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Excavating the FutureArchaeology and Geopolitics in Contemporary North American Science Fiction Film and Television$

Shawn Malley

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781786941190

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: May 2019

DOI: 10.3828/liverpool/9781786941190.001.0001

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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

(p.95) Chapter 5 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Excavating the Future

Shawn Malley

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter transposes the analogical investigation of ancient astronauts as a source of geopolitical meditation in Ancient Aliens to a SF film that make this connection explicit: Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull (2006), which adapts the cinematic antecedent of 1950s B SF movies—in which aliens function as a trope for governmental conspiracy, atomic anxiety, and Soviet hysteria—into ancient astronaut discourse. An interesting subtext of Spielberg’s nostalgic throwback to SF film history is the nature of the aliens themselves. As archaeologists and collectors, they replicate the kinds of colonial archaeology that Jones and even the audience may take for granted. These beings function within the SF métier as an external threat, but they simultaneously sanction the civilizing activities undertaken by democratic institutions like the British Museum, Louvre and Metropolitan Museum. The film thus neatly closes the hermeneutic circle on the Indiana Jones franchise by mining its latent SF tropes: the intrepid figure of colonial archaeology is reinvigorated through the exotic adventures of technologically-advanced beings from outer space. Archaeology is a device for manifesting threats that can be foiled by the very scientific structures and geopolitical forces that inform the entertaining world of action and adventure.

Keywords:   science fiction film and television, archaeology, geopolitics, ancient astronaut theory, atomic age, Mayan calendar, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

It was sci-fi, more than any other genre, that caught the hysteria behind the picture window.

Peter Biskind1

The fictions of the covert sphere at once make the secret work of the state visible and consign it to the realm of fantasy.

Timothy Melley2

Nearly two decades after riding into the sunset at the end of The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones dusted off his whip for a markedly different kind of adventure. Titles of early drafts for a fourth instalment of the Raiders saga reflect George Lucas’s desire to lure Jones from the jungle film and into the cinematic purview of its SF cousin. In 1994 Lucas commissioned Jeb Stuart to write the screenplay for Indiana Jones and the Saucermen from Mars.3 Later versions of the project bear titles like Indiana Jones and the Atomic Ants and Indiana Jones and the Destroyer of Worlds (Rinzler, 231, 237). In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), the archaeologist has a close encounter with Luke Skywalker, a moment anticipated at the Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), when Jones passes a fresco depicting an Egyptian genuflecting before R2D2 and C3P0. Once a playful nod to Lucas and Spielberg’s collaboration, the graffito is now an artefactual reminder of a future in which Indy raids the material remains of a race of ancient astronauts.

While the ancient astronaut theme, which entered mainstream (p.96) popular culture in the late 1960s with Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?, is slightly anachronistic for a film set in 1957, the SF scenario introduces Jones to a new generation of movie goers more familiar with Mayan calendrics than the atomic ants and little green men from the Saturday matinees of Lucas and Spielberg’s childhood. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull does have killer flesh-eating ants, but they are ‘natural’ features of the jungle imaginary rather than atomic genomes of 1950s SF film. The film also features aliens, but they are largely incidental to the quest to secure the eponymous crystal skull. Decidedly not the kind of 1950s SF movie that Lucas envisioned in Saucermen from Mars, it is instead a quasi-historical drama of the era that produced them. Steeped in meta-textual references to Jones’s acclimatization to a new world order in which jackbooted Nazis bent on world domination have been supplanted by aggressive American foreign policies and ideological contestation with the U.S.S.R., the twenty-first century Indiana Jones is a media archaeologist of an age whose SF tropes of invasion, contagion and mutation—and the allegories of anti-communism, anti-McCarthyism and nuclear annihilation they variously engaged—are constitutive of the apocalyptic overtones of contemporary ancient astronaut discourse.

This chapter examines the manner in which the film organizes relationships between geopolitics, archaeology and SF around the theme of ‘the return.’ In the first instance, the return of Indiana Jones to the big screen reconfigures the swashbuckling adventurer within the cinematic traditions of post-war SF film. The franchise catches up to its new past by recalibrating raider mythology with geopolitical crises that are age-appropriate for the 65-year-old Harrison Ford. Secondly, the implicit conflation of 1950s SF tropes of alien invasion with the apocalyptic return of ancient astronauts links the cultural brio of Cold War action/adventure cinema with versions of post-9/11 security circulating in contemporary SFFTV. The narrative, thirdly, hinges on returning the crystal skull to its place of origin. Joseph McBride observes that the ‘racism that marred the first two films is replaced in Indy IV by an almost apologetic treatment of Jones’s former activities—he protests that he is not (any longer) a “grave robber,” and his quest is to put back a stolen artifact’ (525–26).4 While there is still plenty of racism in the film, the archaeological past is no longer available for plunder. But overtures of (p.97) shared heritage are reminiscent of the problematic nature of stewardship exemplified by the American return to Babylon and, moreover, by recent formulations of what Erik Nemeth calls ‘cultural security,’ in which historical materials in contested territories like Iraq and Syria remain targets for cultural terrorism and sources of funding for jihadist groups like ISIS (2015). The updated myth of archaeological heroism in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull offers an oblique commentary on transnational security strategies being formulated in concert between academic and governmental stakeholders, and the challenges of geopolitical security in a global economy that remains invested in trafficking artefacts between ‘collecting nations’ and emerging ‘source nations.’

