Return of the Hat

It’s hard for me to judge the new Indiana Jones film on its own – having watching the original trilogy over and over again on wet Bank Holidays, it’s inevitable that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will never quite live up to the rosy-tinted memories of my youth. So really, my criteria was this: has George Lucas stamped all over my childhood for the fourth time?

Luckily, the answer is no. Maybe it’s my downplayed expectations, after the Star Wars prequels were so very very bad, but I was pleasantly surprised with the film – it’s not Raiders of the Lost Ark, no, but it’s a reasonable return (and end?) to the franchise.

As you probably know if you’ve seen anything about the film, we’re not in the 30s anymore. It’s 1957, and Indy is back to being Professor Jones after a number of covert missions during the war. Recognising that nineteen years have passed, and working that into the story, ends up being the best and the worst things about the film. The first half of the film is very good at reminding us that we’re in the fifties now. The villains are no longer the Nazis, but the Russians, Marcus Brody and Henry Jones Sr. are both dead, and in an amusing but preposterous sequence Indy survives a nuclear weapons test by hiding in the lead-lined fridge from a model 1950’s town. It’s a sensible move, given that Harrison Ford is now over 60, and you couldn’t pretend that he was still the same age as for Last Crusade, handwaving explanations about drinking from the Holy Grail aside, but he’s still credible as the action hero he always was. Aside from anything else, the moment the famous hat appears on screen he is Indy, and it feels like no time has passed since the last time we saw him.

Still, they’ve seen fit to introduce a younger lead in the form of Mutt, who in a revelation which will surprise no one turns out to be Indy’s son. It’s the father-son dynamic of Last Crusade with a twist and less of a Scottish accent, and having not seen Shia LeBoeuf in anything but Transformers, in which the actors are not really the point, I thought he was pretty good and far less irritating than I feared.

Of course with Mutt we get the return of Marion. I loved having Marion back, and not just because she’s a good female character who can hold her own in a fight, does not exist purely to be the love interest, and is not 30 years younger than the male lead. They don’t stop with Marion and Mutt, as this time Indy is definitely on the “team” path – we also get Ray Winstone playing a British agent of shifting allegiances, and John Hurt as Oxley, a fellow archaeologist driven mad by the crystal skull he found. At times it’s too many for the film to do justice to, and it’s a shame John Hurt doesn’t get to do much more than shamble around grinning madly for half the film.

By the second half of the film, we’ve also abandoned the nods to 1950, and once they’re chasing through the jungle looking for ancient temples, there’s no reason we couldn’t be in 1935. The same is true of the Russian villains, led by a strangely unmemorable Cate Blanchett, who is like all your standard Indy villains searching for an ancient artefact of unbelievable power with which to crush her enemies. This time there’s a psychic twist, as the crystal skulls are said to have mind-control powers, but the Russians are basically indistinguishable from Nazis.

It’s at the end that we really get back to the 1950’s setting, and just as the early films aped the B-movies of the 1930s, we’re doing the 50s now. And that means flying saucers and aliens (sorry, “interdimensional aliens”, thank you John Hurt), and I don’t like it very much. Indy has always had mystical and supernatural elements, and I liked the crystal skull MacGuffin, but tipping it over into full blown flying saucers just doesn’t sit right with me. (The ending is also reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, where the main villain is offed by a large and powerful machine and the city crumbles around them, but this is not really a problem unless you are a huge LucasArts nerd like me.) At times it feels like we are ticking the tickyboxes of an Indy film, which is a good thing when we’re talking about the classic Indy elements like cobwebs and snakes and huge grinding stone mechanisms and satisfying thump noises whenever Indy kicks someone in the face, but the obligatory chase sequence is too long, and Mutt’s Tarzan-style rope swinging is overly silly. There isn’t seem to be as much clever puzzling-solving as I’d like, either – it doesn’t take long at all to figure out what Ox’s note to Indy is all about, and there’s nothing on the scale of the three trials of Last Crusade or the joyous scene with the Staff of Ra in Raiders. In the end it’s not a classic, but it is a good, fun, silly popcorn movie, and it’s nice to see Indiana Jones on the big screen.

4 thoughts on “Return of the Hat

  1. I took two things from the film.

    1) Why did they call him ‘Mutt’ if it wasn’t to set up a ‘you both named yourselves after the dog’ joke.

    2) The CGi spectacle at the end was completely devoid of any kind of sensawunda, something which can only be down to bad direction. When I went to see Sunshine in the cinema I was gripping the arms of the chair from vertigo and was amazed by the visuals, these visuals left me completely cold. I felt like I’d seen it all before.

  2. Surely Mutt is to clue the viewer in that he is his son so we can give ourselves a pat on the back.

    The CGI climax wasn’t very awe-inspiring but I thought that was because I saw a dirty print on a smallish screen.

  3. I presumed we were meant to fill it our own “named after the dog” joke. I wasn’t too impressed by the CGI at the end (and I was too busy having a wtf flying saucer! moment), but I was impressed by the mushroom cloud, and some of the smaller stuff where there were elaborate door-opening mechanisms and so on.

    Sunshine did have stunning visuals, it’s just a shame the rest of it was a bit rubbish.

  4. I thought it was probably the second best Indy movie; Temple is just too schlocky, and Crusade plays too hard for laughs, whereas this gets the balance between them right, I think. True, it’s no Raiders, but still an admirable addition to Indy canon.

    I don’t have a problem with wtf!flyingsaucers; “aliens came to Earth and taught humans agriculture and stuff” is from the same kind of wacky history nutjobs as “the Grail is real, and really will give you immortality”, and part of the point of the ending of Indy movies is that, actually, this shit is TRUE! so a spaceship turning up is no more ridiculous than a Grail knight still being alive or the Ark of the Covenant killing Nazis.

    I also think it’s worth bearing in mind that while the change in tone is meant to reflect the change in setting, from 30s serials to 50s B movies, it also helps to characterise the change in villains. I don’t think the Russians are indistinguishable from the Nazis; I like the fact that they are looking for an idealogical weapon to turn people in to Communists rather than a weapon of ultimate power. And Hitler/the Nazis really did believe/research some wacky shit, whereas the Russians probably did try to do psychic warfare research (as did the US); in addition, the cold war was very technological and so a slightly more SF feel adds to distinguishing the villains.

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