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REVIEWS

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

TONIA E. MOORE, C&EN WASHINGTON, D.C.

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Just because you already know exactly what you’re having for dinner doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy the meal. That maxim pretty much sums up the viewing experience of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” the fourth installment of the series that made being an archaeology professor seem really, really cool. Going in, you know what’s on the menu: a mysterious artifact to be unearthed, lots of riddles and wisecracks along the way, an evil foil, a love interest who will need to be saved, plenty of close shaves, some whip action, and at least one snake gag thrown in for good measure.

But it’s still something to savor if it’s done well. And this film largely is.

When we rejoin Harrison Ford’s Dr. Jones, it’s 1957—21 years since he walked off into the sunset with Marion Ravenwood (Allen) at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” He and his buddy Mac (Winstone) have been kidnapped by KGB agents who then break into an Area 51-like military depot in Nevada. Col.-Dr. Irina Spalko (Blanchett) is a psychic and Cold Warrior who wants Indy to find a particular crate in a hangar piled high with them. The one she’s after, we later learn, contains alien remains; its crystallike skull is the key to attaining dominating power over other minds. Indy locates it, then manages to escape. But afterward, the FBI suspects him of collaborating with the Soviets, and amid McCarthyist fears he’s forced to take a leave of absence from his teaching post while he’s under investigation.

At this point he meets young Mutt Williams (LaBeouf), who asks for his help making sense of a letter written by an old archaeologist friend of Indy’s who has disappeared. Mutt says he got the letter from his mother, Marion (whose name Indy doesn’t recognize because of the different surname), and now she’s vanished, too. With the KGB hot on Indy and Mutt’s trail, our hero knows that this is all connected. Before long he’s decoding the letter, and they’re off in search of another crystal skull, known as El Dorado, and the missing duo.

In the movie, the skull has considerable power—it’s highly magnetic and emanates a psychic energy that could drive a person insane. In real life, roughly a dozen crystal skulls grace the collections of museums and private owners around the globe. Fashioned from translucent or milky quartz crystal, most originally were touted as artifacts of Aztec, Mayan, or some other Mesoamerican culture. Some less conventional enthusiasts say the skulls come from Atlantis or extraterrestrials. The screenplay loosely ties into the lore about 13 skulls needing to be gathered in the same place.

Separating the science from the fiction for a moment, though, the consensus in archaeological circles is that the real-life crystal skulls are likely all fakes. Experts contend that no crystal skull has ever been unearthed during a dig, putting their authenticity in doubt. So does the fact that some are linked to Eugène Boban, a shady 19th-century antiquities dealer. According to Smithsonian anthropologist Jane MacLaren Walsh, who has studied 10 of the skulls, they simply don’t have the artistic or stylistic traits of any of the cultures they’ve been attributed to.

The most concrete evidence, though, comes from a study on crystal skulls that are housed at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History and the British Museum. The study was recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science (DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2008.05.007). The researchers used scanning electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction analysis to determine how the skulls were made. The study revealed, for example, that the skull makers used rotary-wheel technology and specific hard abrasives. And that placed the date stamp on the British piece as 19th century and the Smithsonian’s as mid-20th.

But even in the realm of fiction, the moviemakers seemed to want to draw a distinction between their crystal skulls and the “real” ones: Early on, Indy remarks that these crystal skulls are nothing like the one he’d seen on display before.

As a whole the movie is entertaining and engaging, if predictable on most counts and slow in spots. It serves up what you already know it promises. And Ford’s scruffy charm as an older—and at least slightly wiser—Indiana Jones will most likely still hit the spot with fans of the series.