Saturday, December 21, 2013

All I Want for Christmas Countdown #4: Dino Riders

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Return to the Planet of the Apes: "Attack from the Clouds" (October 25, 1975)

“Attack from the Clouds” is a bit of a step backwards for Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975).

The last few episodes of the series have been pushing the overall narrative forward by leaps and bounds. And though this story continues the story arc involving the stolen World War II warplane, the episode stalls-out, and is heavy on stock footage and an uninspiring, childish threat.

In “Attack from the Clouds,” a giant prehistoric bird threatens the humanoids of New Valley, repeatedly attacking their livestock and generating terror.

The astronauts -- Bill, Jeff, Judy and Brent – realize they need the warplane to fight the giant predator, but risk being spotted by Urko, who still wants his weapon of war back…

The worst and most juvenile moments of Return to the Planet of the Apes have universally involved our heroes (the astronauts) facing giant monsters and over-grown animals.

So far, the protagonists faced giant spiders in the sewers of Ape City, swooping bats (in daylight, no less…) in last week’s episode, sea monsters (“Lagoon of Peril”), and so on.  Fortunately, these moments of “monster threats” have mostly occurred in passing, and almost never dominated whole half-hours.

Until now, anyway.

Here, the giant bird is the designated threat of the week, and the elephant in the room.  The entirety of “Attack from the Clouds” seems dominated by repeat images of the bird in flight (its fierce talons threatening livestock…) while on the soundtrack, annoying squawks are endlessly re-played.  This will drive the adult viewer crazy in a matter of minutes.

The giant bird makes for a dull central menace, and the stock footage of the creature -- seen again and again -- makes the episode play as absolutely interminable.  Worst of all, the creature survives at the end of the episode, meaning that he could come back!

On the other hand, this is another episode of Return to the Planet of the Apes that I remember as a child, and I must note that I loved it as a kid (the presumed audience for the series). I still remember playing with a black rubber eagle from G.I. Joe and pretending that it and a model warplane were locked in a brutal air war, while my Planet of the Apes figures looked on.

Next week: “Mission of Mercy.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost (1991): "Flight to Freedom" (November 9, 1991)

In “Flight to Freedom,” the Porters unexpectedly get an opportunity to escape from the Land of the Lost. 

Specifically, Kevin’s damaged television set begins to pick-up a strange signal that Mr. Porter believes may lead the family to an energy portal out of the land.

Alas, leaving behind the Land of the Lost also means leaving behind Christa (Shannon Day), Tasha, and Stink. 

The Porters attempt to make their peace with saying farewell to their friends, but when Scarface threatens the Paku and the tiny dinosaur, the family must decide what to do.

Should the Porters escape through the rapidly-closing portal, or stay behind and save their friends from the hungry T-Rex?

“Flight to Freedom” is a solid Saturday morning adventure story that nicely reflects on both the values of the Porter family, and the remake’s effort to tell tales in the style and fashion of the 1970s original upon which it is based. In particular, the episode recalls two episodes from the 1974-1977 series: “Follow that Dinosaur” and “The Pylon Express.”

In the former story, “Follow that Dinosaur,” the Marshalls used the diary of a Confederate soldier to find what they hoped was an exit from Altrusia.  They followed the diary’s map from location to location – and into the Lost City -- but found that it ended only with death and despair.  Here, the TV signal doubles for the diary, essentially, and leads the Porters to an energy portal that could lead them home.

In the latter story, “The Pylon Express,” Will, Holly and Marshall discovered a pylon that could transport them home, but they were separated and couldn’t leave each other behind in time to make use of the “express.” 

When all was said and done, however, the Marshalls realized that the Pylon Express would return in two or three years – during the next lunar eclipse -- and at that juncture, they would be able to return home. 

Here, the Porters find similar cause for optimism.  The portal may re-open again soon, and as long as they follow the TV signal, the Porters will be able to locate it, and return to their home.

In terms of both TV iterations of Land of the Lost, it’s important to recall that these programs were designed for children.  Accordingly, there’s a didactic message here about putting aside personal goals to help friends in need.  It’s a good lesson, and not terribly heavy-handed in delivery. 

However, it all could have been avoided if Mr. Porter had simply agreed to take Tasha and Stink through the portal, as they desired from the start.  A few episodes back, he realized he couldn’t endanger Tasha by leaving her in the jungle alone at her age.  That particular lesson should have been fresh in his memory here.  If he had agreed from the outset to take Tasha and Stink with the family, they all would have returned to 1990s America in safety at this juncture.  Of course, in a continuing series, you can’t have such a resolution…

I’ve been a bit hard on this Land of the Lost remake in terms of the luxuries it provides the stranded Porters.  The family has a TV set, a video camera, a radio and, of course, a car.  Unlike the Marshalls, they are hardly roughing it in the Land of the Lost.

