Monday, November 10, 2008

The Wasting of Indiana Jones

Though Hollywood blockbusters certainly aren't going to be the regular focus, here, something Indiana Jones-related seems only appropriate when launching a blog devoted to cinematic "archaeology." Here's a piece I wrote this summer, some ruminations about the latest Indy Jones adventure:

Tues., 8 July, 2008

Saturday night, I went to see INDIANA JONES & THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. I saw it because I was taking my family to a movie and knew it would be one they'd enjoy. I held to no illusions about the chances of it being worth my own tie. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is a modern action classic and one of the best films of its kind but the sequels went from bad to worse, with THE LAST CRUSADE being virtually unwatchable. Still, I've been, for 27 years, an enthusiastic fan of RAIDERS, I love the Indiana Jones character and there's always that tiny little glimmer of hope that maybe those behind the franchise will have finally come to understand why that first movie worked and get the new one right, for a change.

It's a good thing that little glimmer is so tiny. CRYSTAL SKULL is another mess, combining all the flash and noise of the worst of Hollywood summer blockbuster cinema and filled out with one unspeakably stupid CGI-laden set-piece after another. It's so awful that I'm hesitant to say much of anything good about it for fear of leaving a misimpression that it's anything short of awful. It isn't. Short review: It sucks.

But it made me really think about something.

Not new thoughts, mind you. And not the usual depressing "what's the world coming to?" thoughts one has upon seeing the excretion of such a wretched turd while pondering its massive box-office take. Rather, it made me revisit some thoughts I'd already had about the previous Indy outings. CRYSTAL SKULL didn't just raise them--it put them into much sharper relief than any of the other films.

Indiana Jones is an archetype, the scholar hero. We don't get a lot of those anymore. It's one that has rather dramatically fallen out of fashion in popular entertainment in recent decades. With so few, it's even more rare to get one who is as utterly likable as Jones (thanks, in no small part, to Harrison Ford). The characters' value as a scholar hero has been widely discussed. Dr. Jones isn't the action hero that has dominated popular entertainment for so long. He isn't a monosyllabic muscleman. He isn't driven by a thirst for revenge or the pursuit of wealth. Indy's quest is a noble one--he digs through dusty temples and ponders ancient puzzles for the purpose of expanding man's knowledge, routinely risking life and limb in the quest. His greatest tool in this venture is his mind.

And if he has to sometimes crack a whip and even a few skulls to do it, it's just more entertaining.

To those of us who value learning--quite a devalued commodity in this conservative age--Indiana Jones has been an icon. The Archaeological Institute of America has even elected Harrison Ford to their Board of Directors.

All of this hasn't been lost on Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. CRYSTAL SKULL, in fact, puts this matter front-and-center, providing Indy with a foil in the form of a young punk without proper respect for education (Shia Labouff). Throughout the movie, as the two struggle to solve the riddle of the crystal skull, Indy takes the boy to school, as it were.

This is the only aspect of CRYSTAL SKULL worthy of praise, and not just because of its intentions but because of how well the film usually pulls it off. The dialogue through which all of this is played out genuinely works.

Here, however, we run into the problem that has plagued all of Indiana Jones' celluloid adventures. Indy is all about using one's mind, and about the pursuit of knowledge as a good in itself, but what he's always pursuing in these films is some object that would be more at home in the crackpot literature of what may broadly be called Pyramidiots, the not-insignificant cult of simple souls who have endlessly plagued real scientific research (and basic cable channels) with their crackpot conspiracy theories, their tall tales of men from Atlantis, their nonsense about beings from another world building the pyramids of Egypt and more other cynical con-games and baseless, anti-informed speculations than can be easily listed.

The problems with this contingent go all the way back to the birth of archaeology, when they began stomping all over the Middle East "with spade in one hand and Bible in the other" trying to "prove" the Old Testament true and succeeding only in making a mess of things. They continue to this day, when the internet has given every crackpot with a phone-line the means to proselytize, and we see cable networks like the Discovery Channel and the History Channel running endless televised "quests" for Noah's Ark or rehashing "Chariots of the Gods." The success of "The DaVinci Code" (both the book and the film) brought a new round of such nonsense, particularly centered around the Holy Grail. The grail, as every serious scholar acknowledges, is a myth of the Middle Ages but in THE LAST CRUSADE, there was Indy Jones seeking it out and finding it.

CRYSTAL SKULL is even more offensive in this respect. A contingent of our Pyramidiots begin with the fact-free premise that humans of the ancient world couldn't possibly have built ____ (fill in the blank with whatever ancient wonder one likes). Therefore, it must have been aliens or some lost, technologically advanced people (from Atlantis or wherever) who did the deed. This is outright insulting and runs violently contrary to everything we know about said wonders but CRYSTAL SKULL endorses that point of view, disgracefully dragging extradimensional aliens into the mix. It even endorses the crackpot UFO conspiracism surrounding the Roswell "incident."

The Indy movies, then, are a contradiction. They give us a sort of hero the world desperately needs, one committed to the quest, then wastes him in quests for phantoms, one after another. The dissonance created by these elements is remarkably strong in the new movie, and they have the effect of almost completely neutralizing one another. All that's left, once the content is neutralized, is infantile, CGI-generated sight-gags about Shia LaBouff getting his crotch slapped by trees or doing a mindbogglingly stupid Tarzan impression amongst a hail of monkeys. Noise. And a waste of what should be one of the most enduring fictional characters of the last three decades. It's unfortunate that Indy's creators don't have anything to say as filmmakers and aren't interested in anything other than making a quick buck by wowing bumpkins.



  1. Indiana Jones has been used,abused and driven into the dirt since the initial success of the character. It is a tragic and senseless waste that such a promising premise and initially fabulous movie became a victim of its own success once franchised.

  2. I think the real tragedy is that Indy was the product of bubble-headed filmmakers without any real vision or the wisdom to see what they really had. Being their product, he's also their prisoner. It's a waste.