As Paul Cornell might say, ITEM! Dr Debbie Challis will be speaking unto the huddled masses at a free lecture for the National Portrait Gallery, at 1.15 pm on Thursday. “Not Indiana Jones: Portraits of Archaeologists” is a chance to plug her book, which has a showbiz launch bash in the evening.
To ensure this lecture is bang on the moment, we went to see the new Indiana Jones movie this afternoon. It’s had mixed responses amongst our pals but we loved it – with two niggling exceptions.
It’s a rip-roaring, great fun adventure with plenty of jokes and pratfalls. It’s got some nicely icky bits in graves, with skeletons and creepy crawlies. The action sequences are exemplary and the whole thing licks along. It’s not a revisionist new version of the old hero, in the style of Dark Knight Returns. This is Indy as he always was, just a couple of decades later.
Older and greyer after his heroic service in the war, the film opens with Indiana tied up in the back of a car. It’s an ignominious beginning, with the Russians invading the iconic warehouse from the final shot of Raiders, which (as when The X-Files pilot ripped that shot off) is the Area 51 of Roswell.
As well as the Ark of the Covenant, this warehouse also includes an artefact that has magic, magnetic properties and soon Indiana is fighting to stop the Commies getting their hands on an alien.
Oh yes; this one’s about an alien. Though I’d point out that each of the first three movies feature a magic deux ex machina – the angry God of the Old Testament, Shiva feeling betrayed and a goblet used by Jesus.
The Von Danniken plot is just like the overly generalising anthropology so evident in the first three movies. Here the Mayans are sun-worshippers just like the Egyptians, and at a stroke they might have shared the same religion. It’s the fallacy of Hero With A Thousand Faces – that because different cultures show some similarities that they must all be the same.
The Communist baddies and alien crash are both nods to this being the 1950s. Mud Jones owes something to James Dean, and the speeding kids in the opening titles reminded me of American Graffiti. Dr Jones also has to contend with an atomic test – his last-minute solution of hiding in a fridge isn’t exactly a great example for any children watching. And the convenient it gets picked up by the bomb blast and carried out of danger is the same unlikely, easy get-out as in Fires of Pompeii. (the Dr's only criticism of Mr Moran’s clever script is that Donna and the Doctor couldn’t have made the long trek back into town ahead of the suffocating dust.)
Which is a shame, because often the film is really rather smart. It’s got something to say – and with subtlety – about the erosion of civil liberties and academic freedom as Jones is suspected by the McCarthyites. Only his old mates – Alan Dale and Jim Broadbent – stand by him, while the young folk pooh-pooh his list of medals.
(There’s something odd about his alluded war service, like Jones was in special ops alongside MI6. I realise now that it’s possible he was working alongside the book James Bond.)
The film’s also good at showing Indiana’s brains: he’s multilingual, his experience counts and we see him puzzling stuff out. He even kvetches that Mud Jones hasn’t finished college – while his son is another of George Lucas’s irritating, sulky teens, the film manages to steer clear of that Hollywood cliché of the Bad Dad who Gets Better.
I saw Neal Stephenson lecture at Gresham College a few weeks ago (and hadn’t blogged about it ‘cos what he said was going to be posted on their website). He was good on the “bifocal” careers of actors like Hugo Weaving, Leonard Nimoy and Sigourney Weaver, talented, highly competent actors with very varied careers, yet who have a special appeal to sweaty palmed sci-fi fans.
Stephenson’s contention was that it’s not just that Nimoy was only getting offered Vulcan roles; everyone else being offered those pointy ears after him was a bit of a disappointment. Because Nimoy – and Weaving and Sigourney Weaver, and Brent Spiner and Patrick Stewart and Lucy Lawless and all the Doctors Who, and now I realise Harrison Ford – all have the ability to suggest there’s something smart going on behind their eyes. The best heroes of sci-fi are clever.
In part, Indiana using his brains is a response to his being that much older. His increasing frailty is also used to comic effect – he misjudges distance and isn’t so firm on his feet. But Indiana’s brains and his new-found son’s brawn match the relationship Indiana had with his own father.
Oddly, Harrison Ford is now older than Sean Connery was in 1989, when he was playing Henry Jones Senior – a doddery, tweedy old academic who used his brains instead of his fists. His absence and that of Denham Elliott as Marcus Brody are keenly felt in the film – indeed, Jim Broadbent and John Hurt are like stunt replacements for them.
And the film is very keen to acknowledge Indiana’s past: there’s Indy mourning Marcus and Dad, and being reunited with Marion. A reference to Indy’s teenage past meeting famous figures in history (I assume) acknowledges the TV show. But there’s no mention at all of the Temple of Doom, as if it’s an embarrassing aberration. I half hoped to see a photo of Shortround on Indiana’s desk, or him turning up as yet another old mate who’s gone to the dark side.
Indiana’s not great with choosing buddies is he? There was Alfred Molina in the first one, and the Nazi girlfriend in the last. And now there’s Ray Winstone – who Psychonomy didn’t think had the breeding and accent to have worked for the Secret Service.
Winstone’s cheeky, crooked adventurer is just one example of the broad-brushstroke characterisation. Evil Commie villainess Cate Blanchett wields a sword and severe haircut, and might as well sport an eye-patch and beard she’s such an alpha baddie. You’d expect there to be some crude binary oppositions here: the evil of Communism against heroic, individualist freedom. But Winstone’s a villain for being a capitalist, and while previous films made the Nazis baddies because of their ideology, there’s no mention of what the Russians actually stand for.
And it’s not even that America = good. As I said, the film greys the moral black and white by making the FBI suspect Indiana; in a film about archaeology, only an idiot thinks his past counts for nothing. But these government spooks are the same dunderheaded bureaucrats Indy railed against at the end of Raiders when they put Top Men on the Ark. Indiana sticks it to Cate Blanchett by saying “I like Ike”, and I suppose there’s an argument to be made that as an example of Nietzschean wilful hero archetype of 1930s pulp, he is the kind of self-sufficient Republican who stands against state interference in his life.
But I’m not sure this anti-establishment stuff squares with Indy as a respectable college professor (and, at the end of the film, a dean), horrified at the damage done to a public statue. And the film acknowledges the contradiction: he supports Mud quitting college and following his own dream until he finds out he is family.
Or maybe that’s all just me imposing values (the film also leaves some odd threads dangling, like warning us to watch out for small scorpions... and then getting a swarm of hungry ants). But I’d at least argue that the film that could be much simpler in its morality than it is. And that makes it more rewarding than the pulp hokum of the past that it is pastiching.
And, of course, also all the less forgivable that it’s so very white. Even The Last Crusade gave it’s native peoples dialogue to explain that they’re attacking Indy for a reason – that they’re protecting the artefacts he’s stumbling through and blowing up. Here the nearly naked savages are mute. A plot cherry-picking from the 1950s could have at least nodded at civil rights – perhaps in place of that anti-Red campus protest.
The other thing that bothers is the crappy CGI. Just as with Star Wars, it sticks out like it’s from another movie altogether. Just as with James Bond, it feels like your cheating, betraying the manly realism of the stunts and set pieces. The comedy groundhogs are over-used and stupid, as is Mud swinging through the trees having learnt how from some monkeys.
It’s this – and only this – that makes the film sit oddly with its predecessors.