Not as Easy as It Used to Be

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)


It begins, as all Indiana Jones movies do, with the vintage Paramount logo slowly fading into a mountainous object. This time, the object happens to be a small mound of dirt. Then, from beneath the dirt, emerges a computer-generated prairie dog, sniffing and shaking off dust. An instant later, the fake furry creature scurries away just before a speeding car roars through the frame, blaring Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” and obliterating the prairie dog’s mound in the process. Already, in the first minute of this old-school action adventure, nostalgia and newness have clashed. We’ve been warned: much about this journey will be familiar, much will also be foreign.


At what age are you mature enough to watch an Indiana Jones film? I couldn’t have been much older than seven or eight when I first laid eyes on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Of course, this was in the early 2000s for me; Indy’s original saga as an iconic punch-throwing archaeologist was already wrapped up by this time with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), respectfully shelved like one of its hero’s treasured museum finds. But the original’s effect lingered on my stepdad to the point that he, still a relatively new face in my life, saw fit to suggest the movie over dinner one night.

I distinctly recall the conversation. He said he’d picked out a new movie for us to watch, one he called Indiana Jones. I thought my stepdad was talking about The Indian in the Cupboard (1995), the family movie about a boy whose toys come to life. Why? Because I was a child, and in case you didn’t notice, “Indian” and “Indiana” sound similar. No, he assured me, this was something different. And yes it was.

Somehow, I don’t really recall the experience of that first viewing (and somehow my mom didn’t step in to halt it. PG got you a lot in those days: bodies impaled by booby-trap spikes, swordsmen shot dead in the Cairo streets, soldiers shredded by plane propellers, and don’t forget the melting, exploding, and shriveling heads). But the effect lingered on me, just as it did my stepdad. This was a peak season for my imagination and idolization, pre-adolescence. I was no longer just Cody playing in the yard; I was Donovan McNabb from the Philadelphia Eagles, or Inspector Gadget, whose journey in the 1999 Matthew Broderick film spawned brief and misunderstood aspirations of becoming a security guard. More than anyone else, though, especially when playtime got serious, I was Indiana Jones.

He was the perfect on-screen model for a little kid: rugged, adventurous, and (mostly) righteous. This was a superhero before the Marvel era in which every good guy or gal comes packaged in a recognizably shiny or cartoony or CG-juiced veneer. Don’t get me wrong, Captain America and Black Panther and everyone in between have given me plenty of adrenalized chills as a grown man, but there was something organic about the earthy, dirty, imperfect swagger of Indy as portrayed by Harrison Ford.


Mention Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and you tend to get far more sighs and eye rolls than cheery endorsements. Spielberg’s last entry in the original series, The Last Crusade, literally ended with Indy riding off into the sunset. So resurrecting the franchise 19 years later was like Star Wars closing its own original trilogy with the cuddly campfire kumbaya of Return of the Jedi (1983), only to return to the big screen 16 years later. Except Indiana Jones wasn’t recasting anyone for new or younger roles. It was asking Harrison Ford to return, front and center, and carry the whip after almost two decades off.

Ford was in his acting prime throughout the original saga; however, he aged faster than his on-screen alter ego of Dr. Jones. After playing a 37-year-old Indy (Raiders) at 39, he played a 36-year-old Indy (The Temple of Doom) at 42, then a 39-year-old Indy (The Last Crusade) at 47. With Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Spielberg and Co. decided to align the timeline with reality, setting it 19 years after The Last Crusade. Ford was now 66, playing a 58-year-old Indy.

That’s part of the reason Crystal Skull wasn’t as beloved an addition to the franchise. It’s a lot easier to buy Indy’s freewheeling masculinity, after all, when he’s a man in top physical form. But this obvious and unavoidable detour into old-age Ford/Indy underscores the value of Crystal Skull as much more than a nostalgia-driven rerun. It’s certainly an imperfect movie (more on that later), but it’s also a beautifully and wonderfully imperfect tale of two generations both trading blows and linking arms.

Right after our prairie-dog entrance, the conflict is established, with Russian troops breaking into Area 51 in search of mummified alien remains. This is 1957, right in the thick of an international race to transcend earthly achievement. Everyone wants nuclear weapons or space travel or some piece of the mysterious beyond.

