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If some 32nd-century archeologist were to unearth a DVD copy of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Paramount), her first task—after converting the barbaric early digital technology to a more current brain-wave-based viewing system—would be to understand what this object meant to the culture that created it. What combination of nostalgia, repetition compulsion, and love of big, dumb spectacle would have sent these benighted tribesmen back to the Indiana Jones myth 27 years after its creation and 19 years since Indiana last rode into the sunset? Why did the people of the early 21st century still need Indiana Jones?
As our future archeologist might point out to her students, there's no disputing the sheer workmanship of the artifact. Though none of the sequels yet unearthed can quite match the original for fineness of detail, this "Spielberg"—did the name designate just one man, or was it a group attribution for a guild of anonymous craftsmen?—was unquestionably a master artisan of the still-primitive film form. The mark of the Spielberg school is particularly evident in The Crystal Skull'scar-chase sequences. One spectacular chase through the Amazon forest, a wildly imaginative deployment of every possible combination of vehicle, weapon, obstacle, and flying human body, almost recalls the stunts of Buster Keaton (to invoke one of this long-dead civilization's lost cinematic saints). And Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) himself, the archetypal whip-cracking archeology professor, is more miraculously preserved than the Roswell space aliens and mummified conquistadors he digs up over the course of the movie. It's as if, after decades of exile in mediocre films now lost to the sands of time, the craggy 65-year-old (who, incredibly, still does most of his own stunts) has returned to the role he was always meant to play.
Surviving accounts suggest that some ancient scribes rose up against Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, calling it "sticky kids' stuff" or "cynical, clinical gibberish." Though it's a scholar's job to shed her 32nd-century prejudices and understand the belief systems of those long dead, our archeologist will have to ask herself: What were these scribes thinking? Were they expecting something more fun than Cate Blanchett as a pitiless Ukrainian KGB agent driven by a Faustian lust for knowledge or John Hurt as a scholar driven mad after staring into the eye sockets of a glass cranium from outer space? Were they disappointed with the return of the buoyant Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, Indy's tomboyish lost love? Were they too jaded to enjoy the fantasy of driving a jeep down three consecutive waterfalls or descending the ingeniously constructed retracting staircase inside a Peruvian obelisk to reach the portal to another dimension? Did they get to wake up every day and see a wittily choreographed motorcycle chase through the quads of Yale (called Marshall University in the film)?
Even the most enthusiastic future Indy scholar would have to concede that the movie's habit of quoting from venerable Hollywood antiquities sometimes has the unfortunate effect of reminding the viewer that those movies were better. No amount of ducktail-combing or Harley-revving is going to make the doe-eyed Shia LaBeouf into Marlon Brando in The Wild One, and the close encounter that Indy and Co. experience when they finally reach that interdimensional portal is nowhere near as thrilling as Richard Dreyfuss' apotheosis in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But expecting Brando-esque menace or Dreyfus-ian uplift from the Indiana Jones tetralogy is like going to the candy counter at the mall multiplex and asking for some goat cheese and a nice cabernet instead of malted milk balls and a Coke. Spielberg's movies are crude but efficient systems for the delivery of pleasure—this is both the gift and the curse of the man who invented the summer blockbuster.
Early in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the third installment in the series, Indy, seeking to recover a priceless antique from a brigand, brandishes the artifact and scolds, "This belongs in a museum." "You belong in a museum," the villain replies. It's not meant as a compliment—immediately afterward, the guy throws Indy off the side of a ship—but I think history will prove the bad guy right. Indiana Jones—both the swashbuckling archeologist and the joyfully hokey, brazenly sentimental, obscenely successful franchise he sired—is a part of our culture's Hollywood patrimony. When that Virgin Megastore gets excavated in 3112 A.D., I hope Indiana Jones ends up where it belongs.