Sunday, December 19, 2010

Knowledge is the Treasure: Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull opens, like the Indiana Jones adventures before it, with the Paramount logo dissolving into something literal (an actual mountain, a mountain on a gong, etc.). In each movie, the post logo reveal has given us a sense of time and place, but in this instance, it is disorienting. The first shot is of a tiny hill, and once the prairie dog pops through it, he is immediately scared away as a speeding car crushes over the dirt. What first almost feels like the director, Steven Spielberg, poking fun at the openings of the past, now takes on a greater weight. Seeing this creation of nature wrecked by a creation of man hints that we are in an age of destruction.

The car is filled with teenagers listening to Elvis, driving too fast and feeling the exhilaration of their youth. They come upon some military trucks and challenge one of them to a race, and seeing the two vehicles side by side provides a perfect metaphor of innocence vs. tact. The teens don't have a care in the world, as nothing in their lives has had consequence yet. The race ends when the military trucks take a detour by a sign labeled "Atomic Cafe" while the young and carefree fly away to continue growing and learning about the world. Unlike our still unseen hero, they have no idea that things are not going to stay that easy.

From the trunk of one of the military vehicles, our beloved Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, the best he's ever been) is reborn. Fittingly, he's not revealed to us until his trademark fedora is placed firmly on his head. The first word he utters is "Russians," and it generates a tinge of excitement because we can see Indy is already in over his head. But there's something different when we look at him now. Unlike the teens from the opening sequence, he seems tired and less certain he will be able to get out of the current predicament ("We were younger. We had guns."). That doesn't stop him, of course, from outsmarting his captors when they force him to find a crate in the Area 51 warehouse.

We never would have expected to see Indiana Jones assisting in the recovery of "mummified remains" of this sort, but sure enough, the crate is opened and the content is the corpse of something that is not of this world. For Indy, seeing is not believing at this point. It will naturally take a journey for him to truly gain an understanding of an existence he currently doubts. This has been the case with all of his adventures, but the artifact he is protecting here will be harder to accept. Equally as hard though, are the changes in political climate. Paranoia runs rampant, you never know who can be trusted, and those around you are always preparing for the worst.

This last bit comes effectively into play when Indy stumbles upon a nuclear testing site made to look like a suburban neighborhood. Instead of just setting up a bunch of empty houses, trouble has been taken to supply every necessary detail to make this feel like a classic American suburb, complete with mannequins to represent husbands, wives, children, and even pets. Of course, if these bombs really get used, it won't be on Americans, so it's as if the people testing these weapons have to reverse the effect to see if they could possibly identify with how it feels to be in the wake of such destruction. The image of the creepy mannequin faces being obliterated is unsettling to say the least (I also couldn't help but think about Spielberg's own history with the destruction of the "nuclear" family).

The movie gets it's first iconic shot after Indy survives the blast. We watch as he observes the mushroom cloud engulfing the sky, but we never see his reaction to it. Time stops momentarily as our hero gets to take in the scope of something greater than any danger he has ever been lucky enough to escape. This threat is real. It's at this point in the movie that Indy begins to acknowledge that he's not a young man anymore. After being suspended from the college (on accusal of treason), he sits at his desk and looks at pictures of the two people he's lost: his father and Marcus Brody. Unfortunately, time does not stand still quite as often as it used to. Or as a colleague puts it, "We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away."

Indy misses the father he never really knew. The disconnect between fathers and sons is a Spielberg trademark (best displayed, I think, in Catch Me If You Can), and it's one he will explore again here. Yes, Indy has a son named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), a motorcycle riding greaser who needs our hero to help rescue his mother. Of course, it isn't until close to the middle of the picture that Mutt finds out Indy is his father; before now, he thought his step father was his real one. There's a genuine sense of disappointment as this tough kid tries to grasp the fact that his father is not a war hero (as he originally believed) but a teacher. The movie has fun playing with their relationship, with Mutt constantly commenting on Indy's age ("What are you, like 80?") and Indy getting onto Mutt about going back to school (before he knew Mutt was his son, he didn't care). It's amusing that he would pick on Mutt for not staying in school; after a chase sequence that ends in the campus library where Indy teaches, he informs the students that if they want to be good archaeologists, they "have to get out of the library."

