Sunday, May 25, 2008

Lost in the Fifties Tonight

Contains spoilers. May contain traces of sarcasm and nuts.

From development hell, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas send you Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. No complaints here action-wise.

A break-in at an Area 51 government warehouse, an escape by rocket sled, right into a nuke test detonation. MacGyver Jones has ten seconds to build a shelter. It takes more ingenuity and unlikely coincidences than duct tape, though.

From the chase, the movie cuts straight to the… chase. By motorcycle through what I gather is meant to be 1950s New Haven. From there, to a virtually endless off-road chase through the Hawaiian (uh, OK, Amazon) jungle.

Banter-wise, it runs from classics like "You brought a knife to a gunfight!" to original ideas like KGB agents chasing the heroes through a "better dead than red" rally. Whether or not you like them depends on your sense of humor. I enjoyed most of them, but I can see how some of them can come across as silly.

Truth be told, there's even some plot in between: the Roswell crash, Nazca Lines, El Dorado, and the eponymous crystal skulls, woven together workmanlike. Unfortunately, the El Dorado scenes suffer from a release date when memories of the Cibola scenes of National Treasure: Book of Secrets are still fresh. Crystal Skull doesn't manage to outdo Book of Secrets, so it comes across as a clone. That's of course the one thing that should never happen to a classic franchise like Indiana Jones or James Bond: being beaten by a relative newcomer.

In-jokes and self quoting is always fun in a series, but this one takes it to the saturation point and beyond. In fact, they mostly consist of Indy kicking goons out of their trucks, sometimes two at a time. As for the Ark of the Covenant visible in its broken crate in the warehouse — how good that only the crate broke, judging by what happened when it was opened in Raiders.

While the original three Indiana Jones movies paid homage to 1930s serials, this one is an homage to 1950s B-movies. After the Art Deco splendor of the 30s, fashion, interior design, and even automobile design apparently took a nosedive around WWII. Bel Air? Eldorado? Tailfins? Seems to be a complete list of 50s highlights.

Fortunately, I wasn't around to be in a position to tell, but I keep hearing it was indeed a time when badly dressed people threw out their antiques and heirlooms to furnish their homes with the latest plastic junk. Sounds like lousy times for an archeologist. If the movies succeeds at recreating the 50s faithfully, and I'm afraid it does, I can only say that the only good thing about the past is that it's over.

Worse, the movie recreates the 50s not only physically, but also spiritually. What else but the Bronze Age morals of the period could force Indy to marry his on-again, off-again girlfriend after twenty years? Why not go on living in sin?

Maybe it's only fitting that after James Bond, an inspiration for Indiana Jones, was emasculated by saddling him with that old feminazi bat, Indy himself settles down to become a family man. Turning Superman into The Incredibles. It's sad. But then, with the mysticism and supernatural deus ex machina solutions of the Indy universe, who could complain if Part IV ends in a church?

Maybe I should be lenient. The other three movies didn't have to live up to nineteen years of baggage. In fact, I doubt that any physically possible version of the movie could have. Even with twice the action and a perfectly polished plot, there's no way how a mere movie could compete with a legend.

You say some depth might have helped? Right, depth-wise, well, there ain't any.

Of course, Indiana Jones is meant to be nothing but an homage to popcorn movies. Yet things would be so much better if writers took the trouble to write on many levels, as Ayn Rand tried.

Nature abhors a vacuum, though. A work of art planned to have no meaning will acquire a meaning by default.

Every experiment proves something. If it doesn't prove what you wanted it to prove, it proves something else.

What you can take home from the Indiana Jones series is a study in metaphysical justice. If you do something thoughtless, it will have more unintended consequences than something well thought out.

Indy points out that the treasure in the crystal skull temple is not gold, but knowledge. Ergo he thinks that knowledge is good. Yet the Indiana Jones movies show over and over again that man can't have knowledge.

From having to keep his eyes wide shut at the opening of the Ark of the Covenant to its being confiscated by the government to the loss of the Sankara Stones to the "give it up" lesson his father teaches him re the Holy Grail to the finale of the latest installment, where alien knowledge seems to be so powerful that it disintegrates the seeker — the moral is: give up. You can win against the villains, but not against fate, the gods, or the malevolent universe.

Of course, it's a plot device. Another lazy writers' trick. If everything is reset to square one in the end, they won't have to worry about the implications of an Ark or a Grail on the loose in the next movie.

Yet going down this way, the whole series acquires a downer message. Nice try, Lao Che.

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