I Hate Indiana Jones: Day 8

Day 8: Indiana Jones and the Way-Too-Cute Callback

While I'm on the subject of Indiana Jones' trip to the mysterious Area 51, it's important to mention how hangar 51 is depicted in the film. It's not a hangar for the storage of secret aircraft, or even a workshop for tweaking and altering of said aircraft, but rather the warehouse where the government stacks crate after crate of mysterious and secret paraphernalia, including the Ark of the Covenant.

What's that, you ask? The Ark of the Covenant? The box that the Jews used to haul the Ten Commandments around? The actual stone tablets? Yes, that Ark of the Covenant, last seen at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, being shut in an anonymous box and wheeled off into a secret government storage facility. Wait a minute... government storage facility? Could that place at the end of Raiders have been Area 51?

Well, no.

It seems there wasn't an Area 51 back in 1936, when Raiders took place. Sure, the land was owned by the government, but at the time it was nothing more than an artillery test range. There weren't any extensive facilities there until the 50s, when they established it to test the U2 spy plane (or '47, when it was established to reverse-engineer a crashed alien spacecraft, depending on who you ask. If you ask George Lucas, he'll say it was an interdimensional spacecraft). So that couldn't possibly have been Area 51 in Raiders. Besides which, I always got the sense that the storage facility at the end of Raiders was underground, rather than out in the middle of the desert - am I alone in that one?

It's possible that the government used to keep its thousands of tons of secret unmentionables in an underground facility somewhere, and then decided to move them out to Area 51 sometime in the 50s, but that's clearly not the implication here - there' s no weight to the scene if Harrison Ford is just walking into some government storage facility, it only works if he's walking into the government storage facility from Raiders. Of course, Indy doesn't know the significance of the warehouse, but the audience does, and the filmmakers were counting on it to resonate with them.

Of course, simple resonance isn't enough for the filmmakers, they need to bludgeon the viewer over the head with the reference. So during the jeep chase through the warehouse, Harrison Ford drives his jeep through a wall of boxes (to be addressed more on Day 28: Indiana Jones and the Atomic Jeep), one of them slams to the ground and has a piece break off, revealing that concealed inside it is... The Ark of the Covenant!

Why do this, though? Were they worried that the audience wouldn't 'get' it? Did they think that we were clamoring for one more look at the Ark? The only thing this little glimpse of the Ark accomplishes is to remind the audience that the stakes were infinitely higher in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that the McGuffin that they were chasing was far more interesting than anything in this film.

(Yellow is Area 51, Orange is the Test Site)

I understand the desire to be cute and referency with script construction here, and after someone noticed that Area 51 was just a couple of miles from Yucca Flats, where they were performing nuclear tests in '57, it must have seemed irresistible to combine the two, sending Indy to both fascinating parts of Americana in rapid succession could prove an impressive opening. It's the third level of cleverness, attempting to tie it all in to Raiders, that doesn't sit right. The last we saw of the Ark was having it wheeled away by some blue-collar workers into the depths of a warehouse with no name.

Could there have been a better send off for it? Seeing it lying on a concrete floor, discarded amongst a shower of splinters from shattered crates somehow lacks the same kind of poetry.

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