Whittier Summer Movie Watching

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

With summer movie season in full swing, two film reviews from Whittier College professors give an insight to recent popular movies. Spanish professor Gustavo Geirola reviews Under the Same Moon, a tale of an immigrant child's journey through the Southwest, while English professor Sean Morris takes on the latest installment of the Indiana Jones series

By Sean Morris, associate professor of English

The hat. The whip. The theme music.

If you have ever enjoyed an Indiana Jones movie, these icons set you salivating like one of Pavlov's dogs. Rest assured, the hallmarks return in the latest installment, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in which Jones ventures to South America in search of  [Indiana Jones Movie Photo] an ancient skull with secret powers, encountering along the way the usual quota of exotic places, bad guys, action, and mystery. Of course, spinning these anticipated elements into a new story requires some fresh material, and audiences should be prepared for the unexpected well into which Spielberg, Lucas, and screenwriter David Koepp have dipped their bucket.

The previous three films, set in the 1930's, took their cue from the adventure serials of those years—stories of unexplored jungles and their primeval inhabitants (as in 1933's King Kong) and of the clashes between imperial powers leading up to World War II. In Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 19 years have passed for Indiana since The Last Crusade, just as they have for us, and the creators have turned this time to the silver screen of 1957, the B-movies of the Atomic Age. So when you enter the theater, you need to expect not Hitler and National Geographic, but the Cold War and Roswell.

This caveat in place, everything in the film works as well as it ever has, with chases, discovery, and humor in plenty, as well as the character we have come to know and love. We come to know him a little better in this adventure, glimpsing bits of his undercover work during the war and learning details of old relationships (no spoilers here!). We also get to see him as a dedicated professor, pausing even in mid-chase to answer questions from an eager (if rather oblivious) student.

Fortunately, the movie steers away from the formulaic jokes about age so prevalent in the trailer. Instead it is wistful rather than maudlin about those who have passed away, hopeful but not saccharin about renewal in the next generation.

Harrison Ford turns in one of many solid performances, layering his familiar resolve and iron constitution with just a hint of grumpy old man. ("Any last words, Dr. Jones?" "I like Ike!") His female companion occasionally seems self-conscious, like a tourist posing before the camera. Still, at other times she generates enough free-spirited daring to cow even Indy, while Shia LaBoeuf, saddled with a James Dean type (duck tail and motorcycle included), manages to inject some stuttering charm into his switchblade rebel. Likewise, armed with riding crop and Soviet platitudes, the chief villain, Colonel Doctor Irina Spalko, threatens to be as one-dimensional as her page-boy hairline, but Cate Blanchett somehow instills in this cartoon dominatrix a touch of the wounded child, a sensitive woman yearning for mystery and knowledge in a world that seeks only to exploit her special talents.

The film is not without some other drawbacks: The change to the science-fiction genre loses some of the wonder of discovery of the original films; government agents come across as flat, officious bullies; and a few of the action sequences strain credulity or solicit cheap laughs, as when vegetation threatens to thwack LaBoeuf's tender regions during the car chase. But this new sidekick has more depth than Short Round, and the space aliens are no more implausible than the mystic Sankara stones, Ark of the Covenant, or Holy Grail. Before you balk at Indy's miraculous escape via refrigerator/bomb shelter/catapult, you should call to mind the life raft/parachute/toboggan of Temple of Doom.

Perhaps harder to believe—in this, as in all his exploits—is Dr. Jones' cavalier treatment of any artifact not included in the title of the film: ancient bones and armor crushed and cast aside with no regret for the history they could have revealed. Still, he makes a better champion for indigenous peoples and their sacral beliefs than the nineteenth-century tomb raiders who gave birth to modern archaeology. In the end, his character owes more to heroic archetypes than to the pottery-shard cataloguing of real science. If not the epic hero who must sacrifice himself to save the world (like Beowulf or Harry Potter), Indiana Jones is at least a hero of the Romance, who likewise pits extraordinary determination against seemingly impossible odds. Indy time and again discovers that the world is larger than he ever imagined, more dangerous but also more beautiful. This is the secret to his enduring appeal and what we ultimately take away from the films--not the escapist joy-ride, but the belief that we can overcome our own challenges, and that it is worthwhile to do so.Kingdom of the Crystal Skull may never supplant Raiders or The Last Crusade as the apex of the series, but it is a very satisfying adventure and a fitting last bow for the man in the leather hat.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, PG-13. Currently in theatres.