Before undertaking the mission to recover the crystal skull, Jones must adapt to the particular social and ideological tensions of post-war America. The title sequence injects the archaeologist into the Cold War arms and space races in the form of a literal drag race in the Nevada desert between teenagers in a roadster blaring Elvis Presley’s 1956 hit song ‘Hound Dog’ and a convoy of Soviet spies disguised as American soldiers. The music fades as the trucks turn at an intersection marked with a forlorn neon sign directing motorists to ‘Nevada’s Famous Atomic Cafe.’5 Signs of doom shadow the post-war confidence typified by America’s youth cavorting in hotrods. The convoy churns up a deserted gravel road and stops at another sign, ‘Hanger 51 Main Gate.’ A chromakeyed title ‘Nevada 1957’ in the upper portion of the frame completes the scene. Abducted by the Soviets, Jones is forced to locate a particular artefact from Area 51, the remains of a ‘saucerman,’ which the archaeologist helped recover from the Roswell crash site in 1947. The raid on Area 51 is part of a larger Soviet operation to secure the legendary crystal skull, whose purported mind-control properties are of interest to Stalin’s crack psychic weapons scientist, Col. Dr. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). While the race to recover the crystal skull tests Jones’s wits and skills as a raiding archaeologist, the film’s intra-text is concerned with updating the raider legend in a popular cultural milieu better suited to the exploits of James Bond. Escaping the Soviets on a rocket sledge, Jones is propelled into the space age—within the year the Soviets would launch Sputnik and successfully test the world’s first ICBM—an era in which the dusty archaeologist is himself a vivid alien.

Threats to Jones’s agency are also framed by prevailing domestic fictions of the Cold War, particularly the generalized fear of communist (p.98) infiltration. He is jettisoned into what historically is known as ‘Operation Plumbbob,’ the code name for a series of 29 nuclear detonations at the Nevada Test Facility in 1957. Disoriented from the rocket sledge, Jones stumbles into a ‘doom town’ constructed for an imminent test shot. The archaeologist finds himself the unwitting cicerone of a museal world inhabited by plastic mannequins nestled before black and white console television sets twittering ‘It’s Howdy Doody Time,’ tableaux that epitomize idyllic communities like Los Alamos, New Mexico, which were built around the atomic energy industry but shielded from its fallout by the culture of the residential community itself (Hunner, 37). Jones breaks into a house and rummages through the artefacts of the ‘nuclear’ family, a kitchen stocked with household cleaners, chrome toaster ovens and electric can openers, an uncanny product-placement of the ascendant post-war American middle class. He wanders among the arrested routines of ecstatic mothers in print dresses strolling along pavements populated with children pulling Radio Flyer wagons, a Good Humor Man distributing Creamsicles, and the paperboy and postman on their rounds. Dad washes his Buick sedan in the driveway while the kids frolic on their Slip ‘n Slide. Across the street, a cherry-red ’57 Chevy glistens in the Nevada sun.

This eerie yet strangely wistful set piece of 1950s Americana offers a meta-filmic reference of staged threats to suburban prosperity in the survival television broadcasts and films made by the Federal Civil Defense Administration.6 Exemplary is a short feature produced in 1955 for ‘Operation Cue,’ whose detonation of ‘Apple II’ simulated a Soviet attack on property and civil defences at the purpose-built ‘Survival City’ (Matthews, 87–88).7 One of the narrators is a housewife whose interest in the effects of radiation on food and fabrics testifies to the stiff gender codes required to survive the atomic age. She acknowledges the generous sponsorship of the various domestic industries for donating appliances, foodstuffs, clothing and furniture.8 The nuclear test is both an assault (p.99)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Figure 13. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Paramount Pictures, 2008).

on and an advertisement for the latest labour-saving conveniences. After the test, the technicians feasted on irradiated tinned goods salvaged from demolished larders, a kind of ‘reverse last supper, where any signs of life after the nuclear explosion were celebrated as an absolute victory’ (Masco, 29).9 The tensions between 1950s nostalgia and the apocalyptic nightmare evoked by such FCDA films is parodied in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when Jones takes refuge in a legendary domestic terror of the age, the lead-lined refrigerator. The plastic world is momentarily back lit by the blast. Close-ups of melting family members and their pets dissolve into hallmark long shots of shock waves rippling through the neighbourhood. Thrown clear of this Levittownesque suburban nightmare, Jones is silhouetted in a low-angle shot of the mushroom cloud billowing skywards, momentarily revealing the hollow eye sockets of a skull. In a flash the 1950s atomic age foreshadows post-nuclear threats represented by the talismanic crystal skull.

