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The Kingdom
of the Crystal Skull:

Lucas and Spielberg's Fourth Indy Epic
Revisits the Atomic 1950s

"I'm getting a familiar feeling about this!"

Moviegoers everywhere are seeing Steven Spielberg's new Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and noticing its dozens of film and cultural references. The agitated action thriller may have more film references from the 1950s than any other picture to date. If the '50's to you means hula hoops, poodle skirts and Elvis Presley, the chances are you aren't going to catch all of them: the movie shapes up as a nostalgic memory game. Spielberg and George Lucas are "Movie Boomers", members of the first generation raised on television and movies.

Spielberg's notion of, say, a wild airplane ride comes not from experience but from scenes in films like Lost Horizon or A Guy Named Joe. Almost everything Lucas has done has attempted to recreate his childhood matinee thrills, and the Indiana Jones series of course began as a loving tribute to the serials of the 1930s and 1940s. Superman: The Movie may have reintroduced comic strip characters to feature films, but Raiders of the Lost Ark inaugurated the Comic Book style: spectacular fun all the time, and no annoying introspection or redeeming social content! All the boring stuff is left out in favor of action, action, action.

In Crystal Skull, narrative is a secondary concern. The film instead hops to the next film reference or cultural icon as fast as it can, introducing outrageous new ideas at a dizzy pace. Many (too many) of the references are simply retreads of situations in earlier Indiana Jones movies. Among the whimsical new ideas is a Russian buzz-saw tractor that makes its own road through the rain forest, like an icebreaker. Every eight year-old has imagined that one!

But the bulk of the movie resurrects situations and images straight from great matinee thrillers, especially those of the 1950s. Some of these are obvious and some will seem pretty darn obscure, unless you've spent the last two or three decades scouring the genre aisles in the video store. Are the film's generic references really generic? A glimpse of a neon sign reading "Atomic Cafe" points right to the 1982 docu of the same name, and an awesome nuclear mushroom cloud seems inspired by the colorful facsimile nukes in 1954's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Hell and High Water. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'm sure I've missed forty or fifty purloined cinema riffs, but here's my best shot at a list:

And remember, this is a list of deadly spoilers, and is definitely not recommended before seeing the movie!

Rock 'n' rollers tear up the highways: DRAGSTRIP RIOT (1957), HOT RODS TO HELL (1965), THE LOST MISSILE (1958).

Sexy Russian super-agent: curvaceous Janet Leigh as a Soviet air ace in JET PILOT (1957).

Secret Area 51-type base with Alien corpse: HANGAR 18 (1980), INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996), and other movies about theoretical alien bodies recovered in Roswell in 1947.

Crazy magnetism indicates the presence of powerful unknown element: THE MAGNETIC MONSTER (1953).

An individual with telepathic talent can read the minds of others: THE POWER (1968).

Secret base is also a space medicine / rocket sled testing lab: THE RIGHT STUFF (1983), GOG (1954).

Secret base is also conducting a nuclear test in a fake "small town": DOOM TOWN (1953) and other docu footage of actual atom tests.

Fake small town built for nuclear test is setting for slapstick comedy: Mickey Rooney in THE ATOMIC KID (1954).

Criminal intruders must flee nuclear test: SPLIT SECOND (1953).

A person hides from nuclear blast in refrigerator: LADYBUG LADYBUG (1963).

Mutt the motorcycle fanatic: THE WILD ONE (1954).

Comic Red Agents pursue college professor: THE RED MENACE (1949), other rabid anti-commie movies of the early 1950s.

Fistfight in soda fountain: BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985).

Local teens brawl with bikers: RALLY 'ROUND THE FLAG, BOYS! (1958).

Ancient catacombs reveal secret treasures: THE SPIDERS (1919), KING SOLOMON'S MINES, SECRET OF THE INCAS (1954).

