Steven Spielberg continues to tackle action and spectacle in Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull but as Critic After Dark Noel Vera points out, questions of age and obsolescence should have been worked into the film as key ingredients. After all, Indy isn't young any more.

Almost 20 years after his last onscreen outing, Henry Jones, Jr., better known as "Indiana" Jones, has been pulled out of the mothballs, dusted off and put through his paces one more time. Does lightning strike a fourth time? Well...

Perhaps the movie’s finest moment comes at the very beginning. Right off we’re treated to a drag race a la Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), ending with an assault on a top-secret military base. Suddenly, a car trunk is opened; a man is hauled out, thrown to the floor - but before we see the man’s face, we see the hat. Director Steven Spielberg has always loved dramatic entrances, and no entrance in recent memory is as dramatic as that hat - it comes with its own built-in standing ovation (which, truth to tell, was louder than for Indiana [Harrison Ford, reprising one of his most famous roles] himself).

Later a mushroom cloud, emblem of American anxieties and of various science-fiction films of the era, looms over Indy (Indiana’s nickname)*. It’s the 1950s, and Spielberg and Lucas have made it clear that their sources of inspiration are the ’50s B movies - science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing From Another World - both from 1951 - and Them! [1954]); rock-and-roll (Laszlo Benedek’s The Wild One [1953]), rebel youths (the aforementioned Rebel Without a Cause), jungle pictures (Byron Haskin’s The Naked Jungle [1954]) and the like. Indy Jones in the age of rock ’n’ roll and father to a James Dean wannabe (Sheila Beef, or something) - can you imagine?
*(Never mind the question of whether or not lead-lined refrigerators exist [they do] or are capable of protecting one from a detonating nuclear device [um, not as certain, though the scene does recall the fiery climax to Tsui Hark’s much underrated, far more enjoyable Double Team }1997}, with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman surviving a huge fireball by hiding behind a Coke vending machine {easily the wittiest and most imaginative example of product placement I’ve ever seen}]. The real question is this: what is a lead-lined refrigerator used in nuclear laboratories doing in an ordinary suburban house?

The three previous movies were set in the ’30s and inspired by ’40s serial matinees, and we’ve come to expect the thrills that accompany each installment, which usually ended with a cliffhanger (notice how every other dirt road in an Indy movie abruptly drops off [usually on the right side] in a vertiginous precipice). With ’50s entertainment the appeal is different, subtler even: there’s a sense of paranoia and personal turmoil, of vast government conspiracies and violent generational confrontations.

The flavor is darker, less innocent somehow; you sense that America was poised to shed its childhood, question authority, examine closely the reputed benevolence and competence of its government (though matters would have to wait for the ’60s for everything - gloves, hat, hair, shoes, clothes, inhibitions - to really drop). Plunking Jones in the middle of all this is a bit odd, like watching Rip Van Winkle wake up in the middle of Back to the Future’s "Enchantment Under the Sea" dance - you wonder what on earth he’s doing there, dusty hat and bullwhip and all.

It might have worked better if they kept him in ’50s America - that way we can have all the Geritol and adult diaper jokes we need. I’m not being sarcastic - I really think we wouldn’t have thought less of him; if anything, we would have loved him more for having the courage to admit his weaknesses. I remember when Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa (2006) stated he was old, past his prime; it was a fine moment, maybe the finest Stallone has had in years (Unfortunately he goes on to win the Heavyweight Championship of the World again, which invalidates his point considerably).

Still - Indy Jones in the Atomic Age! Indy as a noir hero! Think of the possibilities! Forget The Naked Jungle or The Day the Earth Stood Still; I’m thinking of a scenario more like Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 - not far from the year the movie supposedly takes place) combined maybe with Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Indy fighting conformity and repression in a world made strangely frightening not by hostile jungles or commie villains or sophisticated deathtraps, but by time, age, radiation, the US government or any combination thereof (Spielberg and Lucas reportedly chose communists because that was what the country was fighting at the time; one wants to ask: Did everyone involved forget about the McCarthy witch hunts and HUAC blacklists? They started in Area 51 [which we had a fleeting glimpse of in Raiders] - couldn’t they just have stayed there?).

On the plus side, this is easily the most handsome-looking picture of the lot, with cinematography by Janusz Kaminski channeling the work of now-retired Douglas Slocombe (to be honest I’m not a fan of Slocombe’s photography in these movies - particularly Temple of Doom [1984], where he managed to make India look ugly and desolate). Kaminski for the most part recreates Slocombe’s clean action photography (pity there’s so much CGI background to mar the visuals) and adds shadows and intriguing silvery highlights (it’s as if much of the movie takes place under a bright, baleful sun, piercing through an overcast sky).

Most of the stunts are reportedly CGI-free (computers were usually employed to digitally erase safety wires), but the freewheeling feel and comic inventiveness of the early movies’ stunts (some of which were improvised on the spot) is gone - this is a picture less concerned with having fun than it is with getting its business done as spectacularly and expensively as possible.

But aren’t we all - less worried about fun than getting work done, I mean? Isn’t that what happens when one grows up, when reflexes slow down and joints start to ache? Ford reportedly worked out for months, staying on a strict high-protein diet. Certainly he looks good, but there’s a grimness to his determination to look so good, a sense of - yes - business before pleasure. Instead of Stallone, Ford might have been better off taking inspiration from William Shatner in Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982).

Yes - that’s it. How the Star Trek franchise handled questions of age and obsolescence (at least for the first few films) already made for fine drama. Ford and Spielberg toy with it awhile, then (like Stallone does, eventually) drop it quietly along the way; Meyer, Shatner and Nimoy make entropy their major theme, complete with quotes from Dickens and Melville, and give their film an overall lovingly thoughtful, poignantly mournful air. Shakespeare had Falstaff once say: "That he is old, the more the pity, his white hairs do witness it" - Falstaff was, of course, inviting sympathy for his advanced age, and seemed all the more pathetic for his pains. Indy Jones is perhaps a less intellectual property (despite the supposed fact that Henry Jones, Jr. is a college professor), but his latest (and hopefully last) outing could have used a flash or two of paunch. Or, better yet, a glimpse of adult diapers, peeking out of the waistline.

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First published in Businessworld, 05.30.08.

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June 10, 2008