For over twenty years now, one of the most gracefully interwoven and important themes of Steven Spielberg's films has been the almost Resnaisian exploration of the qualities and deficiencies of familial memory to be found in his work. Spielberg, forever obsessed with family and loved ones, and most especially father figures and the lack thereof, pushes this theme to, naturally, its most "Spielbergian" degrees, as the characters in Spielberg films either take solace in their memory of family or are haunted by said memories. Or, at least in a couple of devastating cases, wherein the Spielbergian "lost boy"--growing up incredibly fast amidst worldwide chaos and losing his innocence--has, because of massively intrusive and bewildering outside forces, forgotten those memories, they are determined to somehow return to them.
This would blossom twenty-one years ago, but it can be found in early Spielberg works such as The Sugarland Express, which finds a father and mother determined to take their son back from the state of Texas, obviously motivated in the extreme by their collective memory of creating their child and at least abstractly loving him. In E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Elliot and his mother's memory of the absent father/husband figure leads to discordant disharmony between them. Between these two films, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this theme, still finding expression in disparate ways, is almost turned on its head in twisted fashion, as the protagonist, Ray, loses all grasp of his family in pursuit of a memory, quixotically breaking his own family unit down in his self-centered fixation.
Yet the theme is most eloquently introduced in the Spielberg canon, becoming a quintessential piece of his cinematic tapestry, in Empire of the Sun, finding a special kind of import as the real-life engine of what at the time was seen by its director as the antithesis of his material. Spielberg's claim that Empire was breaking from his earlier work because rather than cherishing childhood innocence, it was a methodical dismantling of it is of course only half-true. The film's tone is mournful, and is most certainly a poignant love letter to childhood, arguably Spielberg's greatest. Even if it concludes with the boy Jamie becoming the man Jim--most pointedly symbolized by the swapping of the coffin at the very beginning of the film floating in the Shanghai harbor being replaced by Jim's suitcase representing his childhood at the very conclusion--it's through a child's eyes that Spielberg shapes the film. The film is based on a memoir, written by a man working with what Spielberg instinctively recognized as the factually faulty but nevertheless wonderfully earnest recollection of a child. So the whole film is ultimately about memory.
Empire is perhaps Spielberg's richest achievement, and almost certainly his most underrated film (that it is continually mentioned as among his most underrated if not his most underrated paradoxically undermines the claim, but that is a discussion for another time). The film is brimming with beautiful but abstruse symbolism that requires repeated viewings. Jamie finds himself imprisoned by the Japanese with other westerners in a camp, cut off from his parents. His memory of them slowly fades. Like numerous Spielberg protagonist youths, Jamie finds or at least creates father figures for himself, and, as in other Spielberg films, dueling father figures. In the case of one, an English doctor, he attributes to him own father's gestures (most particularly the rubbing of one's upper lip). In one powerful scene, Jim confesses that he can no remember longer what his parents look like. The overpowering imagery of World War II has stolen Jim's memories of his parents. He is horrified that he can no longer remember his mother's face in particular.
In Hook, a grown up Peter Pan struggles to reclaim his powers in Neverland to retrieve his stolen children. The only way he can do so is to remember what his long lost "happy thought" was. It turns out to be a "happy thought" that reflects the duality of Spielberg as both perpetual child and father himself, a "happy thought" about Peter's own children whose very existence contradict his youthful vow to never grow up. In Schindler's List, Oskar Schindler recollects the wisdom of his father by remembering his most important advice ("My father was fond of saying you need three things in life. A good doctor, a forgiving priest, and a clever accountant.") In Amistad, Cinque remembers "home," the paradise of Spielberg, the final panacea for which all his heroes are searching, while John Quincy Adams is both motivated and intimidated by the shadow of his father, a Founding Father, John Adams, and longingly approaches a bust of the second president while arguing on behalf of the Africans.
In Saving Private Ryan, another "lost boy," Private Ryan, like Jim in Empire before him, can no longer mentally summon the faces of his loved ones, his departed brothers. "I can't see my brothers' faces. And I've been trying, and I can't see their faces at all." Too much has been seen by his eyes to recollect the innocent, comparatively idyllic memories of home. Miller instructs the private to think of them in a context, to think of a certain time. Ryan's memory is of one of his brothers attempting to consummate a relationship with "a girl who just fell off the ugly tree." Elsewhere, another private vocally remembers his sexually arousing experience with a voluptuous woman.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence finds the concept of memory both human and inhuman. Endowed by Professor Hobby with the gift of the capability of love, David, a Mecha, is programmed by his mother to always love her. Yet Hobby's own tortured memory of his very own lost child is what engendered the exact exterior of David. Memory is made false by science as the concluding act of A.I. sees David experience one final day with a recreation of his mother some 2,000 years after her presumed death. Minority Report philosophically features memory of both past incidents and those that have not yet occurred. John Anderton is plagued by the memory of his son being lost at a public pool. Anderton fuels his more pleasant memories of his son and wife with his holographic recordings at home. In Catch Me If You Can, the nostalgic memories of the nuclear family he loved, with his mother and father dancing with one another on the living room carpet, supply all the motivation in the world for Frank Abagnale, Jr. to use his wiles to bring his mother and father back together. Frank Jr. wishes to "get it all back," referring to the assets the IRS seized from his father. When Frank attempts to settle down in New Orleans with a Lutheran family he's reminded of his parents' ostensible marital harmony when stealing a peak at his fiance's mother and father dancing in the kitchen. In The Terminal, Victor Navorski is determined to collect one last signature of a jazz musician for his father. Protectively he guards his can of Planters peanuts and only tells the woman for whom he's fallen the one's actual meaning. In War of the Worlds, Ray Ferrier cajoles his distraught daughter by playing to her memories of her mother and grandmother in Boston.
