Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
[PGP-13] Starring: Harrison Ford,  Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Shia LaBeouf, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Igor Jijikine,
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: David Koepp (screen play), George Lucas (story)
 
Background

Indiana Jones movies (IJMs) mimic the 1930s and '40s adventure movies and serials that positively overflowed with cliffhangers and excitement. Still, while they use the old adventure serial style, IJMs are unique. They inject their own style of humor, nostalgia, and whimsy that preserves the fun but winks at the silliness in the nonstop action.  The second Indiana Jones movie, the Temple of Doom fell short but the first and third, like the original three Star Wars movies, are as close to national treasures as movies can get.

The first and third IJMs, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Last Crusade are not just subtle parodies of adventure movies, they also poke fun at pompous attitudes about science. These movies take a relatively small under-funded branch of science (archeology), not noted for producing new technological marvels like cancer cures, cell phones, or moon landings and has it uncover two of the most profound discoveries in all of human history: the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. By comparison, cures for cancer, cell phones, and moon landings are small potatoes. And how are these profound discoveries made? By teams of orderly white-coated scientists, in spotless laboratories, using millions of dollars of sophisticated equipment? No! They're made by a fedora wearing maverick, in remote and dangerous places, using a bull-whip and revolver.

While Indy displays the common attributes of a real science nerd: extreme personal integrity, incredible attention to detail, obsessive curiosity, and a lack of interest in monetary gain, he also throws a mean right hook and always gets the girl.

The first and third IJMs do have some unfortunate flaws. For example, they popularized the notion that ordinary bullets make bright flashes of light on impact. While this might seem trivial, it helps romanticize firearms as all-powerful problem-solving devices that can blow up a car's gas tank with a single hit, start fires, and readily kill bad guys while posing no real danger to heroes. On the other hand, making firearms objects of irrational fear also gives them a power they don't deserve. Firearms are just too serious to depict in any manner other than realistic.

Having said the above, we still maintain that IJMs are worthy of some movie physics forgiveness. They simply can't be judged in the same way as typical action/adventure movies.

 

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Could Indiana Jones swing across chasms using his bullwhip?

In researching the current Indiana Jones movie we had hoped to definitively answer if Jones could actually wrap his whip around an object and swing across a chasm on it. To do so, the first answer needed is whether or not a whip wrapped around a branch could support a person's weight. We looked at various calculations, tried different experiments at wrapping rope around objects, searched the internet, and even considered buying a bullwhip for testing purposes. Duplicates of the actual bullwhips used in the movie, the 450 series made by David Morgan, are available, but at $735 to $1,010 we decided to pass.

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The New Installment

The current IJM, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, opens with a military convoy of jeeps and trucks led by a car. When a group of teenagers in a hot rod challenges, the car 's driver accepts and the race is on. Anyone who has actually driven one knows that even an underpowered '50s era car can generally top 80 mph (130 kph). However, a Korean war era jeep, let alone a military truck of the same vintage, will be hard pressed to reach 55 mph (90 kph). With this speed difference, in a minute of time the car would be over 2000 ft (670 m) ahead of the convoy. Yet, the convoy has no trouble keeping up. When the car eventually quits racing and reaches its turnoff at a top-secret military base, the convoy is right behind.

It turns out that the convoy contains a team of Russian infiltrators led by Col. Dr. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) who struts around in a customized Russian uniform with a sword strapped on her hip. The Russians have kidnapped Indy and now want him to find a box stored somewhere inside the base's giant warehouse. The box contains the remains of an alien that crashed at Roswell New Mexico and is, according to Indy, highly magnetic. To locate it he takes some gunpowder out of a hand grenade and tosses it in the air. The "metal" in the gunpowder is not just attracted in the direction of the alien's box, but levitated so that it can travel considerable distances.

While modern smokeless or black gunpowder does look a lot like iron filings, it contains neither iron nor any other type of metal filings. In fact, it's not particularly powdery. Gunpowder comes in the form of flakes or granules similar to coffee grounds. Toss it in the air and it falls pretty much straight down. It does not form a dust cloud like flour or baby powder.