Scientists find strange cocoon-like things in secret underground chamber: THEM! (1954)

Dead alien communicates telepathically with human, with help of a brainwave amplifier: QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (5 Million Years to Earth) (1967).

Marauding killer ants menace jungle adventurers: THE NAKED JUNGLE (1954).

Ancient extra-terrestrials guided man's evolution: QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (5 Million Years to Earth) (1967).

Giant pictograms on the Peruvian plain are landing markers for aliens: CHARIOTS OF THE GODS (1970) and other Erich Von Däniken frauds.

Ancient skull hypnotizes humans: THE SKULL (1965).

Ancient stone construction uses "sand power" to reconfigure its own architecture: LAND OF THE PHARAOHS (1955).

Alien creatures have communal mind that multiplies their mental powers: VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960).

Underground explorers ejected to the surface through a stone chimney: JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959).

Huge section of jungle terrain rotates as if in a mixing bowl: THE MYSTERIANS (1957), THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005).

Anti-gravity zone tosses people into the air, demolishes structures: FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964), BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE (1960), CRACK IN THE WORLD (1965).

I'm sure there are plenty more references I've missed ... and maybe even better examples for the ones I've found. If you've caught some I didn't, perhaps you'd care to share them in this article's comments section, below.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull may be the perfect matinee movie, especially if you can see it with its ideal audience of action-oriented ten year-olds. Harrison Ford now qualifies for a Senior Citizen discount but can still withstand more punishment than Wile E. Coyote on a bad day. Sci-Fi miracles and Cold War paranoia are just excuses for crazier chase scenes. As for Political Correctness, Skull shows no mercy for Russian stereotypes of Army goons and Cate Blanchett's sinister telepath Irina Spalko. Spalko wields a mean CGI sword, spouts world-domination blather and uses sub-Jedi mind tricks to pry information from her captives. The character is so cartoonish, we keep expecting her to demand that Indy lead her to "Moose and Squirrel!"

By Glenn Erickson
May 22, 2008

Reader Responses:

From William Sullivan III, June 14, 2008: "Hi Glenn. I'm pretty sure the Dean of the college saying "No! No! Make it bigger!", (to the painter putting Indy's name back on his office door) is a sly reference to a scene in Mighty Joe Young.

The Russian buzz-saw tractor works just like a similar gadget on the Mach 5 in the original Speed Racer cartoon. Just a kooky coincidence the movie of that came out the same month?

The whole business with all the stonework falling away revealing the alien structure reminds me of the finale of Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal, where the Skeksis' castle undergoes a similar transformation.

Do you think either Spielberg or Lucas saw Paramount's 1996 movie version of The Phantom comic strip, where three crystal skulls are the McGuffin?" -- William Sullivan

From Stephen Cooke, of the phenomenal blog If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats, June 15 2008:

"One of the first things I thought of while watching Crystal Skull was the influence of Belgian artist Herge's Tintin comics, which Spielberg is supposedly bringing to the big screen in the not-too-distant future.

Oddly enough, the Tintin story The Broken Ear was turned into an unauthorized film version in That Man From Rio with Jean-Paul Belmondo, with a jungle temple scene reminiscent of the opening to Raiders of the Lost Ark, although it also resembles Crystal Skull with its storyline about an expert in ancient South American civilizations kidnapped and taken to the continent, with rogue adventurer Belmondo in hot pursuit.

There's also the Tintin book Flight 714 which combines jungle temples and UFOs, and Prisoners of the Sun which sees Tintin and his crusty older adventurer friend Captain Haddock (shades of Mutt and Indy) heading into the Andes and coming face to face with an ancient Inca tribe while trying to rescue their dotty academic friend Professor Calculus (shades of John Hurt's Professor Oxley). There's also some business with Inca crypts and mummies that is recalled by Crystal Skull (but no aliens).

That fact that Spielberg's next project is supposed to be a Tintin film, these similarities seem a shade more than coincidental. -- Stephen Cooke

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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