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« In Which Señor Spielbergo Delivers Los Hobbits | Main | In Which We Relive A Week That Scarred Us All Forever »
Monday
May262008

In Which Indiana Jones Starts A Punch Up In A Soda Shop

Fear of the Berg

by Karina Wolf

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

dir. Steven Spielberg

124 minutes

I once had an employer who was asked to do an Interview-style conversation piece with Nora Ephron. Both participants had the right to redact the transcript before publication. The only thing Ephron excised was my boss's tirade about how Spielberg ruined the movie industry when Jaws distorted industry expectations for a film's opening box office.

This isn't exactly revolutionary criticism; I'm pretty sure the argument was lifted straight out of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Nonetheless, Nora didn't seem to want her name anywhere near a critical dressing down of Spielberg. She's still trying to make a living in the movies, after all, and people in the movie industry are afraid to piss off Spielberg.

We have to be a little grateful, then, for Manohla Dargis' appraisal that the new Indiana Jones is ripe for a YouTube mashup. It's a politic way of saying that the fourth Jones installment is a mashup - of every film that Spielberg and Lucas have ever seen/enjoyed/earned points on.

Unfortunately the source material makes for more compelling viewing: echoes of The Ten Commandments, The Wild One, Rebel Without A Cause make me want to revisit the originals… though, I admit, Crystal Skull contains about as much of Apocalypto as I'd ever want to see.

Between these gimmicks (Shia LeBoeuf is not Marlon Brando) the dramatic premise is baffling—Cold War Communists in search of psychic weapons? I kept thinking I had wandered into the X Files sequel. Despite provoking the ire of present day Russians, the film leans on a global conflict that, as portrayed, is too virtual.

The Nazis—villains of Jones parts one and three—have an easily quantifiable casualty risk. What are the consequences of this fight, when a mushroom-cloud is played for laughs and "I Like Ike" is spoken with more chauvinism than irony?

Like 007, the Jones series works well when it coincides with topical world conflict. Nuclear disarmament is still an urgent issue—but we wouldn't know that from Indy's lighthearted romp through Silkwood territory. I know Lucasfilm is counting on a viewership of 8 year olds—but even a kid audience needs a fight worth winning so that all the egghead anthropological detail adds up to something.

Conversely, Harrison Ford is always better when comedy interrupts his pursuit of patriotic machismo. But the film is a nod to not one but two culturally static and humorless American eras. Ford is reduced to starting a punch up in a soda shop and attempting to call his son Junior.

The gee whiz reminiscences from the 50s can be charming; more troublingly, we get a re-working of many of the lucrative film franchises of the 80s. The guys from Knocked Up did a better job of paying tribute to Back to the Future when they riff on revving the DeLorian up to 88.

A red sea of ants is less poached from Cecil B. DeMille than from the melting Nazi scene in the original Jones pic. Crystal Skull is cannibalizing its own mythology, and not in a nifty, ouroboros sort of way. Was this script written in 1989, and someone slapped David Koepp's name on it to make it seem current?

Once the action heads to the Amazon, it is only a matter of time before the story "pays tribute" to one of my favorite 80s adventures, Romancing the Stone. Go back and revisit Joan Wilder; you'll enjoy her search for El Tenador Del Diablo much more than Jones' fieldwork.

If you've seen that film, you'll recognize a super-sized "Lupe's escape" (flight from gun-toting bandits by steering a vehicle over a waterfall) and familiar excavation of treasure behind a cataract. In the 80s, we had Danny DeVito mangling Spanish. Now, we have John Hurt speaking in tongues. He's our go-to actor for otherworldly possession. I'm not sure whether he's recycling Beckett or a character from Skeleton Key.

And what exactly has possessed Cate Blanchett, who evokes neither laughs nor true villainy? Her character's lust for the magnetized, semiprecious alien skeletons is never quite explained.

Maybe the film follows another Latin American phenomenon, described in Shirley MacLaine's Out on a Limb. When the actress/mysticist travelled to Peru to look for extraterrestrials, she learned that only the individuals who were ready to see UFOs were gifted with a glimpse of the levitating saucers. When we're evolved enough, we'll understand why the fourth Indiana Jones is here.

Karina Wolf is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find more of her work here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Her blog is here.

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