Shia LaBeouf (the girl who punches him in the diner scene is Sasha Spielberg).
When George Lucas and Steven Spielberg finally decide to develop a fourth adventure, expectations are as high as the risks of failure. So, the plot device has to be carefully chosen. All previous installments have centered around religious artifacts. Lucas comes up with the idea of Indy versus creatures from outer space, locating the story in the era of trashy sci-fi films from the 1950s. Jeb Stuart and Jeffrey Boam both write drafts but Spielberg and Ford are not thrilled by the story. When Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) hits theaters, Spielberg tells Lucas that he is not interested in doing another alien invasion film.
Years later, in 2000, when Ford, Lucas, Spielberg, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy meet during the AFI’s tribute to Ford, they all agree they should do the next Indiana Jones film. Lucas somehow convinces Spielberg to use aliens in the plot by saying they are not “extraterrestrials”, but “interdimensional” beings – a concept inspired by the superstring theory. He also suggests to add the crystal skulls as he originally wanted to feature them in an episode of his Young Indiana Jones tv series. M. Night Shyamalan and Tom Stoppard are asked to write drafts for an intended 2002 shoot, but due to Lucas’ involvement in the Star Wars prequels the production start is postponed.
In 2003, Frank Darabont who has also been writer and director of Young Indiana Jones episodes, delivers a script for the film – which might as well be called Indiana Jones and the Curse of Development Hell. Darabont’s script is actually titled Indiana Jones and the City of Gods and contains most of the ideas that end up in the final film. According to Darabont, Spielberg loves the script, but Lucas vetoes it. Yet another writer is hired: Jeff Nathanson turns in the next drafts in 2005, titled The Atomic Ants. They are rewritten by David Koepp who collaborates with Raiders of the Lost Ark screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan on the dialogues between Indy and Marion. Koepp subtitles his script Destroyer of Worlds, based on the J. Robert Oppenheimer quote. Spielberg and Lucas eventually change the title to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
David Koepp creates uber-villainess, Soviet agent Irina Spalko (portrayed by Cate Blanchett). Blanchett is eager to play a villain and visibly enjoys adding her distinct portrayal to the Indiana Jones legacy. Spalko’s bob cut is Blanchett’s idea, with the character’s stern looks and behaviour recalling evil Rosa Klebb in the second James Bond film From Russia with Love (1963). However, Koepp is not able to make the best possible use of her part (after a strong entry, her role is reduced to bit appearences, getting involved in a less-than-exciting fencing match with Indy’s son, instead of Indy himself). An adequate showdown between her and Indy is missing in action. Nevertheless, Spielberg praises Blanchett as his favorite Indiana Jones villain:
When all knowledge about everything is at her hands, Irina Spalko utters the orgasmic words, “I want…to know!” in a nod to Joan Crawford’s “I want…to see!“ in the TV episode Eyes (1969), Spielberg’s professional debut as a director.
In response to passionate requests from fans, Karen Allen reprises her role as Marion Ravenwood: Unfortunately, the grand surprise entry that Darabont has written for her, is not used in the film. In Darabont’s script, we follow an unknown lady entering a nightclub in Peru:
"We’re too far away to see her face, and in any event she’s obscured by a stylish wide-brimmed hat that matches her white tailored skirt suit. (…) She comes up behind Indy as the bartender sets down his martini. She makes her presence known by plucking an olive with a white-gloved hand and dropping it in Indy’s drink. Indy turns, looking up at her. A frozen beat. His expression going slack. For a moment his brain refuses to accept what he’s seeing; it’s literally the last person he ever expected. (…) She looks fantastic, not to mention dumbstruck at the sight of Indy her smile fades … and she hauls off and punches him in the mouth.“
In the inevitable drinking contest, Marion asks Indy about his old flame Willie Scott who, according to Indy, "moved out to Hollywood to be a star. Last I heard, she fell in love and married some bigshot director.“
Compared to this, Marion’s entry and subsequent scenes in the film version remain below their potential. The same can be said about Marion’s son, Mutt Williams. In his lackluster portrayal, Shia LaBeouf does not nearly manage to convey the same rivalry between father and son, as demonstrated in the legendary verbal exchanges between Ford and Connery in The Last Crusade (1989). Even worse, Mutt does a Tarzan-like stunt, swinging on vines with a horde of monkeys – a scene that many Indy fans would like to erase from their memories.