As Indy approaches the alien's box he calls for a shotgun shell, breaks it open, and pours out the lead buckshot pellets. which are instantly attracted to the box and cling to its exterior. As the box is moved, even the warehouse lights bend toward it, although none of this was evident beforehand. Clearly, however, this is not the magnetism of our universe since it has about the same strength up close as far away, not to mention the ability to attract lead and gunpowder.

When Indy gives his captors the slip they respond--to no avail--by firing hundreds of rounds of ammunition at him as he scampers away within easy range. The second-in-command Russian catches up and is about to subdue Indy when they both fall on the front of a rocket sled that takes off down a track into the desert night. The effects of the rapid acceleration and wind blasting their faces is amusingly similar to the enduring images of Col. John Strapp, an Air Force doctor and engineer, who voluntarily agreed to be the human guinea pig in numerous rocket sled tests. During his most famous test in 1954, Stapp reached a speed of 632 mph in five seconds and was subjected to over 40 g of acceleration* when the sled was stopped in only 1.4 seconds. The effects of slowing down were often far worse than the effects of speeding up although both could be brutal on the test subject. Acceleration during an early sled test ripped the face off the test dummy. Over a period of time, Strapp himself suffered numerous acceleration related injuries during rocket sled tests including broken bones, detached retinas, and ruptured blood vessels in his eyes.

Both the Russian and Indy lose consciousness from the effects of being accelerated to high velocity. However, when brought to a halt in what looks like a rather short distance neither Indy nor the Russian keep flying forward even though there is nothing to restrain them. Gosh, could this mean there are alien remains on the sled that attract and hold the metal in humans while they're moving?

Indy regains consciousness first, enabling him to escape. The next morning makes his way to a town in the middle of the desert. Just when he thinks he's safe he finds himself surrounded by dummies--that is test dummies--in a fake town about to become part of a nuclear bomb experiment. It's a brilliant plot twist but what happens next is pure hokum.

Elements of Operations Doorstep and Cue in 1953 looked remarkably similar to the test depicted in the movie. Clearly, the moviemakers did their homework on the visuals. However that was about as far as they went with reality. To survive the blast, Indy ducks into a lead-lined refrigerator at the last instance before the bomb explodes. We know the refrigerator is lead-lined because it's conveniently labeled for us. Certainly there were no lead lined refrigerators in normal households. In fact, it's hard to imagine a reason why a custom-designed one would be used in a bomb test. What purpose would there be in protecting food from ionizing radiation? About all the radiation would do is kill microbes in the food--most likely a benefit.

Nuclear blasts do put out a lot of ionizing radiation that can be fatal, but if one is close enough to be killed by the initial burst of radiation, one is also likely to be vaporized, roasted alive, blown apart, or impaled by flying debris. The thin metal walls and innards of a lead-lined refrigerator would not afford much protection against any of these possible injuries.

The best bet for survival would be to huddle in a basement against the wall closest to the blast and hope there was enough structure overhead to protect against falling debris as the house above is demolished. Indeed 1950s Civil Defense propaganda films about the Doorstep and Cue tests glibly proclaimed that a person taking cover in this manner could have survived at a distance of less than a mile (1.6 km) from ground zero. This of course ignores the fact that nuclear bomb blasts in urban areas ignite everything combustible creating enormous fire storms that consume all available oxygen. Would-be survivors are subsequently suffocated in their bomb shelters.

The protective enclosures people built in the '50s and '60s were termed fallout, not bomb shelters because they offered no real protection for anyone near ground zero. If one were far enough away from the blast, the shelters could provide protection against radioactive fallout or lingering radiation assuming the occupants had enough supplies to stay inside until the danger subsided. Still, even with all the negatives, Indy could probably have survived in a basement because there would not have been enough combustible structures in a test town to create a fire storm and besides the bomb would only have been about 15 kilotons as compared to about 250 kilotons of TNT in the more modern bombs designed to level entire urban areas.