In “Flight to Freedom,” the car is handled a bit better than it has been in some episodes.  It breaks down, for one thing, and Kevin has to repair it….with very little time to spare.  And for another thing, we see Mr. Porter putting gas in the vehicle, using a blue tank of gas.  At least some attention, then, is being paid to the fact that the car isn’t going to be a survival option for the family forever.

Next week: “Heat Wave”

Friday, December 20, 2013

All I Want for Christmas Countdown #5: Masters of the Universe Eternia Playset

The Films of 1984: The Terminator

"This is burned in by laser scan. Some of us were kept alive... to work... loading bodies. The disposal units ran night and day. We were that close to going out forever. But there was one man who taught us to fight, to storm the wire of the camps, to smash those metal motherfuckers into junk. He turned it around. He brought us back from the brink. His name is Connor. John Connor. Your son, Sarah, your unborn son."

- Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) in The Terminator (1984)

Today we travel back in time to the distant year 1984, and to Jim Cameron's first smash-hit motion-picture, the science-fiction action thriller, The Terminator.  This intense, fast-moving film not only began Cameron's career in Hollywood in earnest, it vaulted star Arnold Schwarzenegger to super-stardom (following the Conan films) and even gave him a recurring catchphrase: "I'll be back."  

Speaking to the film's quality and longevity, The Terminator has spawned three movie sequels (in 1991, 2003, and 2009, respectively) and even a spin-off TV series: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.  Also, the Library of Congress added The Terminator in 2008 to its National Film Registry, marking the film as culturally, aesthetically, and historically significant.

An ugly incident in the film's history involves a threatened lawsuit from science fiction legend Harlan Ellison, who claimed that The Terminator ripped-off elements of Ellison's The Outer Limits episode "Soldier," the second season premiere that featured two future soldiers accidentally traveling to the present and battling one another.   The matter was settled out of court, and Ellison's name was added to the film's end credits, apparently over Cameron's urging to Orion to fight the matter. 

This matter acknowledged, there's no way to gaze at The Terminator  as anything other than the product of James Cameron's stellar visual and storytelling imagination.  Looking back across the decades, it's plain to see how his film fits in with the remainder of his oeuvre, and introduces his career-long obsessions with strong women, star-crossed lovers, fish-out-of-water protagonists, and the bugaboo of nuclear war.

Going back to the original Terminator in 2013 it's a little amazing just how well the film holds up.  In many senses, it holds up even better than its 1991 follow-up, Judgment Day. The action scenes here are still breathtaking, the love story remains affecting, and film features a relentless, driving sense of urgency.  Indeed, The Terminator never lets up, never stops, never looks back...much like its titular character. 

And yet, gazing beneath the surface, one can detect the unconventional but canny manner in which Cameron approaches the film, and how his directorial strategy buttresses the quality of the piece substantially.  For instance, there are relatively few conventional locales or settings featured in the film at all.  This is a movie that takes place in parking garages, in speeding vehicles, inside seedy motels, in sewers, and in smoke-filled police station waiting areas.  The film never truly settles down in any one place too long, and that fact actually contributes to the driving pulse of the piece.  You feel like the movie has been made on the fly, filmed in one brief sanctuary after another, as the protagonists' safety is constantly eclipsed and imperiled.

Secondly, The Terminator creates -- at times -- this weird, almost authentically dream-like vibe.  It arises from the conjunction of Brad Fiedel's effective synthetic score, and Cameron's frequent use of slow-motion photography to extend time and mine the latent tension in many sequences.  Time, of course, is the very crux of the film, and the way that Cameron stretches and bend time matters a great deal in the film's overall tapestry. 

Heroes Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor only share just "one night" together, as the film's dialogue reminds the audience, and yet they experience a "lifetime" of love.  This is not simply romantic hyperbole.  It's an accurate expression of how deeply the audience comes to sympathize with the heroes and their doomed relationship.  James Cameron's choice of techniques reminds us that it's not how much time we have that matters, but what we make with the time we're given.  His directorial flourish -- slow-motion photography, particularly -- is a perfect example of form highlighting or reflecting content.

A near-perfect fusion of big emotions, big concepts and stellar action-movie filmmaking, it's almost impossible to conceive of The Terminator as Cameron's first, since it is remains so accomplished on so many fronts.

Come with me if you want to live.

In the year 2029 A.D., the human survivors of a devastating nuclear war are on the verge of defeating their enemy, an artificial intelligence called SkyNet. 

In response, the intelligent machine sends a cyborg called a Terminator, a T-100 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), back in time to the year 1984 to kill waitress Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who will one day be the mother of the future resistance leader, General John Connor. 

