I'll start by saying that it's a mix of American Graffiti, E.T., and Jumanji. How, you ask? I don't know. I mean, I don't know how they could've possibly conceived a film that would consist of some of those movies' elements--or rather why they would even try.
The MacGuffin of the film is in the title, except there's one adjective missing before "skull": alien. Harrison Ford made an interesting observation during his press tour. He said that every Indiana film is a search for a religious idol, which I never noticed as a kid. In the first, he searched for the Ark of the Covenant; in the second, he scoured the jungle for a sacred stone; and in the third, he hunted for the Holy Grail. But this time around, the divine artifact was an alien skull made out of extraterrestrial crystal that was mystical enough to ward off death, as well as the murderous natives who worshipped it. It was but one skull of 13 that belonged to a skeleton perched on a throne beside 12 others, hidden in a lost city of gold, El Dorado.
While I would've bought the idea that there was a sacred artifact within this remarkably designed city, I couldn't fathom the thought that it was aliens who had built it. Apparently, the tale claimed that humans--Mayan humans--were incapable of having constructed their cities and performing certain feats without the technology of today. I guess I was a little offended that they were trying to strip the Mayans of their history with this half-assed story. That aside--I love the original tale of El Dorado and would've loved it even more if Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had simply sought its location instead. Why did they have to over complicate things? Alright, so the aliens explain the E.T. reference, especially since Spielberg directed it.
Where George Lucas' American Graffiti comes into play is present within the characterization of Mutt (Shia Labeouf) and the time period of which the movie takes place. Granted that film was set in the 60s and this film is in the 50s, but the emphasis on preps versus greasers and the infatuation with American-made vehicles is present in both. In fact, the first five minutes consist of an impromptu game of chicken with several close-ups of vehicles, revved engines, and the wide-open road. Mutt was the quintessential incarnation of a greaser, complete with an ever-ready comb to slick back his pompadour, a leather jacket, Harley Davidson, and rebel attitude.
As for Jumanji, which neither directed,...well, in the jungle, there's this really surreal scene when Mutt gets clocked by a branch and hangs high up in the trees with hundreds of monkeys. In order to catch up with the skull that's being driven away in a vehicle by the nefarious Russian, Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), he follows the lead of the monkeys by swinging on vines all the way to where she is. I get why they did this--Indiana Jones swung on a rope once--but it just seemed so...weird. However, the continuous winks throughout the film at the Indiana we used to know and the possibility of Mutt following in his footsteps were fun to notice. They even teased us at the end when Indie's fedora flew past Mutt and he slowly motioned to place it on his head before Indie playfully snatched it back as he walked by. Of course, the assumption that he'll be his successor is only made after we discover that he is Indie's son, which Marion (Karen Allen) never told him because he left her at the altar.
Whether or not Mutt is next in line to crack the whip and swing through the jungle, it seems Indiana--or should I say Dr. Henry Jones--is slowly edging out of his treasure-hunting gear anyway. Throughout the majority of the film he was referred to as either Dr. Jones or Henry. Rarely did we hear anyone call him Indie or did we see him in his signature Indie wardrobe. One jarring incident occurs in the beginning when he's trying to elude KBG officers lead by Spalko. He wanders into a nuclear bomb test site that's dressed up as a "Leave it to Beaver" town--complete with mannequins--and immediately looks out of place in his safari gear. He escapes by locking himself in a lead refrigerator, just in time to witness the mushroom cloud effect that the bomb leaves in its wake. When I use to watch Indie films, I felt like I was being transported into another culture and time, but the simple fact that Indie and a nuclear bomb were juxtaposed brought me back to reality. This was Indie on American soil, fending off communists in a time of pending war. This was a political statement about present day issues. So what was the alien skull a symbol for?
Spalko was a ruthless and determined leader who followed Indie all the way into the royal chambers of the aliens. When the skull was reattached to the skeleton, she stared into its eyes and demanded to know "everything." The real treasure that was being sought after wasn't the skull, but knowledge--knowledge so vast and infinite that it came from an outsider's perspective...from a different planet. And when she received that knowledge, it destroyed her. Ironically, the aliens were there to seek knowledge as well. They collected artifacts from all over the world for centuries, and filled a room--quite similar to the one in National Treasure--with trinkets that would've been a museum curator's dream. I could try to juxtapose that story with our political situation, comparing American imperialists to the aliens, and the communists to our terrorist enemies, but then I'd forget--as I think the creators have--the true spirit of Indiana Jones. Is it just me, or did it used to just be about adventure?
Let's get back into the spirit of it then. The most memorable parts are the ones that paid homage to the other films by employing traditional Indie elements. It has one of the best car chase scenes I've seen in a long time--and I watch a lot of action movies. Fencing while perched upon two moving vehicles cannot be topped. Also, it wouldn't be an Indie flick if there weren't a few creepy crawlers. While Indie is still afraid of snakes--made perfectly clear by his refusal to grab onto one in order to escape quicksand (I wouldn't have either)--we learn that Mutt is terrified of scorpions and we get a load of some carnivorous ants reminiscent of the beetles in The Mummy. Then there were the hat-tips to Sean Connery, who played his father in the third film. Not only did Indie annoyingly refer to Mutt as Junior, like his dad did, but he quoted a Connery character from The Untouchables, telling Mutt, "I think you brought a knife to a gun fight." Of course, there's also the double cross. Someone always betrays Indie, and in this film it's one of his most trusted friends. But while there were quote-homages, like when he tells Mutt, "Don't touch anything!" as he once told his sidekick Short Round, there were also new ones that could possibly be just as legendary. For example, when Mutt complains that his mother gets to drive both cars during the chase, Indie yells, "Don't be a child! Find something to fight with." Only Indie would say that to his kid.
The real test of how good the fourth film is when you decide which Indie film you prefer. I, personally, am partial to the second known as The Temple of Doom, but only because I could live vicariously through Short Round. Most people are partial to the third, The Last Crusade, because it gives a lot of Indie back story through flashbacks where we learn who gave him his first fedora, why he's afraid of snakes, where he acquired his whip, and how he thought up the name Indiana. And, of course, Marion fans loved the chemistry between the two in Raiders of the Lost Ark and peg that as their favorite. So where does this one fit in? With solid performances from both Ford, Labeouf, and Blanchett, I'd say it'll stand the test of time and be marked down as a favorite of this new generation. After all, what kid doesn't love aliens?