Indy's refrigerator is thrown in the air and propelled at high speed (faster than a carload of bad guys attempting to race away from the blast) hundreds of yards down range. Certainly the accelerations* experienced during the refrigerator's impact would have been severe if not fatal. However, the acceleration from the impulse required to throw the refrigerator such distances would have likely been even worse. When the refrigerator accelerated on either its takeoff or landing, Indy would have impacted against its metal walls with bone-breaking, blood-vessel-rupturing forces similar to those he would have encountered if he had been throw through the air and landed on the ground without being inside the refrigerator. Instead of ending up as a bloody mess with ruptured internal organs, Indy opens the refrigerator door, brushes himself off, and walks away.

Would Indy actually have ducked into the refrigerator in real life? Probably not. Refrigerators in the 1950s had very robust door latches that could not be opened from the inside. Children foolish enough to get inside abandoned refrigerators and close the door were gruesomely suffocated. Although few in number, fatalities of this type horrified the public. Admonitions about the dangers were ubiquitous.  Indy would have most likely viewed a refrigerator as a death trap. The movie actually acknowledges this when one of Indy's friends chides him about the fact that simply getting inside the refrigerator could have killed him.

So, what is the prize sought in this IJM? A crystal skull made of quartz that belonged to an extraterrestrial alien and was pilfered by Conquistador Francisco de Orellana in the 1500s. Supposedly, anyone who returns it to its rightful place will be rewarded. Later in the movie we see that the entire skeleton of the aliens is made of quartz--a lattice of silica (SiO2). Does this mean the aliens are a silicone rather than carbon based life form? Who knows, the movie never explored this interesting possibility? We have to say, however, that quartz is not a particularly good material for skeletons. It has great compression strength, over seven times higher than bone, but poor tensile strength, less than 50 % of the tensile strength of bone. The low tensile strength combined with high brittleness of quartz would make it fairly easy to break skeleton parts subject to the impact and tensile loads of strenuous  activities. With a density over 40% greater than bone, a quartz skeleton would also make it harder for the aliens to move.

When Indy is forced to take an unwanted leave of absence from his teaching job, he runs into Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) who drives up on a Harley. It's a subtle but hilarious allusion to the iconic1954 Marlin Brando motor cycle gang movie The Wild One. Mutt is dressed in an identical outfit down to the possession of a switch blade knife. Mutt completes the 1950s parody with a hair style reminiscent of the 50s heart-throb movie star James Dean.

In the simpler times of the 50s displaying a switchblade sent the message that you were one badass hoodlum and Mutt flashes it at a pair of Russian spies when they attempt to kidnap Indy and him. Unfortunately, he's trumped when the the spies pull out handguns. But, Indy comes up with a diversion and he and Mutt escape leading to a lengthy but amusing chase scene that seems almost like an Abbot and Costello routine.

With  some detective work and a trip to Peru, Indy and Mutt pinpoint the location of Francisco de Orellana's grave at a site in Peru. Using the motorcycle, they drive up to the site at night about as easily as going out for a burger. Upon arrival they conveniently find a couple of shovels, then enter the ruins surrounding the graves. Of course, they have to fight off a few living-dead-locals who appear to be hopped up on indigenous pharmaceuticals, but no problem. It's all in a day's work for an archeologist.

There are several mummies in the burial chamber including one that attracts gold coins. Apparently, the living-dead-locals have been a lot more effective at warding off grave robbers than archeologists, which explains why clearly visible gold artifacts are still lying around in ruins that can be easily reached on a Harley.

Do Indy and Mutt meticulously remove the mummy of interest to a laboratory for careful study lest any of the priceless insights it might yield be lost. No, Indy borrows Mutt's switch blade and slices it open revealing the near perfectly preserved face of Francisco de Orellana. It doesn't appear to be wrinkled or even dried out. When the face suddenly deteriorates into dust (evidently the water in its cells was replaced with crumbly stuff) Indy nonchalantly explains that it's merely the exposure to oxygen. Wow, what a scientist! He's able to  seriously damage a priceless archeological find without so much as an "oh damn".