The resistance responds to this initiative by sending back to 1984 someone to stop the killing machine, a foot soldier named Kyle Reese ( Michael Biehn).

In 1984, the Terminator uses the the phone book and begins to methodically kill all L.A. residents named Sarah Connor.  As the police (Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen) assemble the disturbing clues in the case and grow concerned they're dealing with a serial killer, an unwitting Sarah encounters the Terminator at a club called Tech Noir.

Kyle rescues Sarah and soon tells her the story of the future not yet written; of her unborn son, John, and her tutelage of him in the ways of war. 

But even as Kyle and Sarah fall in love, the Terminator continues his relentless drive to find them and murder Sarah.  After decimating an entire police station, the Terminator pursues an injured Kyle and Sarah on the road. 

The final battle to decide the future occurs in an automated factory, Cyberdyne Systems...

Look at it this way: in a hundred years, who's gonna care?

Perhaps the very best quality about The Terminator is that it eerily and effectively crafts two very distinctive and atmospheric worlds. 

The first such world is Los Angeles of 1984, and city life is dramatized here as this weird twilight-and-neon world of seemingly never-ending night.

The city boulevards are rain-soaked and wind-swept. Garbage blows continually through alleyways. Strangers, hobos and other fringe dwellers seem to move back and forth, half-conscious, in the neon-lit streets, unnoticed and un-commented upon.  Here, in total anonymity, a monster arrives; a technological boogeyman that can change the direction of the future itself.  But because he is human in appearance, he is perfectly disguised, able to fit in easily with the human flotsam and jetsam.

As Cameron paints it, this world feels particularly fragile and unwelcoming.  The punk rock music (as heard in the club Tech Noir) is harsh and driving, and there's a feeling that the denizens of daytime such as Sarah Connor don't easily see or understand the denizens of the city's night.  This is important, of course, because a war is being waged secretly at night.  Two warriors - the T-100 and Kyle Reese -- slip into this world and, unnoticed, fight for the very future of mankind.  They pick off resources (clothing, weapons, groceries, etc.), and march forward on competing agendas.  The overall feeling is that no one in authority is watching. Nobody cares.  These people and their urban world have been written off as unimportant, inconsequential.  This world, at least from the perspective of the future, is already dead, a metaphorical if not literal graveyard.

Cameron artfully picks up on a true 1980s aesthetic here, showcasing the homeless, the hopeless, and the lost as part of his twilight world.  Other films in the 1980s, such as Vamp (1986),  and John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988) capture a similar  mood; the electric notion that another world co-exists with ours, and could intersect with our experience at any time.  It's half-seen and half-acknowledged, but it's there...

The second world that The Terminator creates with frightening acumen is Los Angeles of 2029.  It's a world in which human skulls appear to form the firmament of a new terrain, and the skies are forever gray and dark.

Many science fiction films visit post-apocalyptic futures, but The Terminator presents one of the grimmest and most effective visualizations of such a landscape.  The world of 2029 is a colossal junkyard that consists of ruins as far as the eye can see.  Where some films (such as The Road Warrior or the Planet of the Apes films) have opted for showcasing real deserts as the aftermath of a  nuclear war, The Terminator really goes for broke here, showcasing broken, desperate humans living in horrible, miserable conditions. Man's world has been twisted and broken.  In fact, it isn't man's world at all anymore.

One terrific shot in the post-apocalyptic scenes reveals two starving children huddling in front of a TV set.  Cameron switches views after a minute, and we see the yellow light emanating from the television is that of a candle, one set inside the broken screen.  The moment is picture perfect as gallows humor, and as heartbreaking glimpse of a tomorrow that must never be.

The feeling evoked  in the contrast between 1984 and 2029 s is that one world leads to the other world, as easily as the present flows into the future.   There's a feeling in the 1980s scenes that mankind has abdicated his sense of responsibility to the world and to civilization at large.  The music is about death; the culture (as seen in the punk rockers) is also about death.  In one scene involving the police detectives, the question is asked "who is in charge here?"  The answer seems to be nobody.   Nobody is in charge.  Nobody is making a difference.  Man seems to have given up on his world and his fellow man.  Again, there's the feeling that this world is already dead; its epitaph already written.

Sarah's roommate, Ginger, for instance, tunes out of reality even while making love to her boyfriend, Matt.  And Sarah and others seem to constantly be speaking to answering machines or unfeeling telephone operators.  Punk-styled predators -- played by Bill Paxton and Brian Thompson -- stalk the night too, seizing on the world's very lack of order.  It's not difficult, given the shape of the world of 1984, to imagine a future in which man surrenders his very well-being to a machine.  Indeed, Tech Noir -- the Night of Technology - precedes the dawn of SkyNet.

