15 Years Ago: Indiana Jones’ Long-Awaited Return Lets Down Fans
Few characters achieve the kind of iconic status that Indiana Jones enjoys. Harrison Ford's character is recognized worldwide and was featured in a beloved trilogy of films in the '80s and '90s. So it was surprising when Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull appeared on May 22, 2008, and it became the subject of the kind of bickering and disappointments rarely seen in blockbuster franchises, particularly those with names like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas attached to them.
Almost immediately after the success of the third Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in 1989, rumors of another entry in the franchise began to percolate. Lucas, who had come up with the original idea for the Indiana Jones character, was determined to make a fourth film that revolved around the idea of aliens, continuing the supernatural theme that had run through the first three films.
Spielberg has never been shy about opposing that idea, although he was willing to work on it if Lucas insisted. "I didn’t want these things to be either aliens or inter-dimensional beings," he said in a 2011 interview. "But I am loyal to my best friend. When he writes a story he believes in – even if I don’t believe in it – I’m going to shoot the movie the way George envisaged it."
By the mid-'90s, Lucas had set plans for the film in motion and hired several writers to work on the script. But the arrival of Independence Day in 1996 pushed Spielberg even further away from doing an alien movie, and the delays mounted until Lucas moved on to another project: the reboot of the Star Wars franchise.
Watch the Trailer for 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull'
Another problem was the fact that star Harrison Ford also disliked the conceit of the aliens, reputedly telling Lucas that there was "no way" he would be in a film like that one. In the face of all this resistance, an unexpected salvation arose: Spielberg's kids.
In an interview with an Italian newspaper in 2000, the director revealed that he was continually faced with a demanding question at home: "'Dad, when are you going to film a new Indiana Jones movie?'" Apparently, the kids had finally changed his mind, because, in that same interview, he noted that "tonight I want to make a promise. Indiana Jones is coming back soon."
Unfortunately, it turned out to be not all that soon at all. Despite the drafts of the script he had commissioned in the '90s, Lucas still didn't have one he believed in. He went through several writers in the early '00s – both M. Night Shyamalan and Frank Darabont were attached to the project at various points – before finally getting screenwriter David Koepp to helm the project.
Watch the 'Nuking the Fridge' Scene From 'The Crystal Skull'
Finally, after convincing Ford to star once again, and recruiting talent like Shia LaBeouf, Karen Allen (reprising her role from the first film), Cate Blanchett and John Hurt, the project was ready to film.
But almost as soon as it was released in the spring of 2008, controversy reared its head again. Although the film earned more than $100 million on its opening weekend and would go on to earn almost $800 million worldwide, popular opinion on it was sharply divided.
For many fans, the film was a massive disappointment, featuring unconvincing CGI, nonsensical plot elements and, worst of all, the scene in which Indiana Jones climbs inside a refrigerator to save himself from a nuclear weapon test blast. The sequence became instant fodder for online haters, so much so that for a brief moment it seemed that "nuked the fridge" might supplant "jump the shark" in the popular parlance.
On top of all this, the movie spurred recrimination from one of its main actors. In a 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times, LaBeouf acknowledged that he thought the film was a bad one and then claimed that Ford "wasn’t happy with it either." Not one to be shamed by the blowback to this, LaBeouf has continued to take shots at the people behind the movie over the years, telling Variety in 2016 that Spielberg is "less a director than he is a fucking company."
All in all the Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull experience was an exhausting one, and the film has come to be widely regarded as the worst in the franchise. It was a sad moment for one of the most beloved characters in adventure film history.