Thursday, June 26, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull -- Knowledge is Power

In the last couple of years we have seen the return of some old favorite sexagenarians to the screen. Sylvester Stallone started it in 2006, coming back as boxer Rocky for the millionth time in Rocky Balboa. And then he did it again this year as Rambo. So, when Harrison Ford reprised his role as legendary Henry Jones Jr, it was with some trepidation that I went to see Indiana on the silver screen once more. But Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a fun, if far-fetched, flick, and a reasonable addition (conclusion?) to the Indiana Jones franchise.

Crystal Skull makes no bones about Ford's age. Indeed, it seems to play up to the fact that he is now no spring chicken. Indiana looks older and more wizened, though he is still physically able to perform heroic stunts that would leave younger, lesser men in the dust . . . or in the ER. At one point Dean Stanforth (James Broadbent, taking over from Denholm Elliot [Dean Marcus Brody], who died in 1992), says to Indy, "We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away." And for Indy, his job as professor of archeology at Marshall College is being taken away due to questions of his "communist associations."

Set in the late 1950s, Indy is still teaching and pursuing adventures as an archaeologist. This time, though, his enemy is not the Nazis, but the Russian commies, and they don't carry quite the same punch. The leader of this bad band is Col. Dr. Irina Spalko. Cate Blanchett plays her with relish as a wicked cartoonish figure, like Cruella DaVille with a Russian accent. The goal in this chapter is the crystal skull, legendary pointer to El Dorado, city of gold, hidden somewhere in South America.

As Indiana is about to leave Marshall on a train, his job gone, a young punk greaser, Mutt Williams pulls up along side the train on his Harley and delivers the news that his old friend Prof Oxley (John Hurt) has been kidnapped after apparently finding the skull. Shia LaBeouf looks like a young Marlon Brando is this encounter, and has the chops to pull it off. He brings a sense of youth and adventure to Crystal Skull, a younger version of Indiana, if you will. Of course, this sets in motion the rest of the film.

And with fedora, bullwhip and leather jacket, Professor Jones becomes the Indiana we have waited two decades to see. Just like before, he builds plans on the fly (the question, "What's he gonna do now," gets the apt response, "I don't think he plans that far ahead.") He does what he believes is right at the time. Seemingly always one step behind, Indiana is still the guy who picks himself up, dusts himself off, straightens his hat, and tries again. Once again an American cowboy for the twentieth century.

Crystal Skull is shot in the same comic book style, with the same types of action sequences as the previous three episodes. So much so, in fact, that this could have come out in the 1990s. It is filled with obvious references to the earlier movies: truck chases, fist fights, poison-tipped dart-blowing natives, booby-trapped tombs. The most exciting chase occurs early in the movie, when Williams meets Jones, and they flee the Russians on Mutt's motorcycle. This had all the thrills of the earlier movies.

But if Crystal Skull captures the flavor of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it is not quite up to that movie's standards. It goes too far, and asks the viewer to suspend disbelief too much. The early incident where Indiana survives an atomic bomb explosion is simply unbelievable. And the incident later when the adventure seekers go over three waterfalls is highly implausible. Tack on a prolonged sword fight across two high-speed jeeps. Action adventure films often go over the top, and this one is no exception.

The first act is strong, showing us an older and more worldly-wise Jones, and introducing us to a young Mutt Williams. The second act is more predictable. The third act, where Karen Allen reappears as Marion Ravenwood pits the two ex-lovers, Marion and Indiana, once again verbally at each other's throats. And they pick up where they left off in Raiders. Indeed, a big part of the fun of Crystal Skull is seeing these two love-birds fighting and squabbling again.

But as it comes to the climax Crystal Skull moves into the ludicrous. Steven Spielberg seems to want to make reference to his earlier movies, with a flying saucer that looks an escapee from Close Encounters, and aliens reminding us of ET. Indeed, where Raiders and The Last Crusade had clear biblical references, Crystal Skull has none. Gone is Scripture (apart from a very brief glimpse of the ark) and in its place are aliens.

Crystal Skull has some reunions and surprises, a nasty villain and a gruesome scene with some red ants. It gets silly with some monkeys and Tarzan-like tree-swinging. Yet, by the end Indiana has discovered his lost love, and perhaps realizes he has wasted a lot of life simply waiting for her, filling in his time with quests for a treasure he already had found . . . and lost. How much of life do we waste waiting, for whatever we wait for? Life is an Indiana Jones-like adventure, a journey of discovery to be treasured and enjoyed. Let's not sit around waiting for something to happen.

A key theme in Crystal Skull is knowledge. Dr Spalko tells Indy early that she is seeking the artifact for knowledge. Her power, as Stalin's chief scientist, comes from her ability to know things others don't. She is pursuing knowledge. And along the way, when Mutt asks him about El Dorado, Indiana says, "Well the word for 'gold' translates as treasure.' But their treasure wasn't gold, it was knowledge, Knowledge was their treasure." And it was Spalko's treasure. And it was her downfall. In the climax, Spalko's eyes are opened to knowledge, more knowledge than her head can hold and she is destroyed.

In many ways, in the postmodern twenty-first century, knowledge is still power. The information age peddles knowledge as currency. It is what we know, and it is who we know. As true as this is in the physical world, it is more true in the spiritual world. Knowledge is power there. Who we know is the key to this power. If we know Jesus as our master, then we have an age-old, timeless power that Indiana Jones would have marveled at. As the apostle Peter says, "His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness" (2 Pet 1:3). Like the apostle Paul, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection" (Phil. 3:10).

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

1 comment:

  1. Peter Chattaway, writing for Christianity Today's "Books and Culture" magazine (September/October 2008) has crafted a fine analysis of the spiritual development and faith evolution of Indiana through the series of four films: "Indiana Jones and the Deadly Blather". This is definitely worth a read: