Spielberg's Kingdom

 

Where the first two "Indiana Jones" films are masterfully-crafted adventures, with an edge of the gruesome, the fourth film, 2008's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, adopts the template of the third: the masterfully-crafted comedic "tall tale", blending myth and humanism. It does so with an older Indy, a Fifties pastel colour palette, and alien beings.

A series of reflections on "Indy - Mark IV" follow below...

I. The Next Crusade. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has modest ambitions ... in blockbuster terms. Given the speculation and anticipation that was building through the 90's and 00's for a fourth Indy film, one could have reasonably expected a film that, when it arrived in May 2008, was above and beyond its predecessors in kinetics, scope, and mysticism. But The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is in no rush to surpass its predecessors in the "bells and whistles" department; it is simply giving us the pleasure of another Indy film. Such modesty is amusingly stated in its opening frames: the fade from the Paramount mountain to a molehill (or a prairie dog hill, as it were). It's just a film, folks; it ain't the world. By now, its “Eighties revisionist” formula is old-fashioned, rather than contemporary. But a sparkling new Indy film in the midst of bruising heroic contemporaries, such as Jason Bourne, is utterly refreshing. And a tick of approval for the filmmakers - that is, for resisting the pressure to hype up proceedings.

II. The Colour of 1957. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull brought a new cinematographer to the series, Spielberg's regular since 1993's Schindler's List, Janusz Kaminski. Kaminski brilliantly replicates the fluid camera work of the late Douglas Slocombe. Interestingly, though, while the film is one of Kaminski's most colourful, it is shot with Kaminski's characteristic high contrast style. This makes it the most artificial and stylised-looking film of the series thus far, compounded by a visual palette of rich pastels, a la 1950s movie posters (particularly the B-science fiction films where government Cold War paranoias were typically articulated through the threat of alien invasion). I actually think it's fascinating to see an Indiana Jones film that reflects the developments in the director's visual style over the years, and yet the artificiality of high contrast and pastels also gives the impression that more of the action was digitally-created than was actually the case. (Thank goodness, then, for DVD special features to set things straight!) And I like that the computer-generated imagery of The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has the look of the Industrial Light and Magic visual effects of Indy's past.

III. Return. When sequels to 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark were first being discussed, it made an invigorating exercise to "brainstorm" what other sacred vessels could be unearthed. The Ark of the Covenant, after all, had been utilised to such grand, mysterious and scary effect. But by the time Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was released in 1989, it was apparent that the hunted relic’s "special effects" were of lesser concern to Spielberg than issues of family. This was partly by necessity - series scenarist George Lucas and Spielberg felt that the dramatic possibilities of The Holy Grail were a little pallid in comparison with relics past, and so a new dimension was needed - but there was also a desire to bring some emotional depth to the Jones character, and, by extension, the series itself. The search for the Grail hence drove, complemented and - dare I suggest it - illuminated the search for Indy’s father, Henry Jones Sr. It even concluded with a very non-Western, non-imperialist impulse to "let [the prize] go". And this dimension of The Last Crusade - the search for the prize mirroring a familial reconciliation - clearly fueled the narrative and subtextual impulses of The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The necessity of "return" and reconciliation for the inter-terrestrial beings - the return of the lost Crystal Skull to its place amongst thirteen - mirrors and even drives our rather lost Indiana's unconscious need to return to "family" (bloodlines or otherwise), a family that will renew his own strength, vigour, knowledge and place.

IV. Regard for the Recent Past. When The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was released, nineteen years had amassed since we last saw Indiana Jones. Some contemplation of Jones' relevance and place - and re-discovering his place - in this new world of Cold War paranoia was not only logical, but necessary. And there's a moment in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that captures the implications of this significant passage of time quite profoundly. (Not that the moment seems profound.) A chase along the ovals of Jones' college, complete with protesting students, culminates with a KGB vehicle crashing into the memorial statue of Indy's Professor friend and mentor, Marcus Brody, with the statue's head neatly separating from its body and landing in a Russkie's lap. The guffaw this gag might attract, though, is clipped short, as Ford, typically a master of befuddled responses, watches this particular spectacle, and his young companion's amusement, sombrely and stonily. It's a switcheroo on the Henry Sr./Henry Jr. byplay of The Last Crusade, but there's a greater point here. Such a traditional moment of gleeful desecration in the Indiana Jones films - personified by that proud swordsman being shot stone cold dead in Raiders - is now seen through a new lens: this older Indiana Jones could never smile at Brody's beyond-the-grave intervention, for he's now watching the desecration of a sacred figure he holds dear. And so, one of the subtle and invigorating charms of The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is seeing the spark and enthusiasm return in those older eyes through the course of the film. And "family" contributes as much to Indy's re-engagement, if not more, than the adventure itself.

V. Reconciliation. Both The Last Crusade and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull begin with the same broad strokes of an earlier Indiana Jones adventure - the largely stern-faced pursuit of a missing artefact - but crucially, by their second halves, the focus turns to familial reconciliation amidst the obstacles and pursuits. The chases are not as urgent, but the witty by-play of family members is a hugely enjoyable compensation. The chases are slapstick, too, what with family squabbles occurring atop tanks, jeeps and motorcycles. Which, understandably, disappointed fans of the gritty essence of Raiders, fans who hoped for a more gung-ho, less spoofy, more dangerous pursuit of the prize. But four films have now clearly articulated two types of satisfying Indiana Jones films (or satisfying for most): the gritty straightforward hunt of Raiders, and the tongue-in-cheek, multilayered familial quests. And through The Last Crusade and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Spielberg has spectacularly demonstrated the art of locating meaningfulness within over-the-top fun.

VI. The Son Becomes the Father. In the midst of The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull's shenanigans, Indy learns he is a father, and that the mother, and his true love, Marion Ravenwood, raised the son in his absence - and did so with a more available man. From all indications - and this is another one of the film's understated pleasures - Indy will make a much nicer father than his own. He's less cantankerous, far less mocking, more agreeable to being corrected, more immediately generous in spirit. The positive signs are there. A familial chain of behaviour, it would seem, has been largely broken.

VII. Maturity. The Last Crusade and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are the works of a maturing director, a man whose mind and spirit has become more acquainted with - and quelled by - the complexities of life. The sanctioned, if comical, Nazi-bashing of Raiders is sent up in The Last Crusade from the word go ("Nazis, I hate these guys!") and even playfully suggests that Indy might be grappling with some personal pathologies. It's as though directing The Colour Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987) between the second and third Indy films sensitised Spielberg to other cultural experiences, and made the black and white dynamics of the Indiana Jones universe only workable for him if they were clearly expressed through a parodic lens. And from Indy's first line in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Ford employs that same gruff yet spoofing tone for the acceptable villains of the piece: "Russians!" Spielberg hasn't reverted on the matter, and on the evidence of Munich, Schindler's List, et al., how could he? The violence is now overwhelmingly comic, too, with Spielberg far less inclined to throw in harsh touches for a self-righteous audience, like the Nazi in Raiders who falls under the wheels of the truck, arms and legs flailing up hopelessly as he's flattened into the Earth, or the Thuggee hulk who is steamrolled by a rock crusher. These films are larks, as each new Indy film makes increasingly clear, with Spielberg now addressing impulses of revenge and righteousness on more complex canvases. And admiration can also be reserved for a filmmaker who, despite the cinematic climate of the past couple of decades, remains bold enough to embrace flashes of inspired silliness and improbability, and not worry if the stamp of "unsophisticated" or "uncool" is received in the process.

VIII. True Zest. Anyhow, Spielberg always enjoyed a tall tale, and Indiana Jones continues to be his best declaration of intent in this regard. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is no exception, although it may be a touch more muted and a tad more lyrical than earlier Indy films. But let's not mistake a reduced kinetic energy with overall energy and engagement. The Last Crusade also contended with similar assumptions. To grumble at the comparative lack of zest, or even at the increased level of parody, is to miss the dimensions that Spielberg and his creative team have woven into the series. There are themes – not just design - to think about. And it is one thing to dislike the direction a series has taken; it is quite another to deny those films their essence in the process.

IX. When Worlds Collide. With The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I realised my allegiance was more to Spielberg, the filmmaker, than to Indiana Jones, the film series. Hence when the alien ship is revealed, I found myself moved and elated at the sight of one Spielbergian universe intersecting with another. Whether aliens should – or should not - be making their presence felt in the Indiana Jones universe, felt entirely beside the point.

Published 2 February 2017