Indiana Jones and the Fall of My Favorite Hero, Part Three: Oh, My Aching Skulls!

[This is Part Three of a series. Don't miss Part One and Part Two.]

As the summer of 2008 approached, you could hear the Internet crackling with energy like the Ark exploding with the wrath of God. Fans were having anxiety attacks, racked with worries and questions about the new episode in Indiana Jones’ adventures.

Would Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull enhance the trilogy’s legendary status? Or would it, like the Star Wars prequels, tarnish a beloved franchise? Would Jones’s appetite for adventure be rekindled for further movies? Or would he bequeath his hat to a younger adventurer, and inspire an heir to his legacy? Would he  die at the end? Would he be carried away by aliens, like Richard Dreyfus at the end of Close Encounters?

I was asking different questions: Would Indiana Jones finally learn from his adventures? Would he begin to take responsibility in his relationships? He’s older, but has he matured? Have any of his encounters with the Almighty — the God of Righteous Anger in Raiders, and the God of Eternal Life in Last Crusade — made lasting impressions, or inspired a living faith? Or were they just “adventures,” just spiritual amusement park rides?

Let’s face it: While Spielberg has shown some respect for Christian faith in his films, George Lucas’s spiritual convictions have not come into clearer focus over the years. In a recent Entertainment Weekly article, he spoke of weaving in supernatural elements “that people actually believe in.” It seems like the Scriptures hold no more merit for him than a Mayan legend about magical skulls with healing powers. The Bible looks like just another source of “myth” to be exploited for the sake of adventure. We’re not likely to see any deepening of Jones’ faith.

As it turned out, Crystal Skull was amusing but disappointing, underlining Raiders‘ strengths as unique, the kind of adventure storytelling we were unlikely to see again on the big screen.

As I wrote in my review of the film,

Indy never bothers to ask for help from the God who has saved him so many times before—especially in Raiders and The Last Crusade. He seems to have cast aside all lessons learned from the Almighty.

In the last act, the world goes to pieces in scenes of unprecedented devastation. Indy’s just a bystander while loose plot threads and nagging questions are buried in the rubble. (What happened to the FBI’s suspicion that Jones was a Communist? How could Indy have survived “twenty or thirty” top-secret missions with Mac, the sidekick played by Ray Winstone, who seems like a fickle buffoon? Why would the government keep a warehouse full of secrets next to a nuclear testing site?)

In Raiders and Last Crusade, climaxes carried some measure of mystery. The skulls, unlike the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail, don’t enrich the story with meaning. Sure, we learn where they come from, and who they belong to. But their various powers are baffling—not only do they have hypnotic, telepathic power, but they also serve as a great deterrent against jungle predators. And in the end, they teach the same lesson that Raiders taught: when knowledge is pursued at all costs, it leads to destruction.

And that destruction stirs up so much sound and fury that one of Indy’s most powerful collaborators—composer John Williams—is prevented from enjoying any time in the spotlight. Remember the scene in the Map Room in Raiders? Indy spoke not a word while Williams’ music soared, evoking a sense of wonder that this film desperately needs.

In a season when big-screen adventurers keep uncovering scandalous evidence that will supposedly break the lasting power of the church and its gospel message,  it’s likely that the resonance of Raiders and Last Crusade will remain rare exceptions in the genre — two breathtaking action-adventures that conveyed more truth than the filmmakers may have guessed. Where is the next hero who, like Indy, can humbly cease striving, and show some faith that the Almighty will overcome?

Perhaps we should set our hopes on a more plausible conclusion — one consistent with Spielberg’s oeuvre. As the director of Close Encounters has grown up, the focus of his storytelling has shifted from celebrating dreamers who abandon family for adventure to celebrating adventurers who come home and learn the value of family. We might hope that our aging hero will find some room for family, fidelity, and faith under that old fedora.

His treasures “belong in a museum.” But his heart deserves better.

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  • Gaith

    A good piece, Jeffrey, but I do think you do “The Mummy” its all-too-common injustice of underrating by proclaiming it little-to-nothing more than an Indy knockoff. Have you ever noticed, for instance, that Weisz’s Evelyn is really the movie’s central character? She’s the one who rescues Rick from hanging, prompts the journey to Hamunaptra, finds and wakes Imhotep, and is ultimately the one who then deprives him of his invincibility. Fraser’s Rick is, in this light, really just her sidekick muscle.

    You credit Indy with discovering faith, but given the extremely tangible evidence of the supernatural he’s given, is that really so impressive a maturation? As Evelyn herself says, “coming face-to-face with a walking, talking three-thousand-year-old mummy does tend to convert one!” The main dramatic arc in “The Mummy” isn’t a reluctant acceptance of the clear implications of overwhelming evidence, but rather Rick’s development of awe and love for Evelyn, for whom he cleans himself up and selflessly risks his life. Reincarnation is all well and good, but the *real* magic is revealed to be a woman – and it seems to me that Weisz makes an excellent argument for humanism.

    Does Sommers’ movie borrow generously from the Jones films? Of course. But it seems to me that it’s got plenty of virtues beyond them nevertheless. (Let’s just not mention the sequels, shall we?)


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