As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), "the antidote to this techno-punk world is human love and connectedness."   And here, Cameron gives the audience star-crossed lovers Kyle and Sarah, two classic characters in film history. 

They not only love each other, they conceive a savior for human-kind out of that love.  Implicit in this scenario is a criticism of the world as it stands in the 1980s.  It's one where, to quote Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes, there seems to be an abundance of lovemaking, but little real love.

Murder is as easy as flipping through a phone book (let your fingers do the walking...), the police are ineffective and insincere, and even medical science (as represented by Earl Boen's Dr. Silverman) is incapable of feeling empathy or providing help.

The seed Kyle brings back to Sarah, then, is one of love, compassion and self-sacrifice.  Kyle is a man of duty who understands how valuable human life is, and he brings that understanding to a purposeless Sarah and to her disaffected, empty world.  I mean, just think about Kyle for a moment.  He could have escaped from his apocalyptic world back to 1984 and made a very selfish decision.  He could have stolen some clothes, abandoned his mission, and had a pretty decent life (at least until 1997).  But Kyle didn't do that.  He cared about his peers and his purpose and stuck to his mission of saving a woman he had never met, and only fantasized about.   

In Terminator 2, Sarah tells Silverman that everyone blindly living life (before Judgment Day) is already dead; and that's also clearly the vibe of The Terminator.  The world seems to be running on fumes, as a culture of death spirals further and further away from not just inter-connectedness, but civility and decency itself.  Reese opens Sarah's eyes to the fact that "a storm is coming," and that the world in this half-awake, half-asleep state, cannot continue.  Sarah also opens up Kyle's eyes to love too.  She makes him see that he can't remain disconnected from pain or hurt, or that he'll be making the same mistake as the 1984-ers.

At several crucial junctures in The Terminator, Cameron utilizes slow-motion photography to enhance the power of his visuals.  In the first such case, the Terminator kicks open the door of a middle-aged woman named Sarah Connor (not our final girl, but another S.C....). He forces her way into the house, levels a gun at her head, and fires.  It's all vetted in  agonizing slow-motion, and so the nature of the intrusion and violation is heightened significantly.  The terror of the moment -- the seeming randomness of the crime -- is punctuated.  As the moment lingers, we reflect on the horror of it.  Of a stranger coming to our door, breaking it down, and leveling a gun at us.  Again, this is a very 1980s brand of fear: of random violence and crime run amok.

Later, Cameron uses slow-motion photography during the lead-up to the Tech Noir fight sequence, and this time he deploys it to lengthen the audience's feelings of tension and suspense.  Sarah Connor has no one to protect her, no avenue of escape at all, and as The Terminator nears in slow-motion, his power and dominance -- and her vulnerability -- attain near-epic proportions.

Finally, Cameron uses slow motion photography at the culmination of Sarah and Kyle's love scene.  Intertwined, their hands open slowly, as if a flower blooming.  The idea here -- again -- is that time may be constant, but as humans we experience it as relative.  Here, the connection between Sarah and Kyle is significant and meaningful, and the "blossoming" image of their hands suggests that their love has, well, literally borne fruit.  Their love-making is also like a stolen moment during an un-ending nightmare that "will never be over.

In The Terminator, one of Cameron's neatest conceits involves this manipulation of time's passage in the edit.  And yes, it's a highly appropriate selection given the film's theme about time travel.  Cameron's approach reminds us that time feels different at different times, and that ultimately the secret of time is to make something positive out of what time we have.

Over and over again in the film, Cameron reveals great ingenuity in how he deals with the concept of the future.

For example, Sarah's waitress friend notes that in a hundred years, no one will care about what's she doing in 1984, but that is not technically true.  The people of 2029 no doubt wish that the denizens of that earlier age had made different choices, especially regarding the invention and implementation of SkyNet.

And personally, of course, Sarah Connor's name will no doubt be long known -- even in 2084 -- if human beings manage to defeat the smart machines.  

Also, the film is downright poetic in the way it deals with Sarah Connor's photograph, and Kyle's possession/loss of it.  Interestingly, we see the photo burn in the film before we even see it developed.  But we are asked by Reese to wonder what Sarah is thinking about when the picture is snapped.  By the last reel, we know precisely: she's thinking of him, of Kyle.   Thus Kyle fell in love with a photograph of a woman who, before he was ever born, was already in love with him.  Mind-boggling stuff.

Other aspects of the film are equally stirring and admirable.  For instance, the disintegration of the Terminator's human appearance is splendidly vetted.  His eyebrows are singed off first.  Then he loses an eye. Next he injures his fore-arm (and must repair it with a razor knife...).  As the movie progresses, the Terminator appears less and less human, until finally -- during the climax -- he is revealed as the soulless automaton that he is, no longer able to pass in human society as one of us.  The methodical disintegration of the Terminator's appearance, however, barely seems to go noticed by society at large, and again a point is made about people only seeing what they want to see; of avoiding the confrontation with something different or unpalatable.