In this case, the bad guys are led by a woman: Dr. Irina Spalko, a military scientist endowed by Cate Blanchett with a thick accent, rigid bob, and chilling devotion to her work. She’s summoned—with force—a certain archaeologist’s help to locate the alien remains. And this is where we get our first look at Indy since that ride into the sunset. Spalko’s KGB thugs open the trunk of their car, throwing a loose fedora to the dusty Nevada ground. Then Spielberg pivots to an overhead shot as a dozen armed soldiers surround the car at once. The kidnapped passenger is shoved to the dirt before rising slowly, retrieving the hat and placing it comfortably atop his head, all while John Williams’s famous trumpets dare to announce our man’s arrival, the legacy established.

It leads right into a pan up onto a weathered and clearly much older Indiana Jones. This is Harrison Ford, no doubt, but it’s not the Indy of old, but rather Old Indy, even if his drab outdoor outfit remains the same. “This ain’t gonna be easy,” his kidnapped companion (Ray Winstone) mutters, leading to some of Indy’s first and fitting words: “Not as easy as it used to be.” Something that, after begrudgingly leading Spalko through a government warehouse to the remains, is readily apparent through both Ford’s movements and the self-referential screenplay. Indy’s first lash of the whip, to lasso a Soviet’s gun, looks almost slow and stilted. When he falls into a driving truck after trying to swing his way from the rafters of the building, he pauses as if to acknowledge his elderly state: “Damn, I thought that was closer.”

Crystal Skull’s first moments are more like reality checks than escapist entertainment. After eluding Soviet captivity, Jones wanders into a colorful but unusually quiet desert town full of neon shades and clean-cut homes, complete with bright garments hanging on clotheslines, an unblemished Good Humor ice cream truck, and peppy songs spouting from boxy TVs. It quickly proves to be a sham—a glossy American bubble constructed only as a testing ground for an atomic bomb. This sequence is best remembered for its infamous depiction of Indy surviving the ensuing blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator (an improbability that would’ve been less cartoony with more practical effects), but it’s an effectively jarring pronouncement that times have changed. Evil still lurks beneath the surface; with a new generation, it’s simply manifested itself differently—like here, in a mushroom cloud.

Even as Indy returns to his scholarly state, making the rounds at home and in college hallways as a respected professor, it’s clear he might be out of place. “Do you have any idea how many medals this son of a bitch won?” a U.S. military man says in defense of Indy when federal agents question both his role in the Soviet break-in and reputation as a principled globetrotter. “A great many, I’m sure,” one of them says. “But does he deserve them?”

Revisionist history isn’t the only thing up against Indy, either. Reflecting with colleague Charlie (Jim Broadbent) after he’s issued an indefinite leave of absence from the college, he motions to framed desk pictures of his late father (Sean Connery) and friend (Denholm Elliott), both integral pieces of the original Indiana Jones trilogy, while lamenting their absence: “Brutal couple of years, huh, Charlie? First Dad, then Marcus.” Indy’s companion responds in turn: “We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away.” And Indy sits, silently and somberly, with his head in his hand, maintaining a longing gaze on the picture of his dad.

The Last Crusade was a hit for the way it balanced Ford’s rough-and-tumble Indy with Connery’s wisely understated Henry Jones Sr., portraying the push and pull of a parent-child relationship. But this moment in Crystal Skull, however brief, with Indy absorbing the weight of years gone by, is perhaps the closest the entire series has come to grounding Indiana Jones—and uncovering his humanity.


photo courtesy of Cody Benjamin

I went all in on Indy as a kid. With a khaki bucket hat doubling as a fedora, I put a leather jacket over a fishing vest. My mom documented the transformation with Polaroids, one of which shows me straddling my stepdad’s parked motorcycle like I’m gunning after Nazis, another of which has me swinging a loose piece of fabric standing in for Indy’s whip. Later, I stepped up my whip game using a rubber snake (how ironic, looking back) to slap the driveway and get that blatant crack!

When I heard sometime in elementary school that another Indiana Jones movie was scheduled to come out in 2008, I was enthralled. It was as if Hollywood had rewarded me for following my stepdad’s lead and sipping from Steven Spielberg’s Holy Grail. I could not wait. 2008?! I remember telling my mom. That’s so far away!

The year is now 2021, and 2022 is just around the corner. I am 27 years old, with a wife and two children of my own. I now value Human Indy as much as the Hero Indy I first idolized. But back then, when dreams overshadowed doubts, I was—like most Indy moviegoers—more eager to attach myself to the unbridled adventurer.


Fortunately, elder Indy’s somber gaze at old photographs leads directly into the next-gen pulse of Crystal Skull. Spielberg cuts from Ford’s moving reminiscence to a foggy train platform, which doubles as the suddenly murky outlook for our once-unstoppable adventurer. Indy boards a train—to where, we don’t know, and perhaps neither does he. And then, on the platform, out of the fog, comes something new. It’s Shia LaBeouf as “Mutt Williams,” a 20-something greaser with the whole get-up: slicked hair, motorcycle cap, black leather jacket, and a boyish face with a rebel inside. “Hey, old man!” he shouts at Indy, who’s already on the train. Now we’re having some fun.