Lucas ultimately got his ‘Indiana Jones and the Destroyer of Worlds,’ but the arresting image of the ochre fireball does little if anything to advance the narrative. Instead, atmospheric tensions between nostalgia and horror in Doom Town epitomize the fragility of the utopian (p.100) dreams born out of the atomic age. Jones’s haunting tour exposes the audience to the ambiguities inherent in what Costandina Titus terms ‘Atomic Kitsch,’ whose central symbol is the mushroom cloud. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull reworks and reproduces through the aesthetics of kitsch—with its ‘simple message, mass distribution, emotional response, beautiful imagery, and stylized form’—the ideological landscape in which the ‘awesome beauty of the fireball’ helped divert ‘the public’s attention from asking substantive questions about possible negative consequences and costs.’ Over time the mushroom cloud has become the central image of the ‘atomabilia’ phenomenon of the 1980s and 90s, whose influence ranges across films such as The Atomic Cafe (1982), Peter Bacon Hales’s coffee table book Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project (1997), and collecting Cold War paraphernalia like toy uranium waste railway cars and Miss Atom Bomb pin-ups. The mushroom cloud, she says, lingers as ‘a nostalgic icon reminiscent of simpler, safer times’ (105, 107, 110, 102).

But the mushroom cloud is also a cultural fossil of an age that celebrated freedom purchased by dangerous technology and at the expense of actual security. By 1957 McCarthyism was in full swing and the U.S. was saturated in FCDA doomsday propaganda. The ambivalent image of the mushroom cloud is symptomatic of what Charles Gannon calls ‘silo psychosis’ (146–72),10 the psychological impact rendered on those wielding the atomic bomb as a tool to expand ‘hegemony across previously impermeable cultural and national borders.’ The dark side of atomic kitsch, he states, ‘reaches its grim zenith in the action/sf film genre’ (146, 147). Citing films like The Day After (1983) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Gannon observes that the ‘obsessive nature of these visuals—the attention to detail, the dilation of time to permit an almost clinical assessment of the annihilating effects of the bomb—additionally suggests a sensual, almost erotic fascination with the spectacle of destruction.’ Kingdom of the Crystal Skull captures a historical moment that was itself confronting a futuristic cinematic world in which atomic-age audiences were at once exposed to the innocent pleasures of Howdy Doody and the ‘collage of nuclear test footage showing the horrific (and often bizarre) effects of the bombs.’ At ground zero, Jones is likewise positioned between ‘potency and vulnerability,’ a relic of silo psychosis reanimated for our contemplation (147, 149, 165).

While in Hollywood allegory lite fashion Jones will ultimately be ‘cured,’ the side effects of the experience linger in the uncanny resemblance to contemporary nuclear anxieties. A poignant reminder of (p.101) Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the detonation is a semblance of world-altering images like the fall of the WTC. In his article ‘September 11 and Cold War Nostalgia,’ Aaron DeRosa’s assertion that ‘September 11 registered, in part, as a traumatic repetition of the atomic blasts in America’s cultural consciousness, a trauma from which America can never fully recover until it recognizes the true relationship of these events to one another’ (59) invites speculation on the potential for popular cultural artefacts like Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to harness this dynamic. The cinematic nature of the collapse of the WTC furnishes a visual framework for contemplating the mushroom cloud rising over American soil: like the bomb, the twin towers are an ambiguous symbol of global power and the (self-)destructive potential of that power. If in the moment the audience confuses Jones staring in awe at the detonation with our mediated ground-level views of the towers collapsing in inverted mushroom clouds, the ghostly apparition of the crystal skull is a crystal ball for a post-9/11 America experiencing resurgent Cold War anxieties in the form of nuclear brinksmanship with terrorist states like Iran, Pakistan and North Korea.

These tensions are manifest in the following scene, in which Jones is detained and interrogated by the FBI on suspicion that he is working for the Soviets. Nuclear psychosis is parodied in the anti-communist hysterics of the FBI agents. Jones demands, ‘What am I being accused of, except surviving a nuclear blast?’ Disoriented from the ordeal, Jones is marginalized and isolated by what Timothy Melley calls the ‘culture of paranoia’ (2000, 1–46), the ‘paradox in which a supposedly individualist culture conserves its individualism by continually imagining it to be in imminent peril’ (6). The agents cast doubt upon Jones’s illustrious war record (it is revealed that he served as a spy for the Allies in the Pacific for the Office of Strategic Services, the agency that became the CIA in 1947) and raid his Marshall College office. The university, fearing a scandal, suspends him, an action sanctioned socially right outside Jones’s classroom, where students gather for an anti-communist rally. Brandishing ‘Better Dead than Red’ placards, their protest is symptomatic of the film’s atomic kitsch but also the insidious paranoia of a world in which politicians and public servants threaten the agency of the campus’s beloved professor. The interrogation scene concludes with a high-angle shot of Jones from the perspective of the FBI agents. Sitting forlorn from his scolding (cue the John Williams theme, slowed and melancholic), Jones becomes a version of The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), ‘in its representation of males’ suburban nightmare, with their masculinity being symbolically stifled by work, family responsibilities and domestic conformity’ (Geraghty, 2009, 26). A scapegoat of the conservative culture (p.102) staged in Doom Town and policed by the FBI, having survived a nuclear blast is all the evidence the FBI needs to clip the professor’s wings.