Sarah Connor is also James Cameron's first great female character.  She starts out living a largely unexamined life, and yet by the end of the film can clearly "see" a future that others can't.  She survives the attack on her life and becomes the person she was destined to be.  Although Sarah protests along the way of her development -- noting that she can't even balance her checkbook -- she soon becomes literally the mother of humanity's future. Essentially -- to use a Titanic metaphor -- Kyle plays "Jack" to Sarah's "Rose," waking up Connor from her complacency and infusing her life with a sense of purpose.

The shadow of nuclear Armageddon hovers over The Terminator, and that too is a common aspect of Cameron's canon.  Nuclear weapons play a critical role in every one of his films save -- for obvious reasons -- Titanic (1997).  Here, Cameron focuses on the madness of putting life-and-death nuclear decisions in the hands of "the machine," and that theme would become even more pronounced in the sequel.  

But again, the context of this film must be named, and no offense is intended, just a recitation of facts.  In the early 1980s President Reagan sometimes joked about nuclear war.  On an open mike he once declared that "bombing begins in five minutes," and in a 1984 debate with candidate Walter Mondale he inaccurately reported that nuclear missiles could be recalled from submarines after their launch.  Many of his advisers in his first term stressed the concept of "winnable" nuclear war, and that's simply a terrifying thought.  To President Reagan's ever-lasting credit, he backed down from these beliefs (and even recanted his "Evil Empire" comment) in the name of peace.  Regardless of his welcome evolution, the "apocalypse mentality" of the 1980s was a hugely powerful force in American cinema mid-decade -- think War Games (1983) and Dreamscape (1984) --  and one can see it here, very prominently, in The Terminator.  

I've also often likened The Terminator to a technological version of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) because both films involve an unstoppable, relentless monster pursuing a young woman, and that woman's ultimate turnaround to fight back.  Michael Myers is "The Shape" and not quite human, and Arnie's Terminator is a technological monster.  But these boogeymen certainly share traits in common.  They both come and go as they please; they both often hide in plain sight; and their thought processes are quite opaque to audiences.  They both kill and pursue victims, but we don't really know what they're thinking or why they're thinking it.   Like Michael, the Terminator -- who also survives being beaten, bruised and flame-broiled -- is truly a classic movie villain because of his relentless nature. 

In the sequels, Arnold would play the machine as a hero, but there's something potent, callous and devious about his portrayal of this Terminator, this first time out.  Underlying the cold, mechanical nature of the thing, there's some sense of an identity, of an enjoyment of his vile actions.  This Terminator thrives on the hunt, it seems, and isn't entirely immune to concepts such as irony or humor.  His selection of rejoinder to a nosy landlord in a sleazy motel is a perfect example.  "Fuck you, asshole."  Why select that particular option (from a table of options)?  It has something to do, I would argue, with the machine's personality.

The Terminator is an incredibly effective thrill machine, but the reason the film is remembered today (and will be remembered well into the future) is because James Cameron has surrounded his meticulous action scenes with "living human tissue," namely an affecting love story and meditation on time itself.  This skin on the story's mechanical bones makes the film resonate on a deeper level, and point explicitly towards Cameron's future approach in film making.

 It's "something about the field generated by a living organism"...and it's called heart.

Movie Trailer: The Terminator (1984)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

All I Want for Christmas Countdown #7: The Great Garloo (Marx)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014): First Trailer

Collection of the Week: Land of the Lost (Tiger Toys; 1991)

In the early 1990s, Sid and Marty Krofft resurrected their 1970s era hit, Land of the Lost (1991 - 1993), and created a remake that achieved good ratings and quite a bit of popularity with young fans.  Accordingly, Tiger Toys marketed a whole line of new Land of the Lost toys.

Tiger created a whole array of small action-figures for the series' characters.  These included dad Tom Porter (with canteen and back-pack), son Kevin Porter (with cam-corder and walk-man), and daughter Annie Porter (with bow-and-arrow).  The other cast members also appeared in plastic form, including the jungle girl Christa (who came with shield and spear), Stink (with running action...), and the baby dinosaur, Tasha.

Representing the bad-guys was the Sleestak leader, Shung, who was sold by Tiger replete with his crystal dagger/sword.  Nim, a Sleestak minion was also available.

These figures looked very show-accurate, but even more impressive were the play-sets.  The best of these was the Porter Treeehouse of "jungle home playset."  This huge set featured "an electronic trip wire with alarm sounds," "wind-up dino bashing mallet" and a "built-in log roll booby trap."

