There aren’t too many reasons to go to a movie theater anymore. At least not for me. Around here, it costs my wife and I something like twenty-five bucks just to get into the theater, and that’s a lot of money. That’s quite a lot of groceries, for people in our pay range. And it’s a shame, because going to films was our hobby for so long, until my son was born. Then, it just became impractical. (And then, we discovered that actually, having a comfortable couch, a big LCD TV, a Playstation 3 with a Blu-Ray player, meant that we had no reason to fork out the money. The experience was close enough at home. And at home, we had cats. Movie theaters cannot compete with a fuzzy purring bundle putting your leg to sleep.)
There are some films, though, that we still rearrange busy schedules and find a babysitter and shell out the money to go sit in a sticky theater for. Partially because, sometimes, you’re not just going for the film, you’re going for the experience.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was one of these. I had always wished to see an Indiana Jones film in theaters (and had been too young or too out of the country for any of the others). And I was excited by the trailers, and so we went.
I had already dampened my expectations a little bit. I was becoming aware of the sacred-cow nature of these types of movies (as I talked about in my Star Wars articles) and was trying to consciously remember to take this film for what it gave me, and not for whatever massive expectations my brain had built for it. I grew up watching Indiana Jones, alongside my Star Trek and Star Wars, my Babylon 5, my Back to the Future.
I went. I sat. I watched. I came out puzzled, happy, sad, mournful.
It took me several days to sort through things, as my poor wife can attest. When I figure things out, I do it out loud. The poor woman had to put up with too many dissertations about Indiana Jones.
I knew why I was happy. I was happy because actually, it was a fun movie, and I enjoyed it. It’s not my favorite, that one being The Last Crusade, but it’s not my least favorite either, that one still being The Temple of Doom. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Raiders of the Lost Ark swap places on my list. They did interesting, and different things.
But I was puzzled about why I was also mournful coming away from it. What had left me feeling sad and like I’d lost something? What was it about the movie that hurt a little?
I thought, and I figured it out. And it was…”time.”
Indiana Jones was always meant to take after the old Republic serials, where you’d go and see a chapter a week. Indy was a serial adventure hero, along the lines of Doc Savage, or Tarzan. It was a modern homage on that, just like Star Wars was a modern space-opera serial. And one quality of those types of works, and Indiana Jones, was always a certain amount of timelessness. That is to say, the heroes are a bit eternal, always fighting evil, in that time period, against those bad guys. That’s what they’re about, and it’s what Indiana Jones was too.
Even though, yes, both Harrison Ford and Indiana Jones are getting older as the original trilogy of movies goes forward…the timeless quality remains. The Nazis are the bad guys in two of the films, but World War II is not really an issue, just a background matter. They are big fun movies. Indy does age, in the third one, and deals with his father…but he’s still just Indiana Jones, and the world is still the same as in the first film, and the adventure is always there. He is always cracking his whip and firing his pistol and wearing a fedora. The Nazis are always shaking their fists. Timeless.
Enter the fourth movie.
In the fourth movie, World War II has happened, and we learn that Indy served, has a military rank, and is now older. We also see him lose his professorship. His father is dead. Marcus Brody is dead. Indiana is older, and tired. Age. It’s a wonderful storyline theme.
The moment that really hurt, though, that left me with a sense of loss…was just after he steps out of the refrigerator that he’s been thrown across the landscape in, and he steps up on the hill. And we see the classic Indiana Jones shape, with hat on his head, and in a single slow moment, we watch the mushroom cloud build in front of him.
In a single moment, it burned away the serials, the timeless quality, the rollicking quality. And we no longer have eternal Indiana Jones fighting bad guys and putting artifacts in a museum. We have a beleaguered Jones around whom, the world has moved on, and gotten darker. There is no place for a man like Indiana Jones anymore.
The rest of the movie, once we retreated out of the modern-world and into the race-chase-fight-love scenes of the rest of the film, is just fine. I enjoyed it quite a lot. But that early stuff, combined with the very ending, they are not only out of place in an Indiana Jones film, but they bring the character down, in a way. They make him human. He was always flawed and clumsy and beat up and barely staying alive by the skin of his teeth…but he was always Indy. Now, he’s old.
It was something which George Lucas (whom people who did not like the fourth movie blame for it, and I don’t know why: David Koepp wrote the film, Stephen Speilberg directed the film, Michael Kahn edited the film…Lucas had little to do with it) said in an interview which helped clarify the matter for me: he wanted to movie Indiana Jones out of the realm of pulp serials and into the 1950’s era of B-movies and science fiction films.
That was the problem. The thing is, as I’ve said, Indiana Jones is of his time, and like Jeffty in Harlan Ellison’s story, must always remain in his time (or the tragedy is the same as that which befalls Jeffty…oh, go read the story “Jeffty is Five” already, sheesh, it’s a classic).
When you move into the 1950’s era, you move into the atomic age, and the world of science fiction. You move, specifically, into the world of Star Trek.
Star Trek is quintessential science fiction, and it follows from Indiana Jones in a lot of ways, in a literary sense. They are both, in many ways, going out into the unknown and facing things which they cannot comprehend or always handle. Indiana Jones goes into the trackless deserts and thick, dangerous jungles. The Enterprise sails into deep space, and nebula, and goes to strange planets.
Indiana Jones cannot exist in the science fiction world of the fifties and sixties, because that’s when Star Trek becomes the appropriate material for the time, you see?
Another interesting point, on the original age topic is that it’s also something that comes up frequently throughout the Star Trek stories too. Particularly the movies. I notice it, because it’s actually one of my favorite themes. I dunno why, entirely…but all my favorite Star Trek films deal with that.
Star Trek V, VI, and IV all deal with it. Captain Kirk and his crew are no longer exploring all reaches of the galaxy, because there are plenty of ships and younger people to do it. The galaxy, and technology, and Starfleet, and politics have all moved on.The Undiscovered Country is my favorite Star Trek film, and the theme is most strongly on display in that one. The whole galaxy is changing, and more than ever, Kirk and Spock and the others feel old. They are relics of a bygone age.
So, what I continue to ponder is…why does the theme work so perfectly in Star Trek? And yet come across merely as painful in Indiana Jones? (after the fourth Indiana Jones film, when the world had moved on around our relic archeologist-adventurer…you suddenly can see the hippie age, you can see Indy growing old and outdated, you can see that eventually, Indiana Jones, who is a man, will become infirm and die. It doesn’t cross your mind, in the first three.) Why does the theme of growing old and useless work so well when applied to Captain Kirk? Or to Captain Picard, for that matter, in Nemesis?
And I’m afraid, here at the end of the article, I don’t have any answer for that quite yet. I’m still puzzling it out. I’ve figured out the Indiana Jones aspect of things, and now I wonder about the opposite side of the same issue, in Star Trek.
My theory, at the moment, is this: people like Indiana Jones are not people at all, but images and archetypes. He is the quintessential hero. He is iconic, and does not age, and the world does not change much around him. Whereas in Star Trek, at least in theory, these are all individuals. They are people. They can age, grieve, die. Indiana Jones, rather like James Bond (in theory) does not age, or change. The difference is, we can replace James Bond with a new actor and change the time period.
But with Indiana Jones, he is forever Harrison Ford, and he is forever fighting Nazis in or around the 1930’s, in unexplored wildernesses.
He is, therefore, both of his time, and timeless.