The box office has given its ecstatic verdict on the film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. ($482 million in gross ticket sales and counting.) But one little discussed metric that some people have been using to judge Skull (or, