The villainous Soviet Irina Spalko is determined to beat Indiana Jones to the Crystal SkullIndiana
Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Directed
by Steven Spielberg
Starring:
Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim
Broadbent, Shia LaBeouf
Paramount
Pictures | 123 minutes

If a poet can do something three times in a
great work, he displays a cosmic excellence: “Three times Achilles dragged
Hector around the walls of Troy.” Stephen Spielberg has just made his fourth Indiana Jones movie. Is this
latecomer sequel a trashy and grotesque excess, a violation of the rule of
threes in art, the aesthetic equivalent of a “bigger and better” (read
oversized and tacky) Texan belt buckle? Or is it a piece of art confident
enough to bend the law of threes, full of panache, vim, verve, and the well-earned
appearance of an artist at his peak. Which is Indy 4? Both.

The late, great New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael forced moviegoers to admit
that we go to most movies because of the sheer
“fun of trash.”
The largess, the inanity, the superficiality, the
appallingly brusque enthymemes—these delight us when the silver screen
overwhelms us in the theater. Indiana
Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
delighted me, and, if your
expectations are calibrated according to the rule of Kael, it will surely
delight you. Mayans, Russians, aliens, atom bombs, death-by-army-ant,
motorcycle chases through Ivy League libraries — any other film, and this list
would be a spoiler. Not Indy 4. This
movie is magnificent trash.

The film lives for camp, pulp fiction
reference and easy stereotyping. Harrison Ford delivers Indiana Jones once
again, but with that Lethal Weapon “I’m getting too old for this” touch so common in films appealing to Baby Boomers, most of whom are
approaching retirement. Bad guys and bad girls are hilariously bad. The well-played
KGB doctor Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) looks like a Maoist china doll
brandishing a rapier. A few cheap political jabs are made at McCarthyism, which
seem like sly jabs at our present day Patriot Act. Ridiculous madcap action and
cartoonish violence abound—like any good Indiana Jones movie.

Yet this movie seems to go one step
further. For instance, one scene involves a high speed jungle car chase and
sword fight, a double homage to Errol Flynn and
the speeder chase on the Moon of Endor from Return
of the Jedi
. It ends when hero-in-training Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) becomes
snagged in some vines and quickly discerns how to swing like Tarzan. Then,
leading a battalion of allied rhesus monkeys, he catches up to the motorcade
and swings back into the attack. In light of such absurdities, one can almost
see the director winking at you as if to say, “Hey, it’s the movies, and I know
the movies. Watch me work! You know you love it!”

Stephen Spielberg knows his craft, its
limitations, and just how to bend those limitations to achieve a fine result:
“Sure such monkey business is trash, but, nonetheless, my film is art, and as
such, I can communicate to you that which I know while showing you my good-natured
desire to delight you.”

And here we come to the dual nature of this
trashy film that both flouts and seems to outdo the law of threes. Spielberg,
like a good poet, peeps out from time to time in such a way as to remind you
that someone is behind this film, and, like all someones, this director has
something to tell you.

The film is remarkably moral, not to
mention entirely free of “adult” content. Without spoiling the details,
destructive vices and noble virtues are showcased in a manner akin to the
medieval morality play. Different characters embody wrath, greed, loyalty, and
knowledge. And vice is treated at times with great subtlety. In fact, the
centerpiece of the film involves the dangers of the desire to know, the
hypocrisy of philanthropy that so often accompanies it, and the proud
aspiration to “be like gods” that ends in one character’s Genesis-like fall and
death. One character goes so far as to quote the poet John Milton, of Paradise Lost fame: “the golden key /
that opes the palace of eternity.”

The fall and division of sin takes on a
social dynamic in the movie as well. Critics
of Spielberg often note his theme of eternal recurrence
: the broken family
seeking reunion could be called a career-spanning obsession for the
award-winning director. Good stories are worth repeating, I suppose. The
familiar human drama comes across in pleasant rhythms and light touches
throughout Indy 4. A father ought to
be there for his child; parents care deeply about their children’s education;
love requires sacrifice; bickering can ruin a relationship and hurts kids;
fatherhood is not limited to genetics; and, most telling of Spielberg’s
project, true love requires a marriage to make it right.

Forgive an actual spoiler, but the end of
the film, like a good Shakespearean comedy, ends in a marriage. Indiana marries
Marian, his true love from the first film. And as the bride and groom kiss, a
character, the one who quoted Milton, quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: “How much of
human life is lost in waiting.” This oracular utterance from a character who
prior to that could do nothing but babble and speak in oblique riddles, spoke
for Spielberg who has throughout the film, as Shakespeare might have, been
trying to tell you this very thing with those same signs and riddles: Love one another; be simple;
and do not wait.

That this film is pure popcorn is
undeniable  — but popcorn that aspires
to be art. Spielberg himself thinks so. For the first time since E. T., he chose to premier his film at Cannes.
It met with great success and drew the biggest crowds even among the black
turtleneck set. The silver-haired Spielberg, the successful director, through
poetry, through the characters and plot, and through a trashy film, counsels
his universal audience to universal goods: to family, to marriage, to virtue,
nature, and love. Trash it may be, but one man’s trash is pop culture’s
treasure.

Matthew Mehan is a US Contributing
Editor for MercatorNet.

Matthew Mehan is a poet, scholar, teacher, speech writer, and musician. He is dear friends with illustrator John Folley. He earned a Ph.D. studying Shakespeare's teachings on poetry as an indispensable...