Everyone and their dog has taken a shot at the most recent Indiana Jones movie, and rightfully so. Compared to the original trilogy, it’s a staid, bizarre bore. But what’s really wrong with it, at heart?
Well, Red Letter Media has issued its own 2-Part Plinkett Review, which covers the basics: Speilberg Ideas, good; Lucas Ideas, bad. It also suggests that all the principals involved (Ford, Speilberg, Lucas) have lost their mojo, and no longer have the guts to show guts, gore, or possibly offensive things.
That may be well and perfectly true. But I think the real problem is that the fourth movie suffers from this:
The major theme of Raiders of the Lost Ark is that the Ark of the Covenant is not just some piece of old shiny to be displayed to tourists but a real sacred object, in the old sense of the word sacred, as something inviolable. The Old Testament is littered with the corpses of people who failed to show the Ark proper respect. When David was moving the Ark into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6), he had it carried on a donkey cart. When the Ark jostled about, some poor fool named Oza reached out too steady it and was struck dead on the spot (David has to leave it at some guy’s estate and wait to make the proper acoutrements for bringing it into the city). The Ark stands as a constant symbol of the unholiness and unworthiness of fallen, sinful Man. Which is why Raiders ends like this:
Indiana Jones survives because he knows not to look upon the Face of God.
In Temple of Doom this theme is less obvious, because Speilberg et al. probably know less about Hinduism than about Judaism (for that matter, so do I). In fact, let us stipulate that the Hinduism of Temple of Doom bears as much resemblance to actual Hindiusm as the Catholicism of say, South Park bears to the real thing. But Both Kali and Shiva are real and important Hindu Gods. Of the two, Shiva is probably the more important, as Shiva is the Destroyer to Brahma’s Creator and Vishnu’s Preserver in the Hindu Trimurti. Also, the Thuggee were a real and murderous Indian cult that lasted from the 13th to the 19th century, and really did worship Kali. Hindu tradition represents Kali as Shiva’s consort, but the movie ignores that. But the punishment of violating a sacred object is just as powerful in this film as in Raiders.
Mola Ram steals the sacred stone, which belongs to Shiva, to grow and foment the cult of Kali. In the pagan moral universe that Hinduism grows from, this is a sin requiring punishment. When Indy chants in Urdu at Mola Ram while they grapple on the bridge, the stones come to life and burn Mola Ram as he attempts to grasp them, causing him to fall into a river of hungry crocodiles. The symbolism could not be more obvious.
In Last Crusade it becomes more obvious still. In the theology of most Christian denominations, the Holy Grail is unimportant. But as a concept in popular mysticism, the Holy Grail represents the untouchable holiness of Christ, rather like the Eucharist it first participated in. This is not an object for some half-witted rich twit to lock away in his vault like so much Viagra.
As in Raiders, Indy survives his brush with the sacred object because, like Galahad or Parzival or any other Grail Knight, he humbles himself sufficiently to see the True Grail.
So sure, say the movies, Indiana Jones, may be a swinging adventurer and more of a graverobber than an archaeologist, but even he knows how to deal with something man was not made to covet. This provides a moral undertone to the films that allows them to rise above all the blunt violence; even to put that violence into some kind of context where the blood matters and makes sense. When at the very end of Last Crusade, the Knight of the Temple salutes Indiana, the gestures doesn’t feel hokey or out of place. Our modern Hero Adventurer has proven worthy of his ancestors.
Now compare that to the latest film, which was about…aliens.
Part of the problem is the shift from an interwar adventure to a Cold War struggle. The Nazis made good foils for Indy, because they really were the sort of people who would have liked getting their hands on the Ark and the Grail and the Holy Lance and such. Nazism was occultist and Nietszchean. But Soviet Communism was brutally athiest. No KGB officer, however dashing with a saber, would do make any effort to obtain an ancient artifact, save to blow it up. The idea that a sacred object could actually do anything undermines dialectical materalism. So the idea that KGB would spend a rouble chasing Native American legends simply doesn’t work.
By the same token, the object itself is smaller in importance. Now, Native American crystal skulls are real things, and they have generated much supernatural speculation. But the idea that Col. Spalko has trespassed a sacred line by returning a skull to the skeleton it belongs to puzzles the mind. If anything, she did the alien a favor so they could go home. Why she deserved to have her eyeballs melted, I never quite got, save that she was the Main Villain, and something had to kill her.
Regardless, it felt tacked on and obligatory, like much of the film itself. Unlike the other films, when you walked away from it feeling that justice had been bestowed on evil, and the balance of the world’s karma set right, this one was more like an extended ramble through Indiana Jones’ sunset years. He got kidnapped by Soviets. He met an old flame. He lost his job. He met a kid who (spoilers!) turned out to be his son. He saw some aliens.