No, this is not a post about George W. Bush. Instead, it’s about blockbuster movies. I’ve always been lucky as a movie critic, in that I never had to review the big summer films. The paper I used to write for wanted me to focus on smaller fare, and I was happy to oblige. And now that I write for myself, well I can choose what I want. But just because I don’t have to write about the big movies doesn’t preclude me from seeing them, and I like to be somewhat current. So I thought I’d check out two of the biggest from this summer’s crop, Iron Man and the Indiana Jones sequel.
Neither movie is terrible. In fact, Iron Man is quite good with a great Robert Downey, Jr. performance, some sharp dialogue, and convincing action sequences. But these qualities are what makes its stupidity so frustrating. I mean, if I go to the latest Adam Sandler movie and complain about how dumb it is, I have no one to blame but myself. What else was I expecting? That man eats stupid for breakfast. But Jon Favreau is a solid director, and Iron Man’s first ninety minutes are surprisingly tight. And yet, the last half hour trots out every asinine cliche you can imagine.
It all goes downhill (major spoilers from here on out) when Gwenyth Paltrow’s character (the excessively loyal assistant who also looks smashing in a backless dress) has her first heroic moment. She has to go to Stark’s old office and download critical files from his computer. First off, why doesn’t techno-genius have backups at his home office? Second, if he’s been shut off from the company, how can Miss Priss just walk into the building, then into the office, and then just start working away on the computer? Our arch villain is smart enough to bar Stark from the building, but not the sidekick? And then, as if that wasn’t enough, the bad guy actually shows up while she’s there but doesn’t seem suspicious? doesn’t ask what she’s up to? doesn’t want to see what she’s doing at the computer? Come on! And even when he does figure it out, he just lets her walk out the door. My friends, that’s stupidity.
But we’re just getting started. The final confrontation and inevitable vanquishing of evil begin with Paltrow’s other heroic moment. Based merely on the title of a computer file folder, she’s able to locate the super-secret lair of the arch villain (really?) and then in nothing but a dress and heels escape when said villain enters the scene. That leads to the predictable showdown between not one but two Iron Men. While I’ll admit the special effects are kinda cool, I also couldn’t help but laugh at the synthesized growls that pour forth from our gladiators. Pain never sounded so ridiculous. But that at least makes some sense. Nothing can explain why yet another movie needs to trot out the hoary cliche of the villain dropping his guard so that he can taunt his foe at the moment of triumph. And how is our arch-nemesis finally defeated? By some kind of weird nuclear explosion that conveniently obliterates the bad guy and leaves our heroes, who are nearby and defenseless, relatively unscathed.
I could go on an on about the incongruities in Iron Man’s final act, but you get the idea. My major problem with all of this isn’t that the movie is unrealistic. Heck, I’m willing to swallow the first 90 minutes without a burp. The travesty is that it’s so lazy and unnecessary. I mean, this is a freakin’ comic book movie where the laws of physics don’t apply. They can make up whatever crap they want. And yet the filmmakers can’t come up with a more satisfying conclusion? A conclusion in which our super-smart villain doesn’t suddenly become super-dumb? Apparently not. Even worse, those same filmmakers know that today’s audiences are so undiscriminating that no one will even raise a fuss.
Indiana Jones and the Extremely Long Title at least has the virtue of being consistent. It’s silly from beginning to end, and that’s been true of the previous three installments, too. Our heroes can survive whatever catastrophe the screenwriter god throws at them–coincidentally, a nuclear explosion here as well. And they’ll always figure out exactly what they need to know, and just in time. So an unrealistic sword fight through the jungle while balanced on hurtling Jeeps? Yeah I can handle that. Amazingly carnivorous ants? No problem. I can even accept Spielberg’s weird fixation on aliens. The Jewish and Christian myths of earlier Indiana Jones movies strike me as more organic, but that probably says more about me than Spielberg.
So the stupidity of the new Indiana Jones doesn’t lie in its plot but in its approach to history. Now I know what you’re thinking. You don’t go to a Raiders of the Lost Ark sequel for what it has to say about the past, ancient or otherwise. Fair enough. But why then do writers George Lucas and David Koepp feel the need to evoke a particular time? The movie alerts us that this takes place in 1957 and then proceeds to show scenes involving nuclear test explosions, the Red Scare, a guy on a black Harley roadster, and a fight between greasers and preps. In each case, the historical motif is reduced to its most superficial essence, often to create a joke but sometimes to flatter the audience. It’s a bit like what tv shows such as “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” have been reduced to. But instead of offering some pop culture reference, Indiana Jones trots out an historical icon so that Joe Six-Pack can lean over to his girlfriend and whisper, “It’s like James Dean.”
The problem with this is that we as a culture are becoming more and more divorced from history by the day. I won’t bore you by quoting the cultural theorist Frederic Jameson, but his ideas are prescient. He argues that in our postmodern age, we have lost track of historical time and now connect with history only through iconic images: Abe Lincoln’s stove-pipe hat, the flag raising at Iwo Jima, a nuclear test explosion. We don’t have any context for these images; indeed we can rarely tell which event happened in which decade. And, therefore, any understanding of how history might impact the present and lead us to a different, more progressive future becomes impossible.
The use of the Red Scare strikes me as particularly problematic. It would be one thing if Spielberg were actually using this to make some subtle reference to the Bush Administration’s use of patriotism as a way to stifle dissent. But the short scene is so laughable in its simplicity and so lacking in any kind of historical context that it’s just window dressing, as if one of our nation’s more ignominious moments was fodder for the production designer. This becomes especially ironic when Harrison Ford solemnly delivers the movie’s moral at the end: “Knowledge was their treasure.” I’ll make sure to put that on a bumper sticker.
Again, I can almost hear the objections. Why should we expect Steven Spielberg to teach us history? I never said we should. I’d prefer he leave out history altogether. The problem is that when history is treated as a library of images that a filmmaker can trot out for atmosphere, people are fooled into thinking that’s all history is good for. Or even worse, that because they can catch the reference, they actually know something about history. As Neil Postman wrote, “What shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?”