I Hate Indiana Jones: Day 33

Day 33: Indiana Jones and the Redundant Revelation

Today's entry is a bit of a stunner. I say this because while many of these entries have focused on the film's ineptitude in a variety of disciplines, today's entry is the first one that suggests the filmmakers had a fundamental lack of familiarity with the nature of storytelling, and how to structure an interesting tale.

I'm speaking of the film's decision to not just telegraph but outright reveal one of its bigger surprises at two separate points in the movie before it's really relevant. That surprise? That the crystal skull in question, the Central MacGuffin around which the film is built is not merely some piece of South American art, but rather the actual skull of an actual alien.

The first clue comes early in the film, when Russians are breaking into Area 51 in order to steal a super-magnetic body bag. The film isn't especially coy about hiding what's in the bag, either. Enough references are made to its provenance that anyone with the most basic knowledge of American history and pseudoscience will be led to the (correct) assumption that the Russians are looking for the corpse of the Roswell crash's alien pilot.

The second clue arrives soon after the discovery of the titular crystal skull in a South American graveyard. Harrison and Shia find the skull to be huge, elongated, and clearly of extraterrestrial origin. In addition to these facts, the skull is suspiciously similar to the alien corpse in that it demonstrates the power of super-magnetism. At this point any pretense that the skull is anything but the actual, factual skull of a once-living alien creature has been thrown out the window,

So, with all doubt removed, the filmmakers elect to put one final nail in the coffin of the audience's possible ignorance before moving on. Indiana Jones is captured by the Russians and brought to their camp in the rain forest, and the audience is treated to an alien autopsy as the bag is finally opened and the alien creature within is revealed. This should be enough for even the most attention-deprived viewer to make the connection, but then the filmmakers go one step further and have the Russians slice the corpse's head open, revealing that underneath the flesh is a crystal skull identical to the one Indiana Jones just found in the tomb of the missing conquistador.

We would assume that, since the cat is now entirely out of the bag at the film's halfway point, that things will move forward in a logical pattern, with the characters openly acknowledging that the skull was, at one time, an alien. Harrison has an especially small number of excuses for avoiding this admission, since, just moments after the autopsy reveal, there's a scene where Indiana Jones stares into the crystal skull and communes with the ghost of the alien that it once was.

Sadly, that sort of straightforwardness is not the case - just half an hour later, after the "jungle chase that refuses to die", Indiana Jones and his entourage make it into the caves that lead to the valley of the crystal skull. Painted on the cave walls are pictures of the area's natives of the worshiping monsters that bear a striking resemblance to the corpse in the bag and the crystal skull itself.

It's just slightly plausible that Indiana Jones might be surprised by this revelation, seeing as he never actually saw the alien autopsy (he was tied to a chair in the other room while it was going on). Of course since he psychically communed with the ghost of an alien, it seems like he might have had some clue that the skull was more than a trinket. No, it's not the characters surprise at seeing the art here that I'm really concerned about, it's the filmmakers' seeming assumption that the audience was going to find the paintings strange. The camera lingers on the painting and low-key, revelatory music plays as if we're finding out some kind of terrifying secret. Once again, the audience is already completely clear on the fact that we're dealing with aliens, so the fact that the natives of the area were so obsessed with elongated skulls because they were worshipping the aliens as gods is something we'd already sort of assumed. What's fascinating about the cave painting sequence is that while it has a negligible effect on the audience, other than wasting a bit of our time, for the characters it serves to remove all suprise and drama from the next reveal, which comes right at the end of the film.

Indiana Jones and his tag-alongs have made it into the spaceship of the crystal skull. Inside the bridge, they discover that inside are number of crystal skeletons, complete with skulls identical to the one Indy brought along with him. All except for one, who's suspiciously missing its head.

This should have been the film's big reveal. After a hundred minutes in, the audience should have spent so long being fed little clues that they'd be on the edge of their seats, making the reveal that aliens were behind everything a huge kicker right at the end. Instead, not only has the audience had the twist spoiled for them an hour earlier, but all the main characters even learned the big secret a full ten scenes earlier. The only thing this scene accomplishes is to confirm for people what they already knew. That's a pretty big disappointment for what should have been the film's big reveal. Instead of a series of little clues leading up to a big reveal at the climax, this film offers a series of large reveals that chip away at a tiny anti-climax.

Compare this, for example, to the treatment of the Ark in Raiders. For the entire film we're given hints both broad and specific that opening the Ark is an incredibly bad idea. This is layered in from the very beginning of the film with Indy recapping Bible stories about the Ark, through Denholm Elliot's dire warnings of doom, the African diggers' unwillingness to touch the Ark, right up to Dietrich's nervousness about performing the ceremony, which he disguises behind a msk of anti-semitism. When he Ark is finally opened, it's only after an entire film's length of anticipation for that moment.

Now imagine if Raiders would've followed the Crystal Skull's story structure. When Indiana Jones first found the Ark deep within the well of souls he would've opened it immediately and found it to be full of sand. A moment later, the ghosts would have popped out and killed a worker, then there would have been a tense action scene as Indy tried to close it back up before the ghosts killed anyone else. Later on, one of the Nazis in the submarine would have popped the Ark open to check, and he too would have been killed by the ghosts before the Ark closed itself. All that would be left was the big finale - but now that the audience knows full well what's going to happen when they pry the lid off the ark, there would have been considerably less punch when the ghosts trapped inside electrocuted most of the Nazis and melted their leaders.

When a plot is built entirely around a single reveal, it's important both to properly setup that gimmick so as to build suspense and then pick the exact right moment to reveal it. For everything Valley of the Crystal Skull does wrong, the reveal of the alien spaceship is actually handled fairly well. Indiana Jones & Co. finally make it inside the temple and see, sitting around the bridge, 13 crystal skeletons, the remains of long dead interdimensional travelers. It's all shot lovingly from low angles with perfectly atmospheric music. It might very well have been an effective reveal of the true nature of the skulls had the film not gone to so much trouble to give away every single secret for the rest of the film.

It's a testament to the filmmakers' apparent total unfamiliarity with dramatic convention that they honestly seemed to think the audience was going to be impressed when they're suddenly told information that was carefully spoon fed them for the previous two hours. It's yet another example of their total underestimation of their audience's savvy.

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