Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Surfeit of Self-Reference

Few would think of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as a risky enterprise. Spielberg’s still in the director’s chair, and Harrison is still cracking his whip. What’s more surefire than that? I mean, it’s Indy!

Exactly. Which makes this presumably final installment a huge storytelling gamble, if not a financial one.

You can feel it in the first five minutes -- a sense of overwhelming self-consciousness on the filmmakers’ behalf. It starts when a certain iconic hat appears onscreen before the hero does and continues for almost the entire running time. Iconic is exactly what Indiana Jones has become in the seventeen years since The Last Crusade, and it’s put pressure on The Crystal Skull’s creative team. As the film moved on, I could imagine them hashing out the script: “So they’re running away from the secret government facility, and we see the Ark of the Covenant peeking out of a broken box.” “Here’s where Harrison stares at the picture of Sean Connery on his desk. Be sure to hold the shot for at least five seconds.” “And who comes out of the tent but Marion Ravenwood!” “A snake -- there has to be a snake.”

Self-reference is effective in satire, but less so in other genres. Why? Probably because it doesn’t serve the story. An author has to craft a logical string of actions and create believable characters who will carry them out, has to develop locations where the actions occur and have some thematic ideal they point to. The only thing indulgent asides provide is unwanted padding, and an audience only has so much goodwill.

Unfortunately, this is the route The Crystal Skull takes, which means that characters must emote or explicate in thirty-second snippets between sly allusions and epic chases. True, the action is entertaining, and back porch philosophers might enjoy pondering why the series jettisons its reliance on religious relics in favor of extraterrestrial hokum. But when the credits roll, most will leave thinking it was decent and little more. I’d like to ask Spielberg and his team why they felt they had to sacrifice story to the series’ legacy, but I already know the answer: It’s Indy.

(Picture: CC 2008 by
Gaetan Lee)


Amy said...

Our main critical deduction was that Lucas, Spielberg and, later, Ford, sat around going "How much can we get away with? Wait, we're Lucas, Spielberg and Ford releasing another Indy film after 17 years - we can do whatever the heck we want."

And I kind of believe they've earned that right, because I am one of those people who would pay my $8 to watch Indy just stand onscreen while his John Williams theme played for 2 hours.

However, I will say the only time I felt "at home" with this Indy was when was giving his history lesson at the diner. And then there were monkeys, and we saw the movie jump a great white.

Loren Eaton said...

Yes, watching Shia LaBeouf ape Tarzan (awful pun intended) almost had me running for the exit.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I haven't seen this latest movie, but the self-reference might merely be exaggerating a trend that has always been part of the series. Everyone remembers the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indiana Jones is confronted by a menacing fellow whirling a sword, then rolls his eyes, pulls out a gun, and shoots the guy.

In one of the subsequent films, the set-up is identical, only when Indy reaches for his gun, his holster is empty.
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