Imagine an old-time movie serial, the sort that played the matinees during Hollywood's Golden Age, but with the production value of a A-list film, acting that hasn't been rushed, and a script that would hold together at a single viewing. Made for a more sophisticated audience than those old cliffhangers were, it would be shot tongue-in-cheek and play as pastiche. The film would feature novel, death-defying stunts and the men would wear hats. Entitled Raiders of the Lost Ark, this film established Harrison Ford as his generation's cinematic hero, ensconced Indiana Jones in the popgeist, and proved the big hit of summer '81. Raiders of the Lost Ark works because it succeeds pretty much perfectly at being what it intends to be.1
And so it begot sequels.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a prequel, suffers from a darker, humorless tone, an annoying kid sidekick, and a screechy love interest. It also raised concerns (particularly in India) about its depiction of Hindus. It features a lengthy chase sequence tailor-made to be a videogame and a thrill ride, but generally did not live up to the original. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade comes closer to the original. Both the title and the final scene make a fitting conclusion to the series. I enjoyed it, but could not help think the entire series would have been better if it had remained a single film. Why make sequels? Weren't George Lucas and Steven Spielberg rich enough? Didn't they have other projects to pursue?
Nearly twenty years after The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones returned to the big screen.2 Although the cliffhangers, far-fetched action sequences, and cartoon physics of the old serials remain, the sense that we’re watching a pastiche has long since passed. Mostly, Spielberg and Lucas appear to be referencing their own films. We open with a tribute to American Graffiti and conclude with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I'm surprised that Indy didn't jump over Jaws along the way.3 Granted, the earlier Indiana Jones outings include references to the filmmakers' other movies, but these were quick gags, unrelated to the main matter. Or maybe I just find self-referential humour funnier when I enjoy the context.
I didn't especially enjoy The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The story begins with communist agents, led by Cate Blanchett, an evil Soviet psychic whose powers figure in the opening and then are largely forgotten for the remainder of the film. The Stalinist spies have captured a certain hat-wearing professor and taken him to a vast warehouse in Area 51, searching for a missing artifact. The commies apparently seek sources of supernatural power, as the Nazis had before them, and the particular item they seek connects to the mysterious crystal skulls. Indy escapes capture and survives a nuclear strike, but soon finds himself under suspicion and on another wild adventure. This one concerns a missing colleague, Harold Oxley (John Hurt), who had been obsessed with the skulls.
Speaking of shark-jumps, Indy receives a new sidekick, a young tough-guy named "Mutt," played by Shia LaBeouf channeling Jimmy Dean, The Wild One, and the original shark-jumper, Arthur Fonzerelli. Mutt's mother, an old friend of Dr. Jones's, has been kidnapped. Of course, our intrepid archaeologist fails to recognize what the audience immediately knows, that the mother in question, named "Mary," will be Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Indy's flame from the original film. In any case, Mutt and Jones engage in a fairly entertaining high-speed chase around campus before leaving for South America, with communist agents in pursuit and all plot threads converging.
What follows features high production values, of course, haunted house scares, and spectacular effects. In place of Raiders’ snakes and Temple’s bugs, Kingdom provides us with giant CGI ants. There's also a fair bit of violence. Along the way, the film sadly resurrects the racism implicit in old action movies. Indigenous people appear twice, in each case functioning as scary pop-up targets for Caucasian heroes and villains alike.4
The action goes further over the top than in any previous film, proving that cliché that bigger is not always better. Indiana Jones never tried to be realistic; here, the events become surrealistic. I simply could not care about anything that happened by the end of the film. When the heroes survive, say, nuclear strike and Niagara-dwarfing drops but villains are taken out by insects, suspense no longer exists. The characters and events were so ridiculous that I could only enjoy them as visceral thrills. And there are reasons roller-coaster rides don't last for hours.
Many people thoroughly enjoyed this film, and if you're only in for the popcorn movie jolts, you might find the flick worth your money. Certainly, the small screen will diminish much of the appeal. I myself found it far beneath the standard of the original—but then, I'm not Spielberg or Lucas, and I don't stand to profit from endlessly recycling their past successes.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: David Koepp, George Lucas
Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones
Cate Blancett as Dr. Irina Spalko
Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood Williams
Shia LaBeouf as Mutt Williams
Ray Winstone as "Mac" McHale
John Hurt as "Ox" Oxley
Jim Broadbent as Dean Charles Stanforth
Igor Jijikine as Dovchenko
A bunch of CGI Praire Dogs as a Pointless Waste of Time
1. I saw the original for the first time with a high-school girlfriend whom, I subsequently learned, had a morbid fear of snakes. Possibly, it was not the best choice for a date movie.
2. This is the fourth film, but Harrison Ford’s fifth appearance as the adventurous Dr. Jones. One episode of the short-lived The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles tv series featured Ford in a framing sequence, from which he tells the story in flashback.
3. The scene where Jones survives a nuclear strike by hiding in a fridge has birthed an online meme: "Nuking the fridge" as the new "Jumping the shark."
As far as the aliens go: when I first heard of their involvement, I had hoped the film would be a pastiche of 50s' drive-in SF. That might have breathed some life into the series.
Warning: Major Spoiler
I mean, how many people saw this coming?
It's kind of obvious, really.
I’m just sayin'.
4. While we're on the subject of problematic political issues in pop movies, this film also revives the cliché of the hero who fathers a son he doesn't know about. He gets the privileges and pride of being a dad, without the hard work and drudgery, and he avoids accusations of being a cad, because he never knew the son existed.