Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

John Williams

Rating: 8.7

It's The Phantom Menace all over again. It's every film music fan's dream (or nightmare) come true. It's anything but under-anticipated. It is, in fact, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Hype seems like too tame a word for the recently released addition to the beloved Indiana Jones series. The themes which the general public can recognize and whistle 18 years after the fact (the most recent fact, that is) are few and far, far between. Of course, John Williams scores seem to be some of the only ones with that type of longevity (Jaws, E. T., Star Wars), and we have already seen old themes reprised in a new series, with great box office success, in the form of the prequel Star Wars movies.

The similarities between The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Phantom Menace are obvious and comparisons have been going on for quite some time on the internet. For The Phantom Menace, Williams composed an amazingly epic, fun, adventurous, fascinating and meaningful score, which was subsequently ripped to shreds and pasted back in wherever Lucas felt it would be right. This is a very sore-spot for film music fans. The material quality vs. presentation quality difference has rarely been more pronounced, and Lucas' habit of jumping between battle scenes resulted in snippets of "Duel of the Fates" being stuck in with Gungan, semi-slapstick battle music. The result is a disaster that film music fans have worked extremely hard to unravel and turn into something similar to what Williams must have envisioned. It would have not been as bad had Lucas made all of the cuts before Williams composed the music. But, because of the order, the cuts mean very little musically. I think this might have been the downfall of Attack of the Clones as well. When Williams saw the type of musical artistic compromise that was Lucas' editing, he had a much harder time putting as much effort into the second installment. Of course, this is nothing but conjecture on my part, and I have yet to form a complete opinion on why, after this, Revenge of the Sith was such a complete musical triumph.

But enough on Star Wars. Why is this relevant to an Indian Jones review? The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had a very similar anticipation level going in. Expectations were at fever pitch, just like they were for The Phantom Menace, and Williams had the almost impossible task of living up to those expectations. But he put everything he had into it, and, as opposed to The Phantom Menace, it paid off. This time 'round Spielberg was in the director's chair, and, as a result, the film is beautifully shot, the dialogue is impressive, and the music, thankfully, seems to be relatively intact.

So, then, what of the music? First of all, of course, we are treated to the first really good quality recording of the "Raiders March". After 18 years and endless overplaying it has lost none of its effect, and remains one of the best adventure themes ever. Part way through the track it segues into Marion's theme, which, I always thought, far outdid the character and was far more than she deserved. Beautiful and soaring, it, too, remains one of the most effective love themes. Nothing of great interest is done with these two themes presentation, but they serve to create a "Here we go again" sense of excitement.

Williams composed three new major themes for this installment, and each one is impressive and deserves a close look. First of all, the Crystal Skull theme gets a complete concert arrangement on the track "Call of the Crystal". The theme really is an interesting combination of theme and motif. There is a three note motif that is used as the Crystal Skull motif throughout, and is very effective inverted as well, but there is also a more drawn out melody that is usually played on top of the motif. The result is that there really are two different musical representations of the Crystal Skull, and while they work wonderfully together, they can both function excellently on their own.

Next in the line-up of new themes is Mutt's treatment. Mutt, as Williams put it, is more of a Robin Hood character. He is flamboyant, he swings on vines and he sword fights. What more could you ask for in musical material? Williams, of course, does not disappoint, and while this is perhaps the weakest in a very strong line-up of new themes, it is still a fun ride. The scherzo-type piece is both fast-paced and thematic, a combination that some consider to be sadly lacking in much of Williams new music. The music is used effectively throughout the soundtrack, and gets a very good concert treatment on the track "The Adventures of Mutt".

Irina's theme is my personal favorite of the new themes. While the Crystal Skull theme fits its material perfectly and Mutt's theme is a blast to listen to, Irina's theme is an amazing combination of the two. Though the concert arrangement on the track "Irina's Theme" is short and a little disappointing for the obvious potential of the theme, it is used on many other tracks very effectively. Seductive and dangerous, Williams chromatic melody outlines a musical identity of a level of completeness rarely found in the modern film score scene. Though the most commonly used role for the theme is a seductive one, some of the greatest moments in the score are the march treatments. The versatility of the theme is a tribute to the genius of Williams.

