Day 14: Indiana Jones and the Happy Days
One of the things I've always loved about the Indiana Jones films is that they never get too wrapped up in their setting. Other than the presence of Nazis as the villains, there's nothing in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark that establishes it as being set in any particular time. The cars are old, and the planes are old, but there's no other nods to the fact that the films are taking place in the past. Although the way the characters speak may actually be anachronistic, it doesn't have the appearance of an error. Everyone speaks in such a clear, unaffected manner that the audience accepts it as universal communication. These are the kinds of things that people have always said to one another, and the removal of both current and historic colloquialisms give the impression of 'translated' dialogue. Perhaps this isn't the exact way those characters would have talked had they existed at that time, but we assume that their speech has been translated for our benefit, the way people don't speak Ancient Welsh in movies about King Arthur.
On the same note, the first three movies don't spend much time leveraging their eras for effect with the audience. Other than the convenience of using Nazis as villains and giving Indiana Jones a world of conflict to act as a backdrop, the filmmakers never tried to make much hay out of their settings. Beyond Indy's Zelig-like meeting with Hitler and a joke about the Marx Brothers, there's nothing about the first three films that screams 'Oh, look, it's the '30s' to the audience. This adds immeasurably to the films' universality and longevity. Rather than having the stuffy, distancing feel of a period piece, the films all seem to be taking place 'now', both because the characters treat everything with such convincing immediacy, and because there's nothing in them that absolutely screams that the movie is taking place 'then'.
The same can't be said about Crystal Skull, though. from literally the film's first shot, the movie screams at the top of its lungs that it's set in the '50s. No, not the gophers. We still have those. The convertible roadster that rockets into frame, crushing the gopher-hill, blasting rock music from its radio. The scene couldn't be more stereotypically '50s if Archie Andrews had been behind the wheel. Actually, I can't remember the driver's hair colour. He might have been.
Things only get worse from there, as we take a trip to other key elements of 50s memorabilia, in the form of a stereotypical 50s suburbia, complete with Howdy Doody playing on the television, which is quickly obliterated by that other shorthand to 50s nostalgia, Nuclear paranoia. It's not long before Indy finds himself caught up in the Red Scare, after which he meets Mutt Williams, a character whose status as a ridiculous stereotype will be the subject of another day's hatred. Everything comes to a head when Indy and Mutt wind up in a 50s diner for a scene that embarrasses itself trying far too hard to establish a sense of time and place. As Indy found himself surrounded by Jocks in letter jackets and girls with long skirts and knee-socks, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. That the scene ended with a full-on brawl between Jocks and Greasers only put an exclamation point on just how low the film had sunk. This wasn't a movie set in the 50s, this was a movie set in the '50s'.
In the minds of people raised long after the 50s ended, the period between 1949 and 1960 exist as a hazy chiffon dream, extrapolated primarily from reruns of Happy Days, Back to the Future and about a third of Back to the Future 2. It's this memory that the movie is set in, a world where the local malt shop is just down the street from a Better Dead than Red rally, where Russian Agents can be spotted by the black suits they wear while driving dark sedans, uniforms every bit as strict as those of the majorettes leading the local homecoming dance.
It's been said that just as the first three films were new versions of 30s adventure serials, Crystal Skull is the filmmakers' take on the 50s science fiction film. If that's true, then this film does a terrible job of establishing a sense of time in comparison. Those three films didn't feel like they were set in some kind of theme-restaurant version of the 30s, the way Crystal Skull treats the 50s. If they truly wanted to create the feeling of those 50s sci-fi movies, the filmmakers wouldn't have spent so much time drawing attention to the superficial elements of their setting. After all, back in the '50s, no one knew just how kitschy and humorous their movies were going to look in the decades to come. They were too busy trying to make good movies to think about things like that.
If only the makers of Crystal Skull had similar priorities.