Since this is an Indiana Jones movie, the plot involves a religious artifact being used to obtain the wrong kind of power. It's fitting given the time period that the artifact is the skull of an "inter-dimensional being," an element that drew a great amount of criticism from audiences. If Indy had punched one of these beings like Will Smith in Independence Day, I could see some rationality behind the complaints. But the screenplay by David Koepp is smarter than that, instead focusing on what these beings represent.

The idea of God is to acknowledge a presence greater than oneself. We learn late in the movie that an ancient tribe worshiped these beings since they came from the sky, and because they were taught farming and irrigation, tools that would help keep them alive. In other words, these beings gave them the knowledge to gain the necessities of life, and to honor them, the people tied ropes around their children's skulls to elongate them in the image of these "Gods." We are critical of what we do not understand, especially when it comes to religion (or to be more precise, a religion that is not ours), but Indy is familiar with the lengths people will go to pay tribute to what they believe is true ("Depends on who your God is.").

Since the days of the conquistadors, anyone seeking the skull has done so for selfish reasons, and now it is in the hands of Russian baddie Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). She sees the skull as a tool for psychic power, a way to obtain information that will assist in conquering others in times of war. To her, this is acceptable since people have used religion for personal gain for many years (she references how Oppenheimer quoted the Hindu bible when creating the atomic bomb). Of course, the riches that can be obtained are based on real faith, not blind, and it is for this reason Spalko is unable to tap into the skull ("The skull does not speak to everyone."). True faith comes from within (why else would they be inter-dimensional beings?), so it is to her discredit that she believes that her quest for knowledge is genuine. Ultimately, you have to ask the right questions and sometimes knowing the answers is not enough.

The prophet of the movie is Harold Oxley (John Hurt), a seemingly mad scientist who is able to see the light. His instability stems from the fact that the mind is often unable to grasp things as quickly as the soul. While he is able to supply nuggets of information ("The one who was lost." "Someone came."), they do not come full circle until the movie's final sequence when the characters go to return the skull to its rightful owner. It is here Spalko finally gets what she wished for, although neither her mind nor her soul have the capacity to sustain the "knowledge." There's a brilliant shot containing Indy and Spalko on the outsides of the frame and Oxley in the center; it's a perfect way to visually represent that what matters lies within.

In a movie full of awesome shots (this is Spielberg after all), it's hard to top the awe aspiring moment where the saucer takes off. It proves to be a fitting bookend to the mushroom cloud because once again, we look on as Indy does and do not see his reaction. But it's also the other moment in the picture when time stands still, however in this instance it is not a threat. The departure of these beings brings with it a sense of hope (what stands out most is that we don't see where the ship goes...once the rocks drop, it's just gone). When asked if they returned to space, Oxley suggests they went back to "the space between spaces." In other words, a place inhabited by a force greater than ourselves. Oxley's line gives greater weight to Indy's observation to Mutt that, "Somewhere your Grandpa is laughing."

I have yet to mention the action in the picture, maybe because I feel like those scenes are the least significant. They are tremendous fun, with Spielberg as always reminding us why he has yet to be matched when it comes to technical precision. If there is a piece of the action I need to note, it is in regards to the much maligned CGI. Most of the tomatoes thrown here are in regards to the sequence of Mutt swinging through the vines with the monkeys. While I will agree it is cheesy, I also feel it is a nice breather, since the last hour of the movie is basically wall-to-wall action set pieces. I also feel comfortable defending the CGI because this movie is a throwback to the science fiction pictures of the 1950s. All of the visuals here compliment the ridiculousness ("Big damn ants!") of old monster movies, and in addition, Indiana Jones taught us a long time ago that in his adventures, Anything Goes. This is an homage, so if the effects looked too slick, the purpose would be defeated.