After recovering the crystal skull from the mummy, Indy and Mutt are captured by the Russians. The two end up in the Russians' camp located in the Amazon basin where they find Indy's old girlfriend from the first movie, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) and Professor Oxley (John Hurt) who's been driven mad by the skull's psychic powers. It turns out that Ravenwood is Mutt's mother and Indy his father. After some mumbo jumbo and a botched escape attempt, the Russians load their captives into military vehicles and take off to return the skull to its rightful place and reap the promised reward. In order to keep a low profile, the Russians, of course, drive around in military vehicles while wearing Russian  uniforms and carrying an assortment of weapons including machine guns, assault rifles, and rocket propelled grenades. This makes perfect sense in the Western Hemisphere where there are no CIA agents or American interests, let alone locals who care about the sovereignty of their nation or its heritage.

The Russian vehicles drive in a caravan behind a giant tractor device designed to grind a roadway through the jungle at relatively high speed.  Indy escapes from his binding and overcomes the Russians on the truck he's in. While Marion takes the wheel, Indy blows up the jungle grinder with a rocket propelled grenade.

This leads to a major fight/chase scene in which various characters jump from vehicle to vehicle, fighting with everything from bare hands to swords, often standing on the vehicles as they fight. Their balance is amazing. Military vehicles are  not noted for having a jet smooth ride on pavement and here they are driving at relatively high speed through the jungle (remember, the jungle grinder is kaput). Even more amazing are the hundreds of rounds of ammunition fired at Indy and friends without so much as nicking them. Of course, the movie has already established that teams of Russian infiltrators can't shoot straight.

Just when the Russians are about to triumph they run into a giant ant pile. Are these the army ants reminiscent of the classic 1938 adventure story "Leinigen Verses the Ants"? Not really, the characteristics of these ants are even more exaggerated. Although they certainly qualify as a force to reckon with, the real army ants of South America are neither as large nor as deadly as those depicted in the movie. What's more, they do not build subterranean ant piles. When they nest, they form it out of themselves, resulting in a large ball of ants interlocked with each other.

In one scene the ants overwhelm the hapless Russian officer Dovchenko (Igor Jijikine) and transport his entire corpse to their ant pile. We're left pondering how they did it. Did they attach little ropes to the corpse and pull it along like tens of thousands of little slaves dragging a gigantic stone up to the top of a pyramid? Did tens of thousands of them scoot their little bodies under the corpse and lift it off the ground as they marched in unison toward the ant castle? Who knows, but the event could be categorized as miraculous.

To escape the deadly ants, the Russians drive to the edge of a cliff, toss over ropes and rappel downward towards the river below. Meanwhile Indy's group, in an amphibious vehicle (Indy refers to it as a duck) driven by the smiling and confident Marion zooms over the cliff. Not to worry, Marion evidently has Superman's x-ray vision enabling her to see through the cliff and detect the presence of a perfectly designed and placed tree below. As the duck clears the cliff, it lands in the tree. The tree then bends downward gently depositing the vehicle and its occupants upright in the river. As they drive off its branches, the tree snaps back, knocking several Russians off their ropes in the process.

The duck then goes over 2 major-sized waterfalls without the loss of a single passenger or serious damage to the vehicle. On the third waterfall the duck is wrecked, but again all hands survive uninjured.

Okay, the world kayak record for crazies successfully going over waterfalls is 107 ft set on September 7, 2007 by Tyler Bradt, so in a sense it can be done. However, a kayak is a lot different than an amphibious military vehicle. The kayak is small, light weight, and virtually impossible to sink. It has no engine compartment to flood or damage. The single occupant of a kayak is also pretty well attached to the boat. As soon as the duck hit the water it would have abruptly slowed down while its occupants continued their forward motion propelling them out of the vehicle. Waterfalls tend to entrain air into the water below them and the foamy water is less dense than water alone.  This causes a loss of buoyancy for anything caught in the foamy region. Given its weight, the duck would have been fully submerged and flooded when it hit the bottom of the waterfall. It would have never popped back up to the surface.

