Would cinema history have changed much had Steven Spielberg directed the Star Wars movies and George Lucas the Indiana Jones series? Both these franchises, immensely successful and inescapably part of the pop collective psyche, are conceptually founded on willful adolescence and nostalgia -- the filmmakers' nostalgia for the supposedly uncomplicated thrills of their serial-watching youth, along with audiences' nostalgia for the characters they grew up with. Why, then, do the Star Wars puppets remain cutouts in a vast pinball machine, while Indiana Jones goes from wisecracking imperialist swashbuckler to transformative spiritual searcher? Authorial vision makes the difference, so it is a relief to have Spielberg in the director's chair for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, while Lucas' main contribution is kept to story credit in a script that reportedly passed through several hands (Frank Darabont, M. Night Shyamalan, Tom Stoppard) before being finally signed by David Koepp. Fans are nervous about the iconic character's new incarnation: Has Indy changed, or has the world around him? The opening jest (the mountain from the vintage Paramount Pictures logo is morphed into a molehill, and readily squashed) highlights the raffish tone that's been the series' spirit, but the weight of the film that follows can't help but remind us that Amistad, A.I., War of the Worlds and Munich have come since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is first seen as a shadow -- a projection -- picking up his trademark explorer's hat after being stuffed into the trunk of a car by the mandatory foreign bad guys (it's 1957, so Russians are in order). In the "charged climate" of McCarthyism, Roswell, Elvis and Kiss Me Deadly, the craggy hero finds himself at the sharp end of the rapier wielded by "Stalin's fair-haired girl" Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, marrying an adroit Vulcan glare to her Natasha Fatale accent), rummaging through an Area 51 government facility for... UFO remains? "This ain't gonna be easy," sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone) notes. "Not as easy as it used to be," Indy mutters back. In a picture as obsessed with age and mortality as this one, it should be noted that Spielberg himself was ten years old in 1957, and that the comfy, white picket-fence suburbia that's routinely credited as the director's turf is here a mock-Everytown populated by plastic dummies watching Howdy Doody and mowing lawns while waiting to be melted by a nuclear test. This excoriating burlesque is capped by the film's single richest image, the adventurer dwarfed and silhouetted by the atomic detonation's mushroom cloud: Not even John Ford could have better summarized the contrast between America's need for symbols of can-do optimism and its unspeakable realities. A tough act to follow, although the rest of the movie flows effortlessly toward its twin McGuffins: The return of the Crystal Skull to the original El Dorado, and the restoration of the family unit with the help of rebel-without-a-cause youngster Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) and Raiders of the Lost Ark heroine Marion (Karen Allen).
We've seen old-men films by young directors (Ikiru, Ride the High Country, Jackie Brown) and young-men films by old directors (A Walk with Love and Death, The Devil, Probably, The Dreamers); Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is assuredly an old director's old-men film, yet, with its boundless vitality and gravity, it continuously combines the most arresting elements from each of the other groups. Spielberg's use of movement is so masterful that even the Commie baddies briefly drop their guard during the exhilarating car race that kicks off the film -- in times when movie action sequences are humorlessly labored over, it's remarkable to see them here conceived as a procession of physical gags, and passages like the rush through the Amazon jungle are marvels of comically escalating mayhem, broad and soulful. Yet this is also a film of relaxed grace and aged wisdom not unlike De Palma's Mission to Mars, another autumnal offering that had too many people asking "What's up with the aliens" instead of considering their visual, thematic, and emotional beauties. At least as far back as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg's films have been narratives of expanding consciousness, with protagonists becoming aware of and grappling with the forces beyond their individual space. This need to know is essential to the Spielbergian view, and here he interestingly gives the inquiry over to Blanchett's villainess, who dares to face the "space between the spaces" and experiences a fittingly mythical revelation that both dilates and obliterates her vision. Truth is beauty, per Keats, but beauty can also turn to horror: That's the risk of the seeker. For old man Indy, it also means acknowledging transience and wholeness without quite relinquishing his iconic mantle just yet. (Let Mutt get his own damn hat for the sequel.)
All right, the Sex and the City movie. I briefly considered sitting this one out -- never saw a single episode of the beloved/reviled cable show, don't automatically get inflamed at the mention of Vuitton, and don't much see the appeal of frivolous girl chatter unless Kurt Russell is nearby with his muscle car. Still, epiphanies were found with Indiana Jones, so why not give the sisters a chance? (I owed them one for walking out of Then She Found Me after enduring twenty minutes of Helen Hunt's wincing.) Hopes for the movie being "only superficially superficial" a la Earrings of Madame de... were squashed as soon as Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie Bradshaw assured viewers that New York City women are after the "two Ls -- love and labels." Parker is the privileged Cinderella, Cynthia Nixon is the irritable lawyer, Kristin Davis is the shiny idealist, and Kim Cattrall is the exhausted Botox adwoman. Visions of an alternate The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant still twirl in my brain. This is infuriating stuff to anybody who remembers bra-burning as something more than a Shrek the Third gag, but as marzipan entertainment it isn't horrible. Director Michael Patrick King shows the practiced snap expected from a weathered sitcom hack, there's the half-felt sense of female solidarity (the emotional highpoint comes as one of the gals braves New York City on New Year's Eve so that another won't be by herself) and the occasional ribald zinger ("You seem distant." "Distant? You're still in me!"). Besides, why bring up "realism" regarding women imagining themselves swanning through Vogue tableaux when Seth Rogen's fantasies are swallowed with nary a peep? Incidentally, Sex and the City actually has a few gross-out gags to appease John Apatow's frathouse gallery. Gucci and stormy diarrhea, Vera Wang and shaggy cooches, Diane von Fürstenberg and humping dogs. Maybe women and men are from the same planet, after all.
Reviewed June 4, 2008.