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The new film is like so many other fantasy-spectaculars nowadays in that it leads us relentlessly toward a cyclone of action and effects that inevitably buries all meaning and possibility under the weight of overdetermined conventions.

Indiana of America 

How to stop worrying and love Lucas, Spielberg and Raiders

click to enlarge Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), throwing haymakers like a man - PHOTO COURTESY OF PARAMOUNT PICTURES

When I was a kid, the Village Theater was the sleekest of Raleigh's few suburban cinemas. Low-slung, with wraparound plate glass windows, this elegant appendage of Cameron Village Shopping Center had an expert staff, great concessions and a beautiful, large auditorium with top-notch projection. All in all, it was a classy place to spend an air-conditioned summer afternoon watching the latest Hollywood hits, such as the most ravishingly spectacular film I recall seeing there, on its premiere run in 1962—David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia.

By the early '80s, the Village had morphed, sadly, into the Village Twin. In place of the expert staff were pimply, polyester-clad teenagers pouring greasy butter-substitute onto substandard popcorn. The old auditorium had been chopped in two, badly. The new seats were crummy and, amazingly, didn't face the screen directly. The new projectors had the same problem, with the result that they were almost never fully in focus.

That was where I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark on its opening night in 1981. I recall I spent much of the show fuming at the sticky floors and bad seats. I made a couple of pointless attempts to get the projectionist to focus the film. I also noticed that the packed audience didn't seem to mind the crappy conditions or the unfocused movie one bit. They howled and roared with enjoyment all the way through. I figured I'd stumbled into a convention of morons.

When I reviewed Raiders, I wrote not so much about its contents—which struck me as aggressively inane—but about the experience of seeing it at the Village Twin. To me, everything that night was of a piece, all of it depressing evidence of a tripartite decline. Just as the quality of the movie-going setting had deteriorated markedly, so had the quality of the audience. And both were duplicated by the change registered by the movies themselves, which seemed to have reversed former expectations about the natural direction of a filmgoer's intelligence and maturity.

Lawrence of Arabia was an adult's film, but it had enough action and real-life adventure to appeal to the young. It was a movie that invited a kid to grow up. Raiders, in marked contrast, had tons of action and synthetic, comic-book "adventure" but no brains. It invited adults to regress to a kinetic, insipid childhood.

click to enlarge Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), poking eyes like a Cold War villainess - PHOTO COURTESY OF PARAMOUNT PICTURES

Since Raiders was a collaboration between George Lucas (writer-producer) and Steven Spielberg (director), the Lucas-Spielberg brand for many critics soon became a synonym for the dumbing down or "infantilization" of American movies. And we all know what happened thereafter: The changes announced by Raiders became permanent. Hollywood turned into an industry whose economic life blood comes from making noisy, flashy, special-effects driven fantasy spectacles for 12-year-olds of all ages. Walk into a multiplex at this time of the year, look at the coming attractions, and that's all you see.

All of which makes the third Raiders sequel, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, both strange and ironic, coming as it does almost two decades after the last, 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Back in the '80s, whether you loved or loathed the Indiana Jones movies, they were on the cutting edge of mass culture. Today, the whole conceit has a faintly musty, over-familiar aroma. I can imagine a young filmgoer who hadn't seen the earlier films wondering if the new one was maybe a rip-off of the National Treasure movies.

Personally, I have long since left behind any emotional animus against the two filmmakers for their dubious impact on American movies in the late '70s and '80s. Spielberg, of course, grew considerably as an artist thereafter, while Lucas remained a curious specimen of arrested development, but their mutual handiwork has shed much of its once-potent cultural symbolism. A new Indiana Jones title is not a cause. It's simply a rather typical summer movie, one that I went into hoping to be entertained—which, perhaps a bit more than expected, I was.

I had thought in advance about the aging of both the main character and the actor who plays him. Yet these factors end up counting for less than one might think. Indy is still Indy. And Harrison Ford, with his sturdy, weathered mien, is as creditable an action hero as any 65-year-old could be (a judgment with no intended sarcasm).

