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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not a rumination on the ravages of age, though early in the movie it briefly pretends to be. Nor is it an examination of the Cold War's culture of paranoia and suspicion—though it has a little bit of that too—nor is it about the way power ultimately looks the same whatever uniform it happens to wear or which flag it claims to fight under, nor about Chariot of the Gods and saucer men from Mars. In the end, it's about being an Indiana Jones movie, which is to say it's all about car chases, booby traps, clever in-jokes, and the sheer, unstoppable force that is Harrison Ford's charisma.

And it does this job quite well.

Now, if I were inclined to look at Indiana Jones with anything like a critical mind, I'm sure I'd find plenty of negative things to say about this movie, from a story that's strikingly light on character or emotional depth (even for its genre) to more than a few embarrassingly silly plot moments to a characteristically Lucasian overreliance on CGI. (Don't even get me started on politics, postcoloniality, or heteronormativity.) El Dorado is a good MacGuffin, but it just doesn't pack the same mythic punch as the Lost Ark or the Quest for the Grail—and while I thought the alien stuff was pretty well-handled overall, fundamentally there's a style mismatch here that approaches the level of category error.

And of course on some pure plane of aesthetic valuation it must be said that Lucas and Spielberg should have resisted the temptation to mess with perfection and let Last Crusade stand as the proper ending to this story it's always been. In this sense Crystal Skull is actually worse than superfluous—the need to return to Indy, 20 years on, undercuts and arguably destroys entirely the narrative arc that somehow took the cartoon hero of Raiders and turned him into a human being. Last Crusade didn't need a sequel; the trilogy was already a complete story, not Episodes 44-46 in the 108 Adventures of Indiana Jones.

Phantom Menance betrayed us right up front, and was pretty noisy about it. What Crystal Skull does is quieter, subtler, and perhaps ultimately more devastating to its franchise: it takes that human being from Crusade and turns him back to a cartoon again.

If I were inclined to look at Indiana Jones critically, I'm saying, I think I'd have a pretty ambivalent view of Crystal Skull. But tonight I'm not at all inclined to do any of that—I watched Indiana Jones tonight as I always do, with the spellbound eyes of my twelve-year-old self, and he liked the movie just fine.