With specific references to rock ’n’ roll, UFOs, Good Humor trucks, mushroom clouds and Hoover’s G-men, the opening sequences take the cultural pulse of the world that gave rise to the distinct 1950s complexion of SF film and literature. The manner of positioning viewers towards the multiple traumatic threats of state-sponsored paranoia about alien invasion and global war reminds us that the ‘1950s in America,’ as Keith Booker relates, ‘were informed by a radical doubleness,’ an era widely remembered as a ‘Golden Age of nuclear fear,’ a decade of prosperity haunted by the dual spectres of communism and the ‘witch-hunting forces of anti-communism’ (4, 5, 5): anxieties that inspired classic 1950s films like The War of the Worlds (1953), Invaders from Mars (1953), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), as well as the unease about nuclear weapons represented in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and the counterpoint to invasion in the 1953 film It Came from Outer Space (Vizzini, 31), an allegory of cultural relativism in which marooned ETs just want to go home. Epitomized by the protagonist’s discomfort in this environment, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull evokes the spectrum of political positions that have, in Steffen Hantke’s words, ‘become the basis for the current critical discussion on 1950s science fiction’ (2010, 147).11 But specific questions about the nature of the other, criticisms of domestic policy and ambivalent feelings about the nuclear future are displaced simultaneously into a more contemporary cultural gestalt signalled by the alien artefact. As an homage to the SF cinema of the atomic era, the film also circulates with a host of post-9/11 SF invasion films and television shows exemplified by recent remakes of War of the Worlds (2005) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), which stamp old invasion stories into new cultural currency.12 Jones is rehabilitated for the modern world through the aesthetics and politics of atomic crises that, as Wheeler Winston Dixon avers, have (p.103) returned with a vengeance. He asserts, perhaps hyperbolically, that ‘[i] n many respects we are living the 1950s right now: repressed, obsessed with “terror alerts,” eagerly seeking phantom security in ever-increasing hypersurveillance, reverting to the patriarchal order for a measure of safety and reassurance, retreating to our new digital home entertainment centers to experience the world as filtered through a variety of “news” filters’ (2005, 184). Adam Piette similarly observes that the Cold War ‘continues to live and thrive within our collective imaginations as a security state hysteria,’ a ‘paranoid field of fantasies’ (2) characterized by wars against mythologized enemies, the threats of WMDs and stealth weaponry, and, in the words of Fabienne Collignon, ‘pod-people hiding, waiting, in sleeper cells’ (2).

While it is too simplistic to graft wholesale these distinct geopolitical environments onto one another, it is nonetheless useful to consider to what extent a nostalgic Hollywood blockbuster can translate the paradoxes of the atomic age into ‘nuclear criticism’ of the present world. I suggest that the Nevada desert is itself a proving ground to test this question. As the chronotopic threshold into a cultural milieu that provides the basic vocabulary for the Golden Age of SF film, Nevada 1957 remains available to the modern imagination in the form of, as Joseph Masco puts it, a ‘dream space for a spectacular idea of progress,’ a ‘desert island within a military-industrial crypto-state, a place where secret military machines are designed, where atomic bombs are detonated, and where chemical weapons and nuclear waste are stored: it is a home, in other words, to all the “national security” technoscience supporting a superpowered military state.’ At the same time, the desert is also a ‘pristine tabula rasa,’ an ‘endlessly renewable frontier’ in which desires for freedom incarnated in the oasis city of Las Vegas remain powered by the utopian energies that gave birth to the nuclear age itself (24, 23, 24). In the American southwest freedom and orthodoxy vacillate endlessly between conceptualizations of the natural and social. Masco contends that the Nevada desert is a dreamland where ‘both citizens and officials have come to rely on tactical amnesia and temporal sutures to enable a precarious […] cosmology of progress, one fueled by high-octane combinations of risk, secrecy, utopian expectation, and paranoid anxiety in everyday life’ (24). The crystal skull in this sense is a cryptogram of this ‘cosmology,’ for its image cast upon the doomsday cloud ‘sutures’ the 1950s story world to the post-9/11 environment where questions of progress are reimagined through the myths of ancient astronauts, Mayan doomsday prophecies and the eternal return of the West to the desert cradle of civilization.

Like Masco’s symbology of the Nevada desert, the crystal skull is an ambivalent signifier of a cultural landscape rooted in myths of pristine (p.104) origin. The artefact transports Jones across the threshold of the nuclear age to the primal action spaces of raider legend, in this case to the jungles and ancient cities of South America. The invitation comes in the next sequence when Jones encounters a young greaser named ‘Mutt’ (Shia LaBeouf), who needs help finding a mutual friend, Professor Harold Oxley (John Hurt), who was abducted in the Amazon while searching for the crystal skull. Mutt’s mother, who turns out to be Jones’s amoureuse from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), is also missing. Over the course of the adventure Jones discovers that Mutt is his son. Jones does right by the boy and marries Marion at the end of the film. Having rescued his first love and old friend, the marriage reaffirms the stability of the nuclear family parodied in the decimation of Doom Town.