What I hadn't anticipated was the different range of subtle associations resulting from the story's leap in time. The earlier Indiana Jones movies were set in the 1930s, with the Yellow Peril gnawing at one side of the globe and dastardly Nazis menacing the other. The new one opens in 1957 with Elvis wailing "Hound Dog," and we're soon off on an escapade that touches on the Roswell UFO incident, nuclear testing in New Mexico, even the McCarthy-era search for Communists in the government.

But here's a surprise: The film's prime baddies are Commies! For decades Hollywood has largely avoided giving the Nazi treatment to the goons of the former Soviet Union, but this movie serves up a gang of Russian miscreants who'd be right at home in SS uniforms. They include a slinky scientist named Irina Spalko (a wonderful performance by Cate Blanchett), who's sort of a female Faust in a Louise Brooks bob.

Considering that the earlier Indy films were not only set in the 1930s but supposedly based on the movie serials of that decade, it's no surprise that this one conjures a different set of filmic references, ranging from '50s paranoid sci-fi and espionage films to lighter fare. Early on, Indy's riding on a train and a motorcycle roars up alongside bearing a surly young man named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf). Mutt's decked out a la Marlon Brando in The Wild One and has a coif—played by a truly ridiculous wig—in the James Dean mode. Yet when Indy and Mutt repair to the local soda shop, the ambience is a whole lot less Rebel Without a Cause than it is Back to the Future.

Indeed, as much as Lucas and Spielberg riff on various movies of the '50s, it's their own work we're most frequently reminded of. After starting off in the U.S., the tale makes its way to the jungles of South America, where the climactic action is a series of chases—complete with man-eating ants and cute monkeys—whose hurtling trajectories are straight out of the spaceship battles in Star Wars. And when our heroes reach their archeological destination, they encounter beings that, though they're supposedly inter-dimensional rather than extraterrestrial, can't help but recall the otherworldly creatures of E.T. and Close Encounters.

While non-admirers of the early Indy films sometimes scored them as mechanical rather than human, and often faulted Lucas for that, it's worth noting that what emotional dynamics the films do contain rhyme with those in other Lucas films. The father-son tension previously animating the relationship between Indy and his dad (Sean Connery, presumably M.I.A. due to money reasons), and here transferred to the Indy-Mutt duet, is the same Oedipal struggle that runs throughout the Star Wars cycle.

I'm not sure, though, that either Indy's paternal quandaries or his romantic squabbling with returning Raiders veteran Marion Ravenwood (a plucky and non-Botoxed Karen Allen) count as emotional content rather than reflexive tics. On the other hand, there is something oddly moving about the dedication, diligence and inventiveness that Spielberg pours into every frame of the movie's mounting.

I will admit I didn't allow myself to be quite so impressed by the director's exacting expertise two decades ago. Granted, Spielberg was always a wizard in combining physical action with expressive compositions and dazzling camera choreography (as well as other formal elements including John Williams' sometimes trite but always effective scores). Back then, this all looked like empty prestidigitation and commercial cunning. Today, in context, it can seem as personal and purposeful as the craft of John Ford's Stagecoach.

In the new film, Spielberg has a fine cast that also includes Jim Broadbent, John Hurt and Ray Winstone, and, of course, he deploys an arsenal of special effects whose technical sophistication is light years beyond those of the earlier films. Still, the Indy movies as a whole remind us of the limitations of films that depend heavily on such effects.

Ultimately they involve narrative paradigms that have become dull and grating through overuse. The new film (which was scripted by David Koepp from a story by Lucas and Jeff Nathanson) is like so many other fantasy-spectaculars nowadays in that it leads us relentlessly toward a cyclone of action and effects that inevitably buries all meaning and possibility under the weight of overdetermined conventions. By the time the climax rockets up, you feel like you've seen it dozens of times before—because you have.

Of course, compared to heaps of incoherent rubbish like the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, this fourth Indiana Jones outing can seem downright neoclassical. But Lucas and Spielberg can take no comfort in how trashy the summer movie landscape is these days; it's a domain that they, more than anyone else, created.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull opens Thursday throughout the Triangle.

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