The "ducks" in the movie were actually WWII vintage American GPA Seeps (Seagoing Jeep). At a weight of 3520 lbs (1,600 kg) Seeps had very little freeboard and were notorious for sinking in choppy waters. As a result they were widely disliked by U.S. soldiers, so inventories of them were shipped to Russia. The Russians tended to like them better and in the 1950s came out with an improved version of their own: the GAZ 46. Needless to say, even this model was not designed to go over waterfalls. (Indy probably got the DUKW, a well respected American amphibious 2 1/2 ton 6X6 truck mixed up with the Seep and called the Seep a duck.)

After the third waterfall, Marion is found by Indy sitting on the shore still clutching the steering wheel. She's been subjected to forces sufficient to rip the wheel off the steering column and is stunned but uninjured. It's all very cute and what can we say? It's yet another IJM miracle.

Fortunately, the skull's rightful place is near at hand in the ruins of a  Mayan temple, guarded by yet another set of living-dead-locals. These drop out of cavities in the walls and seem a little less hopped up than the last group but plenty mad and very numerous. Nevertheless, it's no big deal. The living-dead-locals are easily scared away by the crystal skull. The Russians being more pragmatic and well armed, get by the protectors by machinegunning them into un-living-dead-locals. Needless to say, the Russians show up just as Indy and friends are about to return the skull.

The act of returning the skull is performed  in a chamber with 13 complete alien skeletons seated around a circle on what appear to be thrones. Dr. Spalko places the skull on the single headless skeleton, which begins communicating telepathically to Oxley who verbalizes the message in the ancient Mayan language while Indy translates. We've been wondering why aliens from a super-advanced culture capable of traveling across the galaxy in flying saucers would be incapable of zipping around New Mexico without crashing.  However the skull communicates that the aliens are not  intergalactic but inter-dimensional travelers. So, maybe flying around in saucers is just not their cup of tea..

When the aliens communicate that they want to give a gift, Dr. Spalko gets pushy and starts demanding to know everything. Shortly thereafter, the temple starts falling apart, a portal to a different dimension appears in the ceiling sucking in people and debris, the thirteen skeletons combine into a single fleshed out alien, and Dr. Spalko's head disintegrates.

Indy, Mutt, Marion, and Oxley all escape the temple. The aliens, or should we say alien, rises from the ruins in a gigantic flying saucer amid swirling boulders and disappears. As the flying boulders settle, water pours in from every direction turning the former temple site into a lake.

We're left with all kinds of questions. For starters,  why did the stolen alien remains from the beginning of the movie play no role in the film other than triggering the opening chase scene. After all, the alien corpse had a crystal skull in it and was "magnetic" just like the one returned to the temple. Was it somehow broken in the crash? Did it lose its powers? Do the 13 aliens not care about it? What caused all the boulders to swirl around levitated off the ground? If it were tornado-like winds or even some mysterious alien force, how could Indy stand at the edge of it watching and not be sucked in or at least smacked in the head by a chunk of flying debris? Why did the alien(s) need to zoom off in a saucer? Couldn't they have just jumped or parachuted through the portal when it opened in the ceiling? Where did all the water come from when the temple collapsed? It seems like the temple would have needed to be surrounded by a major-sized lake beforehand.

Okay, we make no claims about being archeologists but we're also left wondering how Conquistador Francisco de Orellana ever ended up pilfering a crystal skull from a Mayan temple in the Amazon basin when the Maya were located in Central America (the area now occupied by southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras) not South America? Francisco was a real guy  who did search for El Dorado as claimed in the movie, but  how did he end up mummified and buried in Peru (Inca territory) when he died while exploring the Amazon river delta?

The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull  isn't as bad as The Temple of Doom. It does have some great moments of subtle parody but a lot of its action is over the top even for an IJM. For a movie about a whip wielding guy, this one just doesn't have the snap of Raiders of the Lost Ark or the Last Crusade.

 

 

*In physics an object is accelerating both when it's speeding up or slowing down. Acceleration is simply the rate of change of velocity.

   

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