Nuclear controversies in both their political and domestic fashioning merge into contestations over the crystal skull, which is treated in the film as a bona fide Mesoamerican artefact. That the British Museum acquired one in 1856 and the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris featured them in their Mesoamerican display suggests that the skulls do have a scientific pedigree. But acquired mainly from antiquities markets and dealers, lacking proper archaeological context and showing clear evidence of modern lapidary tooling (Feder, 2010, 67–69), their archaeological value is limited to curiosities of nineteenth-century manufacture. Jones, however, understands them as ‘deity carvings,’ furnishing plausible authenticity for Spalko’s alternative archaeological researches. The Ancient Aliens episode ‘Crystal Skulls’ (7 October 2013) expounds upon the kinds of extra-terrestrial properties that Spielberg attributes to the McGuffin via Spalko: their ability to channel the psychic energy of advanced intelligences, store ancient knowledge, facilitate inter-dimensional travel and communication, and even trigger Armageddon. It is also purported in the episode that when the 13 ‘original’ skulls (presumably corresponding with the 13 rounds or baktuns of the Mayan long-count calendar) are gathered together their powers will be amplified. Reuniting the skulls for this purpose forms the basis of the narrative that follows.

Mutt relates that Oxley disappeared trying to take the artefact to a place called Akator. Jones fills in the details:

It’s a mythical lost city in the Amazon. Conquistadors called it El Dorado. Supposedly the Ugha tribe was chosen by the gods 7,000 years ago to build a giant city out of solid gold […] It had technology that wouldn’t be seen again for 5,000 years. Francisco de Orellana disappeared into the Amazon looking for it in 1546. I (p.105) almost died of typhus looking for it myself. I don’t think it exists […] The legend says that a crystal skull was stolen from Akator in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, and that whoever returns the skull to the city temple will be given control over its power.

Mutt furnishes a map in the form of a letter from Oxley in which is written a riddle: ‘Follow the lines in the earth only gods can read, which lead to Orellana’s Cradle guarded by the living dead.’ The solution is the ancient astronaut mecca, the Nazca lines, which point the way to Orellana’s grave where Oxley hid the skull from the Soviets. The treasure hunt begins in earnest: Jones and Mutt retrace the footsteps of the conquistadors, and in the process save Marion and Oxley and foil the Soviet plot to harness the power of the skull to infect the free world with communist ideology.

The riddle leads Jones and Mutt to a Catholic missionary sanatorium in Nazca where Oxley, having been driven mad by the crystal skull, was committed. The walls are covered in chalk sketches of an elongated skull, a map of an ‘Aztec’ graveyard, and the word ‘return’ written in many languages. The theme of return advances the plot by directing Jones to Orellana’s grave and then to Akator. The return satisfies the ancient astronaut tenet of reuniting the skulls, an outwardly liberal gesture that updates the raiding ethos for viewers uncomfortable with white men taking things from natives. Yet the action spaces available to Jones remain decidedly colonial in nature. Similar to Michael Bay’s compression of Egyptian archaeological sites into a single shooting location in Transformers 2, the protagonist adventures in an imperial geography that plays ‘fast and loose with […] Latin American history and myth, placing the Iguazu waterfalls in the Peruvian jungle, mixing in the Nazca lines with El Dorado, [and] fusing Mayan and Aztec and transporting them from Mesoamerica to South America’ (Scorer, 106). When the party lands at Nazca, Jones speaks Quechua with the indigenous people, a language, he relates to Mutt, that he learned while riding as a youth with Pancho Villa. While participating in a populist Mexican revolution may give Jones street credibility with the Peruvian natives, this historically revisionist gesture also naturalizes within the diegetic environment the kinds of aggressive post-war policies designed by the U.S. to counteract the ostensible expansion of Soviet influence in the western hemisphere (cf. Booker, 8). Jones’s nostalgic reminiscences are thereby coeval with the shifting neoimperial landscape wherein coveted non-Western territory is characterized by ideological contestation and covert influence rather than the kinds of physical occupation endemic of the colonial era that gave birth to the raider legend.

