This is about as belated a review of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as you're likely to get. Belated not because it's two weeks too late, belated because it's about twenty years to late (or maybe even two hundred years.) Biographical details follow (and maybe a SPOILER! SPOILER! or two...)
I remember first seeing Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark in my aunt's house, on her old video player. After that I experienced a short-lived infatuation with archeology, but it never went anywhere. I later saw the first four-fifths of Temple of Doom at home before being sent off to bed by Mum with all my brothers. Actually, this happened several times - whenever it appeared on the telly, we'd sit through the first four-fifths and then be sent off to bed. It was pure torture, and we didn't get to see the end of Temple of Doom for a while. Perhaps that's why the film is my favourite, although I doubt it - I always thrilled to the implied 'voyage to hell and back' theme. But I think this childhood upbringing definitely has something to do with my dislike now of long movie chases; I think Indy spends about half an hour getting out of that damned temple of doom.
The Last Crusade passed me by a bit; but about six years ago, when I was in Raymond Terrace with my parents, unemployed and bored as hell, I betook myself off one Sunday afternoon to the local picture theatres where they had a one-off performance of Raiders. I may have been the only one there. I thrilled to it all over again - only this time noticing a lot more of the production details, the acting, and the scripting. It was the perfect film to end a week with; I walked away with that quiet feeling of satisfaction that good films give you.
So Professor Jones and I go back a fair way. That's not a boast, so much, but I guess it helps to explain why I just don't feel as cranky about the latest film as some reviewers. Sure, the film was derivative, but then, Indy films always were. The trick Spielberg and Lucas have settled on - and a good one it is, too - is to contrive a plot around a few themes that may or may not be true, but which we are deeply familiar with. Indy was always chasing after mythical objects like the Ark of the Covenant, or the Holy Grail, or (in the latest film) the mythical city of Eldorado. They're the sort of plot devices that an audience is at the same time deeply familiar with, but are so removed from that there's almost infinite room for fantasy and make-believe. (Then again, there are also bits like the diamond/crystal theft scene in the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark - I've still got no idea what the fuck that's about. Though it did make for an awesome send up in The Simpsons.)
In Crystal Skull, then, there's a quick voyage to the Nevada Desert and Area 51; an interlude at Harvard, or Yale, or whatever American college it is that Indy teaches at; a flight to South America to find the grave of a lost conquistador, the recovery of a crystal skull (and it's a nice touch, basing the plot around these, considering their history), followed by a journey to Eldorada. There's also some Soviet 1950s-style hypnotism and mind games going on, and the plot has a science-fiction style ending, referencing, amongst others, Velikovsky (the Nazca lines make an appearance). It sounds confused, but it's not; the plot has a clear arc and doesn't feel contrived. There are endless literary and cinema references, but they don't feel excessive. (The entire series begins with a literary reference, after all - to the Ark of the Covenant.)
The science-fiction element in this film seems strange, but not out of place. Although previously Indy was usually chasing after something more fantastic than scientific, there was always a science-fiction element to the films (he was an archeologist, after all). And anyway, one of the nice things about Crystal Skull is how it breaks free of some of the conventions of the fantasy/sci-fi film trilogy. (The little interlude in the Nevada desert really is probably quite pointless, but it does set up some of the incidental plot themes, and has an extraordinary on-the-spot scene inside an atom-bomb blast. (Indy escapes it by climbing into a lead-lined fridge and being blown to freedom. If you can believe that. After which he climbs a small hill and observes the mushroom cloud gathering above the desert.) There's a few moments like that, where Indy or others are more like the chosen spectators to wonderful or bizarre moments, rather than characters willing their own destiny.
To my mind, the Indiana Jones films are one of the few - the very few - really successful long-running fantasy films. I detest Star Wars; and I was comatose during the whole of the Matrix trilogy. One reason is that Spielberg is a real talent, one of the best cinematic storytellers, while you get the feeling that Lucas and the Wachowski brothers are more interested in making bizarre, pseudo-philosophical conclusions about 'life' and 'nature' and 'perception' and other Big Things. Also, you get the feeling that Indy could just go on forever, to different parts of the world, having new adventures, and discovering new things. That's because the world he's in is our world, and it's bigger than all the other pale imitations of worlds that you get in Star Wars or the Matrix.
When it comes to films, some folks go there for the explosions, some for the romance, some for the physical adventure or violence. I'm there for the mystery and the fantasy, the exploration of the unknown, and the encounters with strange events or things. Indiana Jones films have that in spades; and I can't wait for the next.
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