LaBeouf’s casting as Mutt (later revealed to be Henry Jones III, Indy’s unknowing son) was hotly debated at the time of release. Then just 20, he was a child actor-turned-blockbuster item with a colorful off-screen reputation, fresh off the raucous but lucrative Transformers (2007). But for me, it was awesome and generationally profound, coming at a time when I was truly falling in love with movies for the first time—a time when Transformers, geared directly to 13-year-old kids like me, made Shia the Movie Star a favorite of mine.

And here, in Crystal Skull, LaBeouf is exactly what he needs to be: a boisterous injection of new life. No one is trading him in for Ford, but it’s his arrival as a frenetic go-getter that accentuates Indy’s shift into a slower pace. He’s feisty and defensive, but dare I say in an adorably naive kind of way, peppering his new companion with quips like, “Get on, gramps!” (to kick off a motorcycle chase) and, “You know, for an old man, you ain’t bad in a fight. What are you, like 80?”

As the story unfolds, the simultaneous collision and intersection of different generations only becomes more apparent. Mutt, unaware at this point that he’s talking to his dad, talks freely to Indy about dropping out of school and preferring to pick his own books to read. Their shared blood becomes increasingly plausible, even as they model different seasons of life. After their capture and relocation to a Soviet camp tucked in the woods, their growing bond takes a temporary back seat to an equally entertaining family dynamic. Mutt discovers his missing mother is being held at the same camp, and Indy discovers that this mother is also his former flame.

Giddy like a child upon first laying eyes on Marion Ravenwood (a still-sharp Karen Allen, last seen in character for Raiders, in 1981), Indy quickly trades his smile for confusion. But Marion won’t have any of it in one of the best back-and-forths of the entire film:

Oh for God’s sake, Indy, it’s not that hard!
– I know, I mean, I just, I never thought that you…
– I would have a life after you left?
– That’s not what I meant
– A damn good life!
– Well that’s fine, it’s just…
– A DAMN good, REALLY good life!
– Well so have I!
– Yeah? You still leaving a trail of human wreckage, or have you retired?
– Why, you looking for a date?!

Suddenly, Indy is battling the passage of time again, now in the form of perfectly executed bickering. This is a family story now, one of generations. The movie doubles down on the approach as the three unusually united protagonists try escaping the camp; at one point, Indy and Marion become lodged in quicksand, bickering while waiting for Mutt to fetch help. Indy is too busy scanning the surrounding jungle for next steps, passively acknowledging Marion’s hints about her son’s personality, when she full-on drops the bomb: Mutt is his son. Indy’s delayed response: “Why the hell didn’t you make him finish school?!” But the relational effects run deeper than the one-liner, with Indy and Mutt and Marion proceeding to argue over their fractured family.

The entire time, the trio is weaving its way through captivity by the Soviets, who are now after mythical crystal skulls that Spalko attributes to an extraterrestrial life form. But the focus isn’t on the action around them as much as the drama between them. While there is plenty of screen time devoted to Spalko’s eerie Science Factory ambitions, with more glimpses of alien carcasses and talk of gaining telepathic power through the skulls, the stakes feel just as high when Indy insists his lifestyle couldn’t have supported marriage with Marion, or when Mutt can’t fathom having a dad he never knew.

Is that not representative of real family life? So many things happen around us, but, in the end, it’s often the people who impact us most. In Crystal Skull, the relational resolutions come pretty quickly in the grand scheme of things (there’s still an Indiana Jones adventure to get to, remember). Marion basically gushes over her long-lost lover after he cheesily assures her that other women over the years “all had the same problem…they weren’t you, honey.” Mutt follows Dad’s lead in a swashbuckling sword fight through the jungle. And the entire family unit works together to avoid killer ants—straight out of B-movie horror—while Indy convincingly goes blow for blow with Russian muscle. But it’s exciting and energetic largely because there’s connective tissue between these characters. They’re a mom, dad, and son, and however abrupt or convenient their bond may be, we know they belong to each other.