Munich is Spielberg's most schizophrenic and self-arguing film, practically at war with itself. At the heart of the matter for Spielberg is family, as always. What constitutes family? What constitutes home? More than any other film of his, Munich debates these questions. For Avner, at the beginning of the film, he is a child turned man in the Kibbutz, made to think that all Israelis are family. Consequently, more than any Spielberg figures before him, he is deeply and irrevocably haunted by a single event, the Munich massacre. As the film progresses, Avner, fatherless after his father, a hero, was imprisoned, like Spielberg sons before him, takes refuge in dueling father figures in a slightly more didactic and political way. Ephraim and the notably named Papa represent contrasting worldviews and notions of familial loyalty and responsibility. For Avner, then, recognition of Israelis as family leads to torment, as the unfolding narrative of the massacre plays itself out in his head.
Now Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is here. More universal than ever, Spielberg's appreciation of and quest for familial memory can be appreciated by an enormous worldwide audience. With an established iconic character, Indiana Jones, Spielberg's newest film is a fascinating, free-wheeling and sometimes puissant Spielbergian extension of of his previous cinematic essays on the subject of familial memory. Moviegoers now are almost in the position of Spielberg's son figures, remembering the idyllic perfection of Raiders of the Lost Ark, painfully desperate to return to such heights, even fleetingly. Indiana Jones himself is another son character whose memory of his distant father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has placed him on a course he believed would be dramatically different from the father he resented. Naturally, Henry Jones, Sr. (Indy's real name is Henry, too) did not have the same memory of that period of time, as he was primarily dedicated to his own pursuits, namely his undying quest for the Holy Grail.
Crystal Skull is for the first two-thirds of its running time a gloriously silly movie, and unlike the '30s serial feel of the '80s trilogy, this film immediately adapts itself to the 1950s as the new "time" of Indiana Jones and his adventures, making it into a kind of '50s sci-fi adventure. The film opens brilliantly with a carload of American youths racing with an American military vehicle, which is occupied with treacherous Soviets. A moment later, Indy is unceremoniously thrown to the ground. The rush of seeing Harrison Ford place the hat on his head at the beginning of the film is fairly powerful, despite its being used in trailers.
Spielberg seems nearly fully engaged throughout the film's first seventy-five minutes or so. The prospect of introducing the element of Indiana Jones as a father himself, with Shia LaBeouf, a "greaser" seemingly out of the imagination of George Lucas, seems to energize him. This is illustrated in just how deftly he handles the action within and without the mysterious "Area 51" warehouse, in which Soviets search for an extraterrestrial MacGuffin while ignoring the conveniently revealed Ark of the Covenant because they're so militantly atheistic they don't even care about the Old Testament and the occult. In a half-Sovietized Indy world, it makes sense to go the more secular sci-fi route (which is still tinged with religious significance, both narratively speaking, as the indigenous people believed these aliens to be gods, and in Spielberg's spiritually numinous subtext).
Amidst the silliness, Spielberg unfurls a substantial amount of subversiveness. The imagery of the picture perfect American suburbia of the 1950s being a phony, plastic place that is burned and melted down, and quickly blown to pieces and replaced with a foreboding mushroom cloud features a good deal of icy satire married to deeply unsettling simulacrum. A tableaux emerges, one in which a dwarfed Indy looks on at the great, mid-twentieth century apocalyptic specter, and in one serenely dynamical shot, Indy sees how much the world has changed and raced beyond him, like Ethan Edwards taking in the changed familial paradigm of his own existence at the end of The Searchers (which Spielberg has already riffed on to his own inquisitive concernment at the end of War of the Worlds, as Armond White has correctly observed).
There are many pleasures to be had. Ford gives, easily, his finest performance since The Fugitive fifteen years ago. Mostly wasted in puerile nonsense since that film, it's wonderful to see him back, looking older, yes, but dignified. One of the earliest worries about the film--that Ford would be simply too old to don the whip and fedora again--has proven to be unfounded. Ford, like Clint Eastwood, seems well-positioned to age gracefully and make the act of merely aging "cool." LaBeouf and Ford possess a mutually charismatic onscreen relationship as father and son. Ford takes on aspects of Sean Connery's Henry Jones, Sr. in Last Crusade by teasing and somewhat pestering the son. The scene in a diner evokes the '50s wonderfully while allowing a brief but important scene of exposition to play out. The motorcycle chase that follows, which culminates in Indy's college, features all of the equal parts kineticism and humor that one expects from this series of fundamentally frivolous but markedly buoying film franchise. LaBeouf, who many believed would be a failing of the film, like Ford's age, acquits himself rather swimmingly, even if the idea of him taking over the franchise does not quicken the pulse. Cate Blanchett makes a fine impression as a ruthless, hubristically overreaching Soviet agent. A kind of live action Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle she makes this lovingly over-the-top concoction of communist dominatrix archetypes work as a foil for Indy. There are a couple of scenes that display her and Indy's similarities as, respectively, explorers of the East and West, divided by an iron curtain.