(p.106) As John Rieder argues in Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (2008), the colonial environment of the jungle and the postcolonial world of the Cold War are not easily distinguishable in the SF imaginary. Especially pertinent to the present study is his concluding chapter, ‘Visions of Catastrophe,’ which examines the genre’s problematic fascination with disaster and the critique of progress it implies. As evidenced by Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s nostalgic relationship with 1950s SF, the narrative of contagion and/or infiltration of the homeland by a malevolent foreign entity ‘achieves striking, symptomatic popularity in post-World War II American science fiction,’ reflecting ‘anxieties concerning America’s economic and cultural inundation of the postcolonial world, about the invisible but ever more pervasive power of new forms of multinational capitalism, or about the hybridization of the postimperial homelands’ (124, 148). Unlike nuclear fictions, these variants on the catastrophe theme work subtly to annihilate the fascinating differences that make any utopian sense of progress in SF possible. Rieder conjectures,

Might not the sense of America’s overwhelming cultural and economic ubiquity, taking the place of an older global economy’s reliance on colonial expropriation and imperial control, have lent considerable power to a type of science fiction story that we find repeated during the same years, in which […] a surreptitious or invisible foreign presence transforms signs and values, empties out older cultural artifacts and rituals, and refills them with fundamentally different motives and assumptions? (148)

If Jones is a victim of a shifting Cold War landscape that features alien Soviet scientists seeking to transform colonial freedom into postcolonial communist orthodoxy, the international race for the crystal skull also implicates the U.S. as authors of the kind of paranoid discourse used to rationalize the version of neoimperial expansion and indirect control Rieder describes. Purportedly a mind control device, the crystal skull is the ultimate SF touchstone for ‘transforming signs and values’ of ‘older cultural artifacts’ like Indiana Jones into a Cold War hero.

After securing the skull from the graveyard, Jones is captured promptly by Spalko. Strapped into a kind of dentist chair, he is positioned as a victim rather than perpetrator of the imperial contestation that drove him back into the jungle. Spalko forces him to gaze into the crystalline eye sockets, a procedure that she believes will establish a psychic bridge to the deranged Oxley, who knows the secret location of Akator. Jones stares hypnotically at the artefact. The camera slowly (p.107) zooms into the glowing sockets, then cuts to Spalko’s wide, penetrating eyes as she reveals her sinister plan:

Imagine, to appear across the world and know the enemy’s secrets. To place our thoughts into the minds of your leaders. Make your teachers teach the true version of history. Your soldiers attack on our command. We will be everywhere at once, no more powerful than a whisper, invading your dreams, thinking your thoughts for you as you sleep. We will change you, Dr. Jones, all of you, from the inside. We will turn you into us. And the best part? You won’t even know it’s happening.

A virtual compendium of the excesses of Cold War paranoia, Spalko’s dreamy monologue transforms the heretofore colonial artefact into an SF icon of Cold War cinema, an object of burgeoning American global hegemony mirrored in fears of Soviet mind control. As objective correlative of shifting generic and geopolitical registers, the crystal skull represents what is perhaps the most irrational yet fascinating strategic fiction of the Cold War era, brainwashing. According to Timothy Melley, brainwashing ‘became a meaningful cultural fantasy […] because it combines the thematics of secret agency and ideological conversion at the heart of cold warfare.’ Corresponding with the ‘growth of mass society at midcentury,’ which ‘created the need for a theory of social influence—a way of understanding how messages and institutions affect individual behavior and identity’ in an environment with a ‘profoundly different worldview of Communist peoples’—mind control was a self-fulfilling prophecy that rationalized covert warfare and counterterrorism by propagating widespread fear of an unseen enemy (2011, 23, 27).

From declassified CIA documents, Melley details a version of brainwashing that bears remarkable similarities to the contagion themes in Spielberg’s film. In broad strokes, mind control was invented by the CIA and ‘reported’ by Edward Hunter, a CIA propaganda specialist posing as a journalist. His book Brain-Washing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds (1951) popularized the idea that the psychological warfare purportedly waged by the communists in North Korea was ‘a deadly threat to the rugged individual autonomy that would win the Cold War.’ The ‘public concept of brainwashing was from the beginning a creation of the CIA’ for a propaganda campaign that deflected attention away from the secret development of ‘a real mind control weapon of its own.’ The CIA’s failure to find a ‘truth serum’ reveals that ‘Hunter’s vision of total control was itself a fiction designed to stir public fear,’ which was then leveraged to sanction CIA experiments (p.108) with new methods of physical torture and ‘enhanced interrogation,’ research that would later be employed in the war on terror (2011, 25, 28, 29). Melley’s short history of brainwashing goes like this:

the concept began as an orientalist propaganda fiction created by the CIA to mobilize domestic support for a massive military build-up. This fiction proved so effective that the CIA’s operations directorate believed it and began a furious search for a real mind-control weapon. The search resulted not in a miraculous new weapon but a program of simulated brainwashing designed as a prophylactic against enemy mistreatment. This simulation in turn became the real basis for interrogating detainees in the war on terror. In this way, the demonology of the Cold War took a surreal and bodily turn, as the institutions of the United States first imagined, then simulated, then projected onto a new enemy, their worst fears of Cold War Communism. (2011, 30–31)13

Circulating in an unacknowledged pact between popular culture and the CIA, brainwashing injected into the Cold War a ‘certain “postmodern” quality—a confusion of what is real and what is merely a strategic fiction.’ The ‘security state,’ he continues, ‘transformed the conditions of social knowledge […] in texts invested in demonstrating their own artifice and raising doubts about the nature of the real, the authentic, and the natural’ (2011, 32). Kingdom of the Crystal Skull capitalizes on this ‘postmodern quality’ of the Cold War. Pretexts for returning Jones to the jungle, the fictions of Cold War paranoia and governmentality that are so carefully foregrounded in the first half of the film are largely abandoned in the second. The film thus performs a mind control experiment on the audience, whereby the apocalyptic implications of ancient technology are deflected entirely into the minds of mad Soviets, and the struggles for world domination devolve into a treasure hunt for a mythical artefact.