My life hasn’t (yet) included fencing a Russian while perched atop a military Jeep (and certainly not swinging on vines alongside dozens of monkeys, as Tarzan—er, Mutt—does here). But all of my life’s most poignant or exhilarating or heart-pounding plot points have carried weight because of the characters by my side. My first Eagles games in Philly, another gift from my stepdad, were intoxicating not because of stadium beer or even the Eagles themselves but because of the stepdad and 65,000 roaring people beside me—all of us, together, figuratively living and dying for the same cause. Airports left an indelible mark on me in college, ripping apart and then stitching back together my young heart not with their promises of cross-country travel but with their introductions and farewells to my long-distance bride-to-be. Subsequent trips to wintry Minnesota bed and breakfasts, or quiet Grand Canyon cabins, or festive New Orleans markets, or touristy Key West coasts, were rich in experience but would’ve been more like checkpoints than warm memories without the hand of my wife.

People make the things. And that’s why Crystal Skull can work as a rollercoaster ride: the people are on the ride together. The fights and the bugs and the waterfall plunges are all staples of the genre and series, but the reason we smile and grimace and cheer (and maybe even forgive the hokey CG inclusions) is because it’s just nice to have a Jones family in our life.


In the end, Dr. Spalko gets her wish, accessing a gold-lined throne room with crystal skeletons seated in a circle, like judges looking down upon their earthly visitors. Awakening from their silent, statuesque slumber, they eventually coalesce into a single alien being. The walls around them crumble and spin, and Spalko is in awe, craving and absorbing literal streams of their infinite knowledge to the point that her eyes burst into flame and her own body disintegrates into the ceiling, which has since collapsed into some kind of portal.

Sound bonkers? Indy and his little family agree, which is why they bail on the creepy throne room before things get too galactic. Admittedly, the first time I saw this in theaters, I too was a little taken aback by the fact that they’d really gone through with this: aliens in an Indiana Jones movie (okay, “interdimensional beings,” if you’re going by their lingo). By the time I could even comprehend that Indy had gone sci-fi, one of the most surreal images of the film was in motion: Indy, looking on from a mountaintop, observes a pyramid structure collapsing in on itself and giving way to the spinning spacecraft that had been disguised as a throne room. With a flash of light, the UFO vanishes into “the space between spaces,” as one character puts it, “like a broom to their footprints.”

For many, this is where Crystal Skull goes off the rails. What begins as a decent-enough trip down memory lane with an aging Indiana Jones ends with a literal alien-and-spaceship bang. Even I, defender of this movie, can admit that the otherworldliness of this final act feels a bit too…out of place? A deeper, longer, scarier encounter with this mythical E.T. may have helped. But the finale still registers generational truths about humanity and family. One of Spalko’s chief crimes, and, consequently, her reason for implosion: valuing and craving things—in this case, god-level wisdom—over people. Mac, Indy’s double-crossing friend, gets a milder departure, letting go of Indy’s whip to fly into a black hole-esque portal, but he still needlessly sacrifices his life (and any shot at future friendship with the Joneses) after raiding the throne room and satisfying his unabashed thirst for material treasure.

More than anything, the ending confirms a consistent truth of the Indy saga: that we, much like the generations before, among, and after us, can’t help longing for the transcendent. Whether it’s the Ark of the Covenant or sacred stones or the Holy Grail or crystal skulls, we are always seeking something bigger than ourselves. And there’s a balance we must strike in doing so. Sometimes those desires crater inward, morphing into something spectacularly selfish. Sometimes they leave our loved ones in the dust.

There are two images of Indy perched high above a supersized event in Crystal Skull: one in which he stands before the cloud of an atomic bomb, and one in which he stands before a spaceship about to leave Earth behind. There’s a delineation here, between Man and Something Greater, but in both instances, it’s Man who has caused the destruction—so bent on being better or right or powerful or smarter that he ends up undoing himself. The other Indiana Jones movies have painted similar pictures—the Ark’s power of God destroying unworthy eyes, false cups of Christ destroying unworthy lips—while redirecting priority to real relationships. At the end of Raiders, Indy is dragged back to real life by Marion, for something as simple but important as a cup of coffee together, after having the Ark stored away. At the end of The Last Crusade, Indy is dragged back to real life by his father, leaving the Holy Grail to fall forever into the crevices of God’s own Earth.

Crystal Skull doesn’t just repeat these themes. It builds on them, with the benefit of its main characters (and real-life actors) having lived so much more life. After the spaceship takes off and our pals share a few words, Indy looks at Mutt, then to the heavens, with a smile: “Somewhere, your grandpa is laughing.” In the next scene, Grandpa’s old Bible from The Last Crusade is quickly glimpsed while being prepped for a special ceremony. Then we’re in church, where Indy and Marion are about to be married—finally and officially joined together before God. An angelic glow backlights the congregants. “Well done, Henry!” Indy’s friend Oxley (John Hurt) shouts, as if modeling a higher power at Heaven’s gates, acknowledging a life surrendered to the right things.

