Indiana Jones and the terrible, awful shot that defines Crystal Skull

Every time I flip by Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on TV, I inevitably set down the remote and watch 10 minutes of it. And every single time I can’t believe how bad it is. The third sequel to what might be my all-time favorite film is really bad, people, and there are so many reasons why. Horrible script decisions. Terrible performances. Awful sets. Jarring cinematography that doesn’t match the other films. Offensive CGI. The list goes on and on.

And what might be most surprising, considering this is a Steven Spielberg joint, is just how sloppily Crystal Skull is directed. And I can illustrate this by singling out the staging of a single scene in the movie — three shots and two edits that drive me fucking crazy every single time I watch them. So here’s the deal: Early on in the film, just after the race against the ’50s teenagers that opens the movie, some Russians disguised as American officers pull up to a military checkpoint at Area 51. A large burly Russian gets out of his vehicle and walks up to the U.S. soldiers manning the checkpoint. This is first shown via a somewhat wide shot of the big Russian moving toward the American guards.

Then there’s a cut to a somewhat closer shot as everyone salutes.

Immediately after the salute, there’s a cut to a reverse shot from the Americans’ point of view. At that point, the big Russian takes off his hat and kneels down to reveal there are four armed Russian soldiers hiding behind him who proceed to fill all the checkpoint guards full of lead.

I hate this shot SO GODDAMN MUCH. For starters, it is physically impossible to hide four armed Russians behind one single dude, no matter how big he is. Scroll back up and look at the first two shots. None of those five (!) U.S. soldiers are standing in the exact same place. They’re spread out a bit. They’d all have completely different sight lines on the approaching Russian. There is zero chance that at least three of them wouldn’t see the sneaky armed Russians coming up behind the big guy. Secondly, I think the first shot is wide enough that it eliminates the possibility of any other soldiers being smuggled up behind their burly leader. It certainly establishes that if there are guys approaching from behind him, then they’d be back a ways (which, again, would make them pretty easy to spot from five differing sight lines). It’s like Spielberg goes out of his way to establish that the burly Russian is by himself, that there’s nothing shady going on here, only to completely invalidate that once the reverse angle kicks in. We could also get into how four other Russians snuck out of their vehicles to position themselves behind their large comrade in the first place, but I don’t want to make my brain hurt more than it already does.

Look, I get that it makes dramatic sense to present the scene this way. But this is Spielberg we’re talking about. He’s likely history’s greatest filmmaker. He’s a master of staging and spatial geography. He has spent his entire career building impeccably choreographed sequences that hold up to scrutiny under innumerable repeat viewings. He is not going to sacrifice those things in favor of a cheap gag. Well, unless, that is, he really doesn’t give a damn about the film he’s making and is just lazily going through the motions to appease some dudes named George and Harrison. In that case, maybe he would just say, “This doesn’t make much sense, but fuck it: Roll camera.”

And that, I believe, is the overall problem with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in a nutshell. Spielberg just did not care about quality control, a fact superbly illustrated by this 20 seconds of film. Well, that plus the fact that Indiana Jones never once fires a gun through the whole damn movie. But you really don’t want to get me started on that.

UPDATE: There’s been a little bit of pushback on Facebook that I’ve misinterpreted this scene and that the Russians were never hiding from the checkpoint guards in the first place. That Spielberg staged the scene this way to be a surprise for the audience, and that the burly Russian only drops down to get out of the way of the gunfire.

I’ll concede that it’s possible this may have been Spielberg’s intent! But every time I watch this scene, my instinct is to assume the other Russian soldiers are hiding specifically because Spielberg hides them. We never see anyone else get out of a vehicle. You only hear one vehicle door open and close (although a few of the Russians are riding in the back of jeep-type vehicles). We get no clue at all that anyone else is approaching the checkpoint on foot until the shooting begins. So even if I’m wrong in my interpretation, I will still argue that scene is sloppily directed and feels like one big cheat.