At Akator the colonialist logic that underscores the ancient astronaut premise is represented by a fresco depicting the 5,000-year-old story of sky gods with elongated skulls imparting the skills of civilization to the native ‘Ugha.’ Solving various archaeological riddles and booby traps—and staving off a band of hybrid Mesoamerican Ugha guardians emerging as living incarnations of the carvings—the party finally enters a temple complex inspired by Mayan cities like Chichen Itza and Copan. They stumble onto an amazing site, a vast storehouse of (p.109) archaeological artefacts gathered from ancient civilizations all around the globe. ‘Collectors,’ Jones reverently observes. ‘They were archaeologists.’ In this extra-terrestrial museum, Jones meets his own past and future in the pursuits of beings responsible for kick-starting humanity’s evolution. In an inner sanctum they find the crystalline skeletons of 13 aliens awaiting the return of their comrade. The crowning moment of the return of the crystal skull is upstaged by Spalko, who beholds in these beings the perfect incarnation of Soviet ideology, a ‘hive mind’ with a ‘collective consciousness, more powerful together than they could ever be apart.’

The notion of the return carries two distinct meanings in this scene. What for Jones is an issue of repatriation is for Spalko a hubristic desire to want to ‘know everything.’ But what is the nature of this knowledge, and is it so distinct from Jones’s own worldview as an adventuring scholar? These questions are answered cinemagraphically through the apocalyptic spectacle with which the film concludes. Spalko is hypnotized by the skull. Her mind and body are destroyed, overloaded by the knowledge/power she seeks to imbibe from this holy grail of communist ideology. The temple itself has been built around an inter-dimensional spaceship that takes off in a cataclysm that destroys the Soviets, the archaeological treasure and the temple complex itself. Jones looks up at the spaceship mushrooming up from the ground, a dark mirror of the atomic test shot. As in Manticore, Stargate SG-1 and Transformers 2, threats to national security are deflected onto an archaeological record that hides doomsday weapons attractive to rogue powers, a material past that must be demolished in spectacular—and spectacularly ironic—demonstrations of control and ownership.

I suggest, moreover, that the apocalyptic associations attached to the ancient astronauts assume a distinctly contemporary complexion in the finale. Regaining his wits, Oxley reveals that the beings are not heading into outer space, but ‘the space between spaces.’ This enigmatic utterance sustains the mystery of the McGuffin/artefact, but it is also an oblique testament to the age of global terrorism, in which threats are no longer imaged spatially as exterior. Like the Cold War era Soviets, the aliens are evocative of a geopolitical environment in which, as Markus Kienscherf argues, ‘insecurities and threats are […] problematized as circulating below, across and beyond state borders’ in a world where ‘violence in general, and the threat of terrorism in particular’ is ‘increasingly held to emanate from fluid, mobile and networked organizations that operate across different spatial scales. These insecurities are, moreover, deemed to cut across the traditional division between domestic public safety and foreign defense’ (3, 5). The (p.110) porous borders between outer and inner space accommodate internal threats of Soviets looting the military warehouse at Area 51, colonial adventuring in politically borderless ancient territories, and the vertical ‘raiding’ imagery of underground descents and ascents. After the ship saucers away to the ‘space between spaces,’ Jones remarks, ‘knowledge was their treasure.’ An affirmation of the ancient astronaut premise of gifts of knowledge from superior beings, such knowledge also coincides with the particular anxieties associated with this second mushroom cloud erupting out of the Peruvian jungle. Jones readily identifies with beings who take things from primitive peoples in exchange for foreign wisdom. But so does Spalko. The treasure hoard of knowledge is thereby constitutive of the scientific practices that accommodate the ‘gift’ of archaeological knowledge in a geopolitical climate in which intelligence is also framed by paranoid agencies like the FBI, CIA and KGB. Through the SF thematics of invasion and apocalypse, control of archaeological knowledge remains immured in a remarkably imperialist worldview governed by strategic fictions of security and insecurity.

Refracted through the lens of 1950s SF cinema and post-9/11 ancient astronaut discourse, faith in the potentially redemptive nature of archaeology is also a strategic fiction in the war on terror. In its many incarnations in the film, the notion of the return—to sites of former colonial influence, of repatriating artefacts and reuniting with supreme beings—brings us full circle to the problematic ‘return to Babylon’ outlined in Part 1 of the present study, in which Western archaeologists have returned to wield new forms of global power through reinvigorated symbolic claims on the cradle of civilization. Collapsing dangerous intelligence into benign forms of academic knowledge at the film’s conclusion reaffirms the colonial premise of a franchise whose flirtations with SF in the figure of ancient astronauts also circulate as a contemporary sign of the end of times visualized spatially as an exploding museum and an exploding mind. Erasure of the past is the future predicted in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, whose spectacles of violence deflect terror onto dangerous others hidden among us.