Spielberg isn’t using this epilogue to preach by any means, but notice that his answer to Man stumbling in yet another pursuit of Something Greater is not a total abandonment of the latter. Beyond the holy imagery (intentional or not), the wedding is as big a symbol as any for the way our characters’ growth has been influenced by their out-of-this-world encounters. We are reminded in Crystal Skull that our hunt for an Almighty, a Creator, a Being behind the world’s mystery, is inherent and generational. We’re also reminded of the importance of those around us, here and now, messy as they may be. And those two things don’t cancel each other out; they work in tandem. Indy is sarcastic about the “bedtime stories” that drive every one of his adventures, this one included, and yet again he comes face to face with the overwhelming truth and power behind them. And where does that lead him? Back to his loved ones, to humility, and perhaps even imbued with some sense of the Higher Power’s righteousness.

After the vows are complete, the church doors blow open as if nudged by a divine wind, kicking Indy’s fedora off a coat rack and directly to the feet of a bystanding Mutt. Spielberg’s lens lingers here, as Mutt reaches down for Dad’s mantle, and Williams’s score sneaks in as well. A new Batman is about to don the cape. A new James Bond is about to be 007. Only at the last moment, with Mutt about to place the fedora and legacy upon his own head, does Indy gently snatch it back for himself, proceeding to stare his son down with a smile as he exits the aisle, church, and movie with Marion by his side. Perfection.

No one will be Indiana Jones but the Indiana Jones. No one will replace the pure adventure of his arrival in Raiders. No one will top his gross-out encounters in The Temple of Doom. No one will follow his father’s will as he did in The Last Crusade. But The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the franchise’s definitive encapsulation of its own generational impact. It is a bridge between generations of moviegoers—those who saw Raiders in theaters, those who stumbled upon it years later by way of stepdads, and those who are still discovering it now.


In many ways, my parents are much different from me, and in many ways, my kids will also be much different from me. But we can all watch this movie, and, if we look closely enough, be reminded of our simultaneous human need for each other. We all want to find that underground tunnel, outsmart the booby traps, and obtain the secrets of the world, but sometimes we also just need to be with our family.

Crystal Skull also drives home the inevitability of people and seasons changing along the way. While generational truths about family and faith remain, the generations still pass. Yes, the original Indy saga will forever be the pinnacle of the story, but this one, again, confronts the passing of the torch we must all endure, at least on this side of eternity. Just listen to a colorful Harrison Ford responding to skepticism about his return back in 2008:

Yeah, I’ve heard it. ‘Aaaaw, he’s older.’ Well shit, yes. And by the way? So are you. So…are…you! Take a look in the fucking mirror!…It’s interesting that while we’ve been off doing other things, a generation and a half of moviegoers have been introduced to [these films] through the agency of their family. Fathers and mothers passing on this experience to their sons and daughters.

Precisely. I wouldn’t have known how to take that in 2008, when I was too busy licking my chops at the chance to simply see Indy punch some more bad guys. All I cared about was seeing the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular! at Disney World, and going home with the replica hat and whip, and being a carefree little kid in love with a different kind of superhero. Now? I do look in the mirror, and for the first time in my life I am realizing that too much sugar and junk food will, in fact, overpower my metabolism. I watch the scene of Indy staring at pictures of his late father, and I am moved as much by that as his brawls in the jungle, having seen myself go from kid to college student to married adult to father of two in the blink of an eye.

My wife, Brooke, has yet to stay awake for an entire Indiana Jones movie, but she has the decency to try. My son, Emmanuel, doesn’t comprehend movies just yet (at three, he calls them “moobies,” and prefers episodes of Cocomelon, Thomas & Friends or the occasional Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood). My daughter, Effie, has no use for a toy whip when she’s content carrying baby dolls. But I can promise you that The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will be among the films waiting in our library, if and whenever the next generation of our household is ready.

Harrison Ford, now 79 (!), is currently filming the fifth and supposedly final installment of this franchise. When he returns to theaters in 2023, donning the hat and legacy after another 15-year hiatus, he’ll take this whole generational conversation to a new level. The directing duties will have been passed from Spielberg to James Mangold (Logan, Ford v Ferrari). Our leading man may very well be digitally de-aged (Indy meets The Irishman), raising all-new questions about the surrealism of getting older. But you can bet on this, no matter what: he’ll have me (and hopefully my family) in the seats on opening night.