Millions of words will be written about Crystal Skull. Millions of words probably have already. The consensus seems to be that the first half is a load of fun, while the second feels slapdash. My own stethoscope found the pulse of the film to be remarkably sonorous for its first two-thirds. Spielberg's interest here is the family union/reunion of Indiana Jones, his son, Mutt and the indefatigable, Hawksian Marion Ravenwood (a returning Karen Allen). Once that narrative objective has been achieved, Spielberg's interest seems to wane, and the Lucas impulses seem to appear more considerably. Spielberg seems to step off the creative accelerator. To grok the transition, one must grapple with the probability that Spielberg's familial concerns of memory, most fascinatingly displayed here with Mutt discovering the importance of learning (Indy's duality as teacher and action hero is given greater import than in any film since Raiders) are the chief enticement for the director. As Indy learns from Marion that Mutt is his son, he switches positions on Mutt's lack of higher education. Earlier he told Mutt that if he wants to fix motorcycles for the rest of his life he should as long as it's what he loves to do. Indy tells Marion to get off Mutt's back with regards to school. Yet when he learns the youth's true relationship with himself, Indy reverses himself, declaring that he must finish school. It's a funny and sweet-natured gag made whole by Spielberg's innate understanding that one's father is charged with being one's protector and model, like Chief Brody in Jaws.
The film's screenplay, a creation of such labor and angst for Lucas and the seeming parade of screenwriters who have taken a crack at it, written finally by David Koepp, is artless and contrived, featuring several characterizations that lack any discernible, easy-to-follow comic book motivations. John Hurt, a marvelous actor, is wasted as Oxley, a demented man apparently possessed by the power of the crystal skull, though the character does serve a purpose. Ray Winstone, however, is saddled with a character whose motivations never make any particular sense because he jumps sides back and forth. If he had just been utilized as a sellout to the commies and left at that, his arc would have worked just fine, but for some reason Lucas seemed to want to feature a miniature version of Anakin Skywalker's arc, where he starts off as a good guy but is poisoned by evil and then returns to being good, and... Who knows? None of it is particularly discernible once he returns to being good after Indy breaks his nose just as he promised he would. Koepp's screenplay, which lacks both finesse and polish, is truly a demonstration in how a film of this nature needs a wholly streamlined "arc"--and not a lost one--in order to fully operate on all cylinders.
Unlike The Sugarland Express, Always, Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal, Spielberg, with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull allows the romantic love story to conclude with unambiguous happiness, as the film ties the knot, so to speak, of the entire Indy-Marion relationship, offering Mutt the nuclear family all sons in Spielbergian cinema crave and need. Indy and Marion's initial banter is quite similar to their Raiders repartees, and Marion's attitudinal persona is deliciously unchanged ("Get your hands off me, you Russkie bastard!" I believe are a fair approximation of her first words in Crystal Skull). The film sparks when they are together, including a moment of undiluted tenderness that finds Indy and Marion nearly kissing before their son intervenes.
Alas, the metaphysical aura and magic of that relationship, which defined Raiders as not just an action spectacle but a simple, sublime love story, cannot be duplicated, just as the magnificent energy of Raiders itself can never be truly duplicated. The CGI of Crystal Skull will make many an Indy fan grimace, wishing for a greater fidelity to the original series. Well, at least Lucas could not convince Spielberg to shoot digitally. If one looks at the original 1981 film as the benchmark for Crystal Skull, one will doubtless be disappointed. Lightning in a bottle cannot be recaptured, and it's either an act of hubris not dissimilar from an Indiana Jones baddie or stunning cinematic charity to even try.
Ultimately, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is, while Spielberg's most minor effort in over a decade--an uneven, slowly deflating balloon of a film--nevertheless a good deal of mindless fun, a purposefully derivative entry that did not need to exist, but its director makes the best out of a slovenly screenplay, and makes the reunion of the "Indy family" of the real world (Lucas, Ford, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and many others including himself) and the Indy family of the movies (Indy, Marion and Mutt, sadly recently losing Henry Jones, Sr. and Marcus Brody... hey, where did Sallah go? Middle Earth, right?) into a continuation of his thematic odyssey pertaining to the import, unreliability, contradictions of and undying significance of the memory of family, and the perils of losing it. Marion's statement at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark--"Well, I know what I've got here"--could almost be uttered at the end of Crystal Skull. More than ever before, as Spielberg pressured Lucas to have the film shot only in the United States, wishing to stay as close as possible to his family, this film's director knows what he's got.