Monday, June 2, 2008

False Promises and Indiana Jones

Steven Spielberg’s most blockbustery films have always wed big-budget commerciality to some stream of deeper issues running beneath the narrative’s surface—the collapse of childhood in ET, the psychology of fear in Jaws, and most importantly, the danger of cloned dinosaurs running amok on a Costa Rican island in Jurassic Park. But take away either the commerciality (as in Amistad, or A.I.) or the depth (as in 1941) and you’re left with an unsettlingly mediocre experience, and that's just what you get with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Midway through its first act, our eponymous hero, having just been launched a preposterous distance by the force of an atomic blast (in a 50s-era refrigerator—but at least it’s lead-lined, so we know this is all totally plausible), scampers up an embankment to survey the oblivion. Lurching into frame, Indiana is dwarfed completely by the iconic mushroom cloud billowing heavenwards. It’s the first of many hints that Indy has aged into a world beyond him, a world in which the miracle of the split atom is every bit as important as the miracles of the Lost Ark or the Holy Grail. In a literal flash, everything that defined Indiana Jones over the past three decades seemingly disappears: once a fierce detractor of the US government, Jones has become an OSS agent in the intervening years; a lone wolf defined by his transient relationships, Indy somehow picked up a steady sidekick in the War.

It’s a promising proposition: rarely (if ever) is an audience given the perspective of enough time to watch a character—much less a cultural icon—evolve into something completely different, whether by conscious decision making or by fading away into obsolescence. But that potential payoff quickly disappears, as we’re quickly reminded that, while our own reality is suffused with vicissitudes both bitter and sweet, movie heroes suffer no such indignities. At a stroke, Spielberg undermines whatever deeper currents may have been at work for Crystal Skull. “We’re at an age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away,” Indiana opines to an old friend, just after receiving news of his dismissal, but neither he nor Spielberg ever really mean it. Indiana hasn’t lost his breezy self-confidence or his superior physical skills: he’s able to crack wise and crack skulls with the same old aplomb, and all the while careening down a narrow dirt lane in a Brazilian rainforest to boot. And as for that whole life-taketh-away thing? By film’s end, Indiana ends up with a family without even trying.

At the climax, Indiana once again surveys a scene of spectacular destruction, as a spaceship twirls with enough force to destroy an ancient temple and divert the mighty Amazon from its course. It’s the perfect inverse bookend to the mushroom cloud shot earlier on. Indiana is master of this domain. He has engineered these events, and he watches not from below but from above. He is no longer a solitary figure defined against the grandeur in the distance; He is the Almighty observing his creation. He is Zeus on Olympus. He alone knows what it all means, and he alone knows where it’s all going, as the promise of a fallible American hero once again circles the drain.

Maybe next time.


Sofistafunk said...

Your review ended up being a lot more measured than I was expecting. Nevertheless, I enjoyed your exegesis. I have to admit, none of this stuff occurred to me, mostly because I was too busy being pissed off about the aliens. I mean really, did it have to be aliens?! I felt like I was watching a bad episode of Dr. Who, but without all the endearing Britishisms.

Point taken about the infallible American hero, but wasn’t it kind of neat to see Indy still celebrated as the infallible hero despite his age? We live in a culture of youth worship where age is practically equated with disability, so it was interesting and sort of charming to see the greyed and jowly Harrison Ford still kicking fascist ass. It was still a shitty, shitty movie, though I would say better, or at least more enjoyable, than “Temple of Doom” (am I going to be shot for saying that?).

Steven said...

Well, I would have been more disappointed with the way the story and characters were shunted along fairly inexplicably (or incomprehensibly--I still don't entirely understand what was up with Cate Blanchett or John Hurt), but that was sort of to be expected with George Lucas latching on to the script.

But the way Spielberg/Lucas latched on to this whole idea of frailty was pretty cool in the first act--here's a guy who's still a swashbuckling globetrekker, only it's no longer enough to get him where he wants to be. From that point, they could have done two things: either continue exploring that obsolescence, or have Indy build up his mojo over the course of the film. Instead, they just shoehorned us back to the status quo with nary an explanation, and it felt unearned.

Steven said...

And no, Temple of Doom sucked hard. This one at least had some redeeming qualities.