Shung found a home too, in the ancient temple of "Shung's Lair."  This villain playset featured an "electronic voice synthesizer" and "voice-activated flashing lights,"as well as over a dozen "weapons and accessories."

Vehicles and dinosaurs also played a role in the line.  An "electronic T-Rex" subbed for the dinosaur nemesis Scarface, and the Porters could tool around the prehistoric landscape in their land-master jeep.

I remember seeing all these Tiger Toy Land of the Lost toys in stores, but I was in college at the time, and not buying action-figures or other collectibles.  Today, I'd love to get my hands on the treehouse playset, the Landmaster and Shung's Lair, in particular. 

But in truth, I have one other wish: I would have loved toys of this quality and accuracy for the original 1974 - 1977 series.

Below, a series of commercials for the Land of the Lost toy line from Tiger Toys:

Lunchbox of the Week: Land of the Lost

Board Games of the Week: Land of the Lost

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

All I Want for Christmas Countdown #8: G.I. Joe Defiant Space Shuttle

Cult-Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Although it remains a perennial source of ridicule and scorn for many disenchanted fans, the fourth, much-delayed installment in the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) franchise is, overall, a charming throwback to the other entries in the long-lived adventure series.

In fact, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull serves up  -- in almost identical proportions -- the same mix of dedicated swashbuckling and tongue-in-cheek adventure that made Raiders, Temple of Doom (1984) and The Last Crusade (1989) such pleasurable and memorable cinematic rides. 

Beyond carrying on established franchise tradition, however, this 2008 Indiana Jones adventure also bristles with originality because the filmmakers have moved from the 1930s (and the influence of 1930s movie serials) to the “new” atomic age of the 1950s.

This shift in creative background or “inspiration” permits for a fresh series of visual and thematic influences, and helps to foster a sense of surprise about many of the proceedings.  In short, this is the movie that takes Indiana Jones into the “new” era of 1950s adventure tropes, including flying saucers (or “saucer men”), Tarzan movies, rampaging army ants, and nuclear mushroom clouds.

I appreciate that this Indiana Jones movie takes place in that “new” space, and furthermore, has something positive to say about the process of growing old.  Old age doesn’t have to be about losing people and things…it can be about gaining “knowledge” of one’s self, and one’s family too.

Whatever misgivings I have about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I would not give up the chance to see Indiana Jones, twenty years later, and see what the adventurer has made of his life.

In 1957, a caravan of vehicles heads to Hangar 51, the predecessor to legendary Area 51. This caravan is made of up not of U.S. military men, but rather of Russian soldiers, and led by the diabolical Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). These foreign soldiers are on a quest for a specific artifact…one that could grant Stalin the power to control the minds of all Americans: a crystal skull.

To help them locate this artifact in the vast Hangar 51, the Russkies have captured archaeologist and war hero Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford).
In 1947, he was part of the team that investigated the UFO crash at Roswell, where the alien skull was first tagged, and Spalko believes he can locate the corpse.

After being betrayed by a colleague, Mac (Ray Winston), Indy escapes Russian custody in an experimental rocket sled, but ends up on the grounds of a nuclear bomb testing site.  Again, he barely escapes death when a test bomb is detonated.
Sometime later, Indy teams up with Mutt Williams (Shea LeBeouf) a young, rebellious man who reports that Indy’s old colleague, Harold Oxley (John Hurt) has disappeared somewhere in Peru.  On suspension at his college, Indy agrees to help the lad find “Ox.”
 Locating the missing archaeologist however, will not be easy, and the journey involves solving the riddle of the legend of the crystal skulls, and locating a lost city of gold called Akatar.
When Indy and Mutt are captured on this quest by Spalko, they find Oxley and also Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Mutt’s mother.
Indy realizes that Mutt is actually his son, but has little time to contemplate the revelation, for he must keep the secret of the Crystal Skulls and Akatar out of avaricious Soviet hands.

Okay…so why is there so much enduring, vehement, non-stop hate for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

In part, some fans don’t wish to welcome “aliens” into this particular movie universe. For those fans the inclusion of extra-terrestrials in an Indiana Jones film feels like a creative misstep, perhaps even desperation.  Is this an adventure franchise, or a sci-fi franchise? 

(The answer: it’s both.  Raiders of the Lost Ark opened up, just a crack, the idea of non-human intelligence in the notion of the Ark of the Covenant as a “radio transmitter” to beings not of this Earth.)

Others, it must be said, simply cannot get past Harrison Ford’s advanced age here, though many fans -- this one included --  will be lucky indeed to be in such good physical shape at age seventy. 

I still remember reading a series of posts at Ain’t It Cool in which sarcastic talk-bakers devised geriatric-sounding titles for the next Indiana Jones adventures.  The titles were funny, but the tone was disrespectful and unnecessarily harsh.  It’s strange, isn’t it, how fans can demand that William Shatner return to the role of James T. Kirk at his advanced age, while complaining when Harrison Ford gets the opportunity to play Indiana Jones one more time?