The most satisfying scene is saved for last. Because Indy learned that time is not something he has control over, he finally ties the knot with Marion (Karen Allen, still feisty, but not feisty enough). As Oxley put it, "How much of human life is lost in wait." This appreciation for life leads Indy to snatch his hat when Mutt attempts to put it on. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is about realizing you are only immortal for a limited time, and sometimes it takes discovering something beyond one's understanding to realize that. The fact that the movie came almost twenty years after the last entry in the series makes perfect sense, as Spielberg is at the right age to identify with his hero's internal struggles. This is a personal project in a career full of personal projects, and it's those touches that make Spielberg's movies stand out as something special. With Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it's easy to simply look and enjoy what's on the surface, but the reward will be much richer if you decide to look at what lies within.

Thank you for visiting Hell and Beyond!

(c) Hell and Beyond, 2010


Adam Zanzie said...

Lee, let me start by saying: this piece is FANTASTIC. We got another piece by Keith Uhlich that looks deep into Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but I don't think anybody has worked harder than you in reading into the film's religious and cultural subtext. You've certainly worked harder than I did--I mean, I enjoy KOTCS a heck of a lot (to date, I've seen it about three times), but I never dug Koepp's plot device surrounding the Crystal Skull. I've always felt like his script is overly obsessed with the skull mythology, mainly because this is the first time anybody has ever tied crystal skulls in with aliens; and I'm not sure it works.

Not that I'm saying I think it was a bad decision to put aliens in the film; I think it's appropriate in regards to the 1950's setting. I'm just not sure if the combination of aliens and crystal skulls adds up to a mythology as fascinating as the Ark of the Convenant or the Holy Grail (and the way those two artifacts figure so delicately in the plotlines of Raiders and Last Crusade is part of the reason why I think those are the best films in the series). Still, you've done so much great work reading into the crystal skull subtext here, and I'll be sure to return to this piece when I revisit the film.

I'm with you on the CGI, too. I have no problem with it. Ford is in his late 60's, after all; did audiences really expect Spielberg and Co. could still do this with manmade visual effects? Particularly with settings and locations this complicated? No way. I love the part here where you defend Mutt's vine-swinging, too. The stunt itself is a little stupid, but I'll concede that it's a pretty imaginative method of getting a person from Point A to Point B (although we could do without the monkeys, in my opinion).

Many fans hate the ending in which Indy gets married, but you're right: the time had come. This might have been THE last piece in the series and Spielberg had to put in that scene to ensure that he didn't have to make another one (although he has indicated he'll consider the opportunity if the public "wants more of them").

I'm just glad the movie doesn't end with Mutt putting the fedora on. That would have been awful. But, true to its legend, it is a hat only Indy can possess.

Lee said...


I can't thank you enough for your kind words. This blogathon was the excuse I have been looking for to write a piece on KOTCS, as I have been fighting for this movie since it came out. Pretty much everyone I know thinks my defense that there's actually something to it is hogwash, and I've been determined to prove them wrong!

I certainly can't argue about the script's obsession with the mythology, but that's one of the elements of the movie that makes me love it. It follows that great tradition in the series of Indy getting to share his knowledge of these "legends" and go investigate. I can't help but get wrapped up in it.

I might be able to agree that the combo of the skulls with the beings may not seem as intriguing as those elements from "Raiders" or "Last Crusade" on the surface, but I think those Spielberg touches are what really elevates it. This is the most in touch I have ever felt with Indiana Jones as a character, and the way it ties into the skulls and the beings is, to me, poetic. It's the first time I have felt that with this series (not to discredit the others, of course).

I have made the same argument about the CGI. A friend of mine was disappointed because he wanted to actually see Indy performing all these wild stunts in the movie, but come on...I am impressed with the amount of stunt work he actually does! And yeah, I could do without the monkeys as well. It is stupid, but like I said, it makes for a nice breather.

Spielberg and Ford have both mentioned another movie, which I am skeptical about at this point. Like you said, the ending is a nice send off. When I saw the movie for the first time, when Mutt was about to put the hat on, the people sitting behind me were borderline screaming "NO!" at the screen. He hasn't earned the right yet, Indy seems to be saying, and that's why, even if I am not too keen on the idea, I will go back in a heartbeat if Ford decides to put that fedora on one last time.

Thanks again,