Reminiscent of Reinhard Bernbeck’s discussion of ‘structural violence’ in academic archaeology in the U.S. and Christina Luke and Morag Kersel’s discussion of archaeological diplomacy in Soft Power, Hard Heritage, Erik Nemeth’s article ‘Collecting Cultural Intelligence: The Tactical Value of Cultural Property’ (2011) examines the strategic role artefacts play in the field of international security. Because cultural property is targeted for looting and funding politically motivated violence, he argues that developing security programmes in conjunction with cultural heritage preservation is now of significant interest to (p.111) policy makers.14 But considering neither the historical nor regional sources of violence in the Middle East, Nemeth’s formulation of cultural intelligence replicates the paranoid relationship between national security and material remains dramatized in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Security in this sense is potentially hazardous to both history and people when used to extend and naturalize globalization under the pretext of promoting, as Luke and Kersel relate, a ‘positive image of the United States, especially in a charged climate of objects and sites under threat, sometimes as a result of U.S. actions.’ By ‘exploiting threat and emphasizing security protection in order to justify U.S. programs’ (81), artefact preservation has become a cultural weapon in the arsenal against terrorism. Baudrillard (2006) likewise reminds us that the gift of global security can always be returned, as demonstrated by ISIS’s demolition of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites at Palmyra and Nimrud. ISIS has shown us our own death not entirely in terms of the spread of religious fundamentalism and radicalization, but as our own murder of heritage in mad parodies of material consumerist progress in places like Survival City.

At the close of the film Jones leaves the jungle to be with his new family. He is reinstated at Marshall College and promoted to Associate Dean. His first love and only son are returned to him just as he returned the crystal skull to its kind. A question remains, however: does this simulation of repatriation offer adequate compensation for a history of raiding rationalized now by superior beings who destroy the material past in displays of superior wisdom? While we wait for the aliens to return for a definitive answer, we can consider how the issues of control over historical narrative, ownership of cultural property and popular representations of geopolitics converge in the return of another iconic American hero to post-9/11 SFFTV, Superman. The nature of material history in Smallville’s timely excavation of the Superman myth is the subject of the next chapter.


(1) Biskind, 103.

(4) This aspect of the Indiana Jones films has garnered considerable critical attention. Cf. Morris, 102–12; Shohat and Stam, 124; Tomasulo, 333; Weaver-Hightower; and Zimmerman, 37. For an argument for Jones’s liberal values see Friedman, 112–18. See also Aronstein and Biber for analyses of the franchise’s political alignment with Reagan era neoimperialism.

(5) The sign is a thinly veiled reference to the famous Little A’Le’Inn Café in Rachel, near Area 51, a gathering place for UFO conspiracy theorists (cf. Lepselter).

(6) See Matthews for an extensive study of the relationship between civil defence authorities and the television and film industries. Scheibach, 2009, provides facsimiles of government publications related to civil defence.

(7) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRKcstl62-c. Operation Cue’s nuclear test ‘Apple-2—Survival Town’ was broadcast on 5 May 1955.

(8) Lisa Yaszek, 2011, discusses the trope of nuclear domesticity in her analysis of the Motorola Television Hour episode ‘Atomic Attack’ (1954), which deals with a family’s response to nuclear bombs obliterating New York City. The show references Los Alamos in that the men in the suburban neighbourhood work in the nearby rocket programme installation. Cf. George on gendering of SF films, particularly Chapter 4, ‘Invasion from Within: Mom, the Nuclear Family, and Suburban Masculinity,’ 85–106. Cf. Hendershot, 97–107. Matthews, 95–100, provides a reading of ‘Atomic Attacks’ as exemplary of television’s collaboration with civil defence exercises.

(9) A similar test at Yucca Flats was broadcast live on 17 March 1953 (Matthews, 84–85).

(10) Cf. Collignon.

(11) Jeff Smith, 1–16, provides a historical overview of the critical attention to Cold War subtexts in cinema. Chapter 7, ‘Loving the Alien: Science Fiction Cinema as Cold War Allegory,’ is a history of this critical trend (239–71). Among the many studies of the socio-political dynamics in 1950s SF film are Biskind; Booker; Dixon, 2005, 103–33; Hendershot; Jancovich; Luckhurst, 92–119; Scheibach, 2003; and Seed, 1999a.

(12) Stacey Takacs and Steffen Hantke, 2010, explicitly connect 1950s invasion and paranoia tropes with several television series that emerged for single season runs in 2005–06, Surface, Threshold and Invasion. Battlestar Galactica (2004–09) also fits these criteria, as does the more recent show Colony (2016–).

(13) For a thorough history of this phenomenon in literature see Seed, 2004.