Koepp expands the part of muddleheaded Professor Oxley, brilliantly played by John Hurt (Darabont had him in mind when writing the script), and adds "triple-agent” George “Mac” McHale (Ray Winstone) to the story. In Darabont’s screenplay, Indy’s father has a small part, but this has to be dropped when Sean Connery decides not to reprise his role – though he is seen on a photo on Indy’s desk. Indy’s friend Sallah is to appear at the wedding scene but John Rhys-Davies declines as he feels his character deserves a more substantial role in the film. Charles Stanforth (played by Jim Broadbent), dean of the fictional Marshall College and Indy’s friend. succeeds Marcus Brody, whose actor, Denholm Elliott, died in 1992. As a tribute to Elliott, the filmmakers put a portrait and a statue on the Marshall College location.
When Indy is suspended from his duties at the College because of alleged Communist ties, Stanforth shows some backbone and resigns, muttering “I don’t recognize this country anymore!“ This is Spielberg’s twofold comment on the climate of political repression against communists during the 1950’s McCarthy era and excessive Homeland security measures of the present day, directed against potential terrorist activities.
Spielberg shoots a sequence from Darabont’s script to indulge in a bizzarre snapshot of the 1950’s of his childhood (videoclip): Indy flees into a "typical“ suburb which has actually been constructed to be blown up in a testing of the atomic bomb. When Indy realizes that the family sitting in front of the TV set are mannequins and the countdown for the bomb is started, he climbs into a heavy-duty refrigerator (Spielberg’s favorite set piece in many of his films) which ultimately saves his life. This crazy digression – a great example of Michael Kahn’s masterful editing – is one of the film’s highlights but polarizes fans, leading to the term “nuke the fridge“.
Spielberg asks fans not to criticize George Lucas for this sequence:
“What people really jumped at was Indy climbing into a
refrigerator and getting blown into the sky by an atom-bomb blast. Blame
me. Don’t blame George. That was my silly idea. People stopped saying
"jump the shark”. They now say, “nuked the fridge”. I’m proud of that.
I’m glad I was able to bring that into popular culture.“
And he adds:
Part of the fun are the many film references that can be found in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, e.g. American Graffiti (1973), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Wild One (1953), Vertigo (1958), and Star Wars – A New Hope (1977), with Indy having “a bad feeling about this“. Not to forget the reappearance of the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
To keep aesthetic continuity with the previous films, Director of Photography Janusz Kamiński studies Douglas Slocombe’s style from the previous films. Spielberg on their approach to the film’s visual style:
"I still wanted the film to have a lighting style not dissimilar to the work Doug Slocombe had achieved, which meant that both Janusz and I had to swallow our pride. Janusz had to approximate another cinematographer’s look, and I had to approximate this younger director’s look that I thought I had moved away from after almost two decades."
Initially, Spielberg wants to rely on traditional stunt work as well as practical sets and effects. However, during filming ILM does more CGI work than anticipated, and a total of about 450 CGI shots make it into the film. Spielberg prefers not to shoot the film in digital format and does not want it to be released that way.
John Williams describes composing for the fourth Indiana Jones installment as "like sitting down and finishing a letter that you started 25 years ago”. He reuses Indiana’s theme as well as Marion’s from the first film, adding new motifs for Mutt, Spalko and the skull.
The film premieres in Cannes on May 18, 2008 (the first Spielberg film since 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to launch the Cannes Film Festival), and is released worldwide on May 22, 2008 to generally positive reviews from critics, although audience reception is more mixed. It is a huge financial success, grossing over $786 million worldwide, against a budget of $185 million. Spielberg describes the film as “the sweet dessert I give those who had to chow down on the bitter herbs I used in Munich.”
Unlike any other previous Indiana Jones film, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull does not receive any Academy Award nominations. It is the last film in the series to be distributed by Paramount Pictures, as Walt Disney Studios becomes the distributor of future films, after its acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012.