Even more fans tend to find Kingdom’s action scenes -- like the trademark “nuke the fridge” moment -- preposterous and even a bit campy.  (And this criticism fits in with a popular narrative about George Lucas “losing it” vis-à-vis his blockbuster movie-making instincts).

The real underlying issue with all those complaints, however, stems from just one problem. 

To put this bluntly: our pop culture had clearly moved on in 2008 in terms of what it demanded from films, vis-à-vis “realism.”

To wit,  in 1984, Indiana Jones jumped out of a plane on an inflatable rubber raft, survived the fall, raced down a snowy mountain, and then successfully navigated a waterfall…all without getting a scratch, or even losing his hat. 

The “nuke the fridge” moment in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is absolutely no more ludicrous than that inflatable raft scene in Temple of Doom.   Yet audience tastes have changed dramatically, and modern audiences don’t buy the “nuke the fridge” set-piece in the way that viewers in 1984 accepted the raft cliffhanger.  Nor do they buy “aliens” in an adventure film, or a geriatric hero defeating bad guys.  “Realism” is not served by these creative choices, and so these choices are, widely in some cases, derided.

To some extent, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s most serious genre competitor at the box office in the summer of 2008 bears out my theory. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight re-imagines Batman as a “realistic” superhero to an extent never seen before in film history.  In this vision, Gotham City is a real metropolis, not one created with CGI effects or matte paintings and the Batmobile is an experimental military vehicle, built in war-time. Even the sense of movie romance is gone: Batman doesn’t save the film’s damsel in-distress…she gets blown up!  This is another reflection of 21st century “realism.”  Gazing at the film objectively, it’s fair to state that virtually every imaginative and fantasy element has been shunted from the Batman format so as to make it feel “real” (and very unlike the “camp” 1960s TV series, or the Schumacher movie entries).

I’m not saying that this development is bad, per se, or that The Dark Knight’s interpretation of the Batman myth is invalid.  Rather, I’m pointing out that the great sweep of film history is away from theatricality and artifice and towards naturalism and realism.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is -- in broad terms -- a movie that achieves the same things in the same ways as the previous movies of the Indiana Jones cycle.   Yet this time -- and largely for the first time – some audiences weren’t with the filmmakers for the ride.  Movie-goers had moved on to a new and more “realistic” movie paradigm, the very paradigm expressed by The Dark Knight and in the new, grounded interpretation of James Bond we saw in Casino Royale (2006).

In short, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull arrived when old movie franchises were being re-booted and updated to appeal to modern sensibilities, and even at the same time that the horror film genre was moving in an identical direction: towards ever-more realism with found footage movies. 

But the creative approach of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull didn’t take any of this into account. The film is made in the exact same style as the earlier pictures, and with the same creative conceits in place.  Instead of being lauded for consistency, however, the film is despised for failing to “live up” to modern expectations.

When people complain that this fourth Indiana Jones film boasts the wrong tone or is somehow campy, they are both right and wrong in the assertion. 

Yes, the film is campier than The Dark Knight or Casino Royale, if by the term “campy” one means that the film knowingly “stretches” reality for purposes of fantasy and humor.  

But at the same time, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull carries on with the very approach that made Raiders of the Lost Ark so popular in its day.  It is canny and clever about how it deploys movie influences, and how it operates as a pastiche of those influences.

One way to gain a better appreciation of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and its relative value within the Indiana Jones franchise is to watch all four Indy films over a period of days.  In that regard, Crystal Skull hardly stands out as being of a lesser or even different quality.  In fact, it’s remarkably of a piece with the other three films. 

It’s just -- plainly -- not in step with the kind of films being made now.  I leave it up to you, individually, to judge which approach you prefer.  I’m not trying to champion one film or one approach over the other, only illuminate why Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not a betrayal of the Indian Jones series, only, perhaps, out-of-step with “modern” Hollywood filmmaking.

I will go out on this limb, however. Personally, I enjoy Kingdom of the Crystal Skull more than I do The Last Crusade (1989) because of the new and different 1950s context.  Spielberg and Lucas had already shown us the 1930s movie serials universe ably in the first trilogy and by the last film in the original cycle, I felt ready to move on.

Well, this film does move on, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull benefits from a whole universe of new influences.  Just as Raiders of the Lost Ark did, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull contains visual allusions to our communal past -- and to our beloved movie traditions and history -- in a very deliberate and specific way. In short, the movie pulls visual “quotations” from popular films of the 1950s, and weaves them into the narrative so that audiences realize they are seeing not a “real” story of 1957, but rather a story set in the universe of silver screen adventures from that span, or that decade.

