Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: Nostalgia’s Effect on the Pleasures of Summer Action
I grew up with Indiana Jones. I can’t recall too many action flicks that my mother enjoys wholeheartedly, but the Indiana Jones series surely is one of them. It seems to be a series which transcends age and gender, a pulpy throwback style action movie where the hero is 100% good, the damsel is in mortal peril, and the villains have hopes of world domination. The newest installment, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, seems to be no exception. There’s a hunt for a relic with possible unearthly powers that would give the villains (the Communists instead of the Nazis this time around) the ability to control the world. The pace is frenetic, the stunts are spectacular, and the one-liners are uttered with typical charm.
Why then was I left underwhelmed? As hard as I tried, I couldn’t shake the feeling that those involved were vainly trying to recapture the magic of the originals, yet they were going too far. It felt too computer-animated, too silly, too fantastical– more fantastical than a magic box which emits beams of light that melt the faces off of those who see it, more fantastical than a cup that creates eternal life. Was this the fault of the filmmaker… or my own, for clinging too tightly to a sense of nostalgia, that the old films were simply “better?”
Maybe one could blame George Lucas, who in 1999 brought back Star Wars 16 years after its latest sequel, and grossed over 100 million dollars in 5 days. Maybe one could blame Arnold, who perhaps thought bringing back Terminator would achieve similar success 12 years after its latest sequel, and was justified when it made over 100 million dollars in 11 days. Die Hard was resurrected 12 years later, and Sylvester Stallone resurrected Rocky 16 years later and Rambo 20 years later– all of these were profitable ventures. Surely it comes as no surprise that a universally-loved series like Indiana Jones could be resurrected 19 years later to hit the 100 million mark after a mere 4 days. There have been reports of new sequels to The Lost Boys and Beverly Hills Cop as well. Perhaps this time of dormancy in the franchises allows them to grow fond in our mind, to remember them as being these fun, action-packed, and charming. Small flaws in films tend to exit the brain when years have passed since the last viewing, and certain sequels that are clearly inferior are simply discarded of, and never acknowledged as having ever existed.
Yet I tend to hear similar comments regarding these franchise reviving sequels, something along the lines of “They don’t even touch the originals.” In the case of the Star Wars films, I am absolutely inclined to agree– the glossiness of the special effects and the woodenness of the actors tend to overshadow any interesting fight scenes that Lucas has staged. Yet Terminator 3 I find to be the best of the three: the first one has not aged well (its 1980s effects, score, sets, costuming, etc. do it no favors) and the second film is riddled with the boy-and-his-robot scenes that are like a cringeworthy poor man’s attempt at Spielbergian sci-fi fantasy, along with huge chunks of unnecessary Linda Hamilton narration that drag the film about half an hour longer than it should have run. Similarly, Die Hard 4 is chock full of ridiculous special effects work, and admittedly, I would have liked a bit more blood and profanity. However, the effects are no more outrageous than anything from the first three films, and the faster pace, while purists would argue makes it feel “more like a typical action flick and less like a Die Hard,” serves it well– there are moments in the first three that drag, something that in today’s MTV-influenced action-movie market would have hurt its shot at recouping expenses.
As for Indiana Jones 4? I went back and watched Raiders of the Lost Ark with someone who had never seen it before, and then went to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I left the theater voicing my opinion that it felt light, there was no sense of urgency, and it didn’t compare to the originals. However, the person who never saw Raiders of the Lost Ark before thought that the two were comparable, and that my comments regarding the elements of the fantastical overwhelming the film were meritless, especially as such a huge fan of the first one. So what was different? The closest I can come to drawing a conclusion is that the difference is in Spielberg. Spielberg has had a lot of trouble leaving his recent films with anything unresolved, preferring to wrap his flicks up with a big happy bow. In A.I., the robot is reunited with his mom, not left on the bottom of the ocean. In Minority Report, no mention is made in the theatrical release of the effects of dissembling the pre-cog program, just a happy shot of the pre-cog family reading books in a country cabin. In War of the Worlds, Tom Cruise and his son are inexplicably reunited, despite all evidence pointing to the son’s definite death. This film is no exception– no mention is made of the effects of the events of the film (which I won’t spoil here), instead there’s a happy marriage, a wink, and a smile. The family, if you can’t see the trend here, is brought together happily ever after. This is a long shot from Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the government covers up the events in one of the most unsettling endings in movie history, or The Last Crusade, where the love interest dies and the Holy Grail is lost forever.
In the end, much like The Temple of Doom was too dark and not nearly enough fun, this film was too fun and not nearly dark enough. The bigger and more fantastical the film got, the less I felt the stakes or the sense of danger to the world at large. Around the point that Indiana Jones’s son was inexplicably swinging through the trees a la Tarzan, despite the smile on my face, I knew he wouldn’t fall, I knew he would land safely on the moving car, and I knew with great certainty that all would be right. That’s the difference between this sequel and the other revivals. Terminator 3 had the darkest ending of the trilogy, Die Hard 4 stacked the odds against McClane farther and farther to the point where I didn’t know how he was going to save the day. Indiana Jones 4’s ending was evident long before it came to pass, and you didn’t need to look into the eyes of a crystal skull to know what would happen with every single character.
Is that just my nostalgic elitism talking? Probably. But as someone who has unequivocally loved other long-overdue sequels, the predictability and the lightness of the events gave it a feel that was different than the other three. Whether it was Spielberg’s deferring to a more family-friendly feel, or the glossy effect of the rampant CGI work, it made it the 3rd best Indiana Jones film to date. I am positive younger viewers or those unfamiliar with the previous films will feel differently. But then again, I bet they’ll like a PG-13, swear-less Beverly Hills Cop film when it comes out too.