Following the first four tracks of concert arrangements, all the new themes begin to turn into something meaningful. Williams uses the Raiders March theme to great effect once again as part of action cues, such as the beginning of "The Journey to Akator". "A Whirl Through Academe" shows intelligent use of two theme-based actions music, with both the Raiders March and Mutt's theme laying the groundwork for a fast paced piece of music. "The Spell of the Skull" and "Return" are dark, brooding cues based on the Crystal Skull theme, and "Return" builds the theme through an orchestral crescendo impressively before suddenly returning to low, menacing music. Outside of the concert arrangement, "The Jungle Chase" is the first of the tracks to showcase Irina's theme. But that is not all this gem of a track contains. Williams further complicates things by turning this action cue into a three theme based piece of music, with Raider's March, Mutt's theme and Irina's theme all getting chances at center stage. The march renditions of Irina's theme presented on this track are some of the best moments in the entire soundtrack.

From this point on in the album presentation the music takes on a darker tone. The Crystal Skull theme begins to be the more dominant theme, and its brooding harmonies control a large portion of the remaining soundscape. "Orellana's Cradle" uses the Crystal Skull theme, and never builds to much of anything, wandering instead among the Skull's dark tones, before doing an interesting attempt at the the Raiders March, which drops down and fades away quickly. "Grave Robbers" is a percussion driven piece, which treads an interesting line between brooding and action. Ethnic drums and swirling string pizzicato combine to create very foreign textures. The Crystal Skull melodic theme is used in the tense "Hidden Treasure and the City of Gold". Building to a crescendo that ends in the middle of the track, the music then turns into an impressive display of continually tense action music. Instead of Williams normal fast paced and wild action music, he uses repeating string motifs to keep tension high, while signaling danger throughout the brass section.

After wondering through more brooding music based on the Crystal Skull theme, we get to Williams musical representation of ants on the track "Ants!". Though perhaps not the most original of orchestrations, the swirling string section is effective to say the least, and, living in Florida, I can tell you just how well the music represents the creepy-crawlies. "Temple Ruins and the Secret Revealed" takes the tension up a notch, and holds it there for the duration of the track, before finally being released with the Raiders March theme in "The Departure", after which Williams builds to an appropriate finale, which ends on a curiously subsided note. "Finale" is 9:20 minutes of pure Indiana Jones musical enjoyment. Beginning with a rendition of Marion's theme, it quickly goes back to the Raiders March, in all of its full-blown glory. This track, being used as the music for the credits is really nothing but a tour-de-force of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull themes, and next in line is Irina, followed closely by Mutt's spunky musical identity. Marion's theme gets reprised once again, before we get one more full blown blast of the Raiders March, which turns into a fascinating show of Williams skill in counterpoint, before taking a surprising and fascinating build-up into the last orchestral hit.

Not only is this the first Indiana Jones score in 18 years, it is the first Williams score in two years, the longest break between scores in Williams' film scoring history. But once again Williams shows he has not lost his touch, and, though it might take a little longer at his present age, his end-product is far above any competition in the modern film scoring scene. I would say what the Crystal Skull theme represents, and how it blows away all competition, but that would give away too much of the story. Once you know what Williams is representing with this theme, it is obvious that he can represent it far better than any one else today. Mutt's theme is fun, and a worthy addition to the impressive array of Indiana Jones themes. Irina's theme, as I have already said, is my favorite of the new themes, and is a perfect character representation. All in all, I don't think it is too early to start talking Academy Awards. Finally, we have another Williams score, and believe me, it has been worth the wait.

-Colin Thomson

Track Listing:

Raiders March
Call of the Crystal
The Adventures of Mutt
Irina's Theme
The Snake Pit
The Spell of the Skull
The Journey to Akator
A Whirl Through Academe
The Jungle Chase
Orellana's Cradle
Grave Robbers
Hidden Treasure and the City of Gold
Secret Doors and Scorpions
Oxley's Dilemma
Temple Ruins and the Secret Revealed
The Departure


Anonymous said...

I actually think this score is quite dull. I bought it the same time as "Prince Caspian" and I listen to Caspian a lot more.

Colin Thomson said...

Interesting comparison. I also bought them at the same time. Prince Caspian is an improvement on its predecessor, while the new Indiana Jones movie is more like a rip-off of its predecessor. But, as far as an enjoyable listen goes, The Crystal Skull is much less generic, and so more enjoyable for me. Prince Caspian also annoys me with its recording quality. It is all so wet and mushy that it can sometimes be hard to hear what exactly is happening, while The Crystal Skull is one of the better recordings of recent, and it is most certainly a joy to be able to hear the Raiders March in good quality for the first time...

Anonymous said...

I do enjoy the Raiders theme quite a lot and you're right, Indy 4 is recorded better and the sound is cleaner sounding.

Anonymous said...

Whilst the highlights for me differ slightly… I agree with the sentiment of your review. It’s a great soundtrack and is one of the better Williams scores. Good review – well done.

Paul (AKA Doctor Villainous).