The ants of The Naked Jungle (1954)
The ants of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
In brief, Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull features a deliberate homage to Charlton Heston’s The Naked Jungle (1954) in its march of man-eating ants. In the film's central premise, and in a cool bit of production design, one will detect resonances of Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957) and Earth versus the Flying Saucers (1956). 
The saucers of Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956).

The saucer of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Additionally, in Mutt's "juvenile delinquent" world, and Indy's reaction to it, there are traces of teen or “juvenile delinquent” films of the day such as Rebel without a Cause (1955), and motorcycle films like The Wild One (1953).

Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953)

Mutt Williams in Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Even the detonation of an atomic bomb and Indy's survival of a nuclear blast with no deleterious side-effects from fall-out also alludes, tongue in cheek-style to such "educational" films as 1952's Duck and Cover, which implored "You must learn to find shelter!" (like a refrigerator?) during a nuclear attack. Thus, one way to enjoy this film is simply as a time capsule of 1950s influences.  And again, one must note that the film is not meant to be “real” but a fantasy set in the world of Hollywood 1950s movies.
The “nuke the fridge” moment has been widely ridiculed by fans, and even become an Internet meme, but again, one must consider the world of 1950s film that Crystal Skull emulates.  Those movies were constantly -- as in the case of Duck and Cover -- undercutting the danger of atomic warfare.  In this “movie” universe, that blasé approach to nuclear attack and the dangers of fall-out represents reality, itself, and that fact helps to explain why Jones survives in the movie.  He is not defying the laws of science.  He survives according to (1950) movie laws of science.

Nuked Refrigerator
Despite all the criticism of the “nuke the fridge” sequence in the film, I find it powerful and worthwhile within the context of the Indiana Jones films.  In Raiders of the Lost Ark (1936) we saw man humbled before God’s wrath in the finale, and a kind of “storm of death” sweep away the remnants of Belloq and the Nazis. 
In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull we get a book-end visual: Indiana Jones facing a tempest of a different sort; a man made “storm of fire” in that nuclear mushroom. 

Man’s technology has reached a dangerous place in Jones’ life-time and now man is “playing God” with Earth and the environment.  In other words, Indiana Jones goes from living in a pre-nuclear world of relative innocence and “faith,” to the “apocalypse mentality,” technological world, post-Hiroshima.

The Age of God, and Indiana Jones is there.

The Age of Man, and Indiana Jones is there.

Man’s irresponsible use of the atom bomb is directly compared in the film with the power of the alien beings.  They created a city where their “treasure” is “knowledge.”  Yet mankind does not see “knowledge” as a treasure for its own sake.  Spalko seeks another weapon of mass destruction -- like the atom bomb -- that can bring the Western powers to their knees. Spalko (and by extension the Russians) see knowledge as the opportunity to create terror, not as an end itself.

Outside all the visual allusions to films of the 1950s, I appreciate that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t attempt to pretend that no time has passed. 

This Indiana Jones is a very different man than the one we last met in 1938.  He has lost his father and Brody, and he broods that he’s gotten to the point where life doesn’t give him things.  It only “takes them away.” 

Then, throughout the course of the film, Indy’s observation is proven determinedly wrong-headed as life gives him a wife…and a son.  Those things he thought were lost forever are not lost at all, but within his grasp.  The film acknowledges the melancholy nature of growing older.  You know more than you once did, and are perhaps wiser, but your channels of opportunity are also narrower.  Here, Jones swings across that chasm, and finds a happy ending.  Who wouldn’t want that for him, and what’s so wrong with him finding that happiness?  Not dark and angsty enough?

When I watched this film again recently, I came to the (surprising...) conclusion that Crystal Skull features the same weaknesses and the same strengths as other series entries. If you liked those films, there's no particularly compelling reason not to like this one too. All the Indiana Jones films are essentially non-stop roller coaster rides and pastiches that hop with cinematic dexterity from jaunty dialogue scenes to exaggerated, over-the-top action sequences.

That pretty much describes Kingdom of the Crystal Skull too.

You know, I've even heard people complain about the two-dimensional nature of the Russian villains in this film. 

Like the Nazis were really handled with three-dimensional maturity in Raiders and Last Crusade?  They, like the Russians here, are treated in Hollywood fashion as pure movie villains. seems clear that Lucas and Spielberg aren't in the realism business here.  Instead, they're playing the same stellar game they did in 1981, 1984 and 1989.  They’re creating an adventure within the context of a beloved movie past (in this case the cinema of the 1950s), and they’re doing it with a sense of robust, larger-than-life style.

In other words, sometimes, they do make 'em like they used to.

But some of us can’t appreciate this fact, because the new productions don’t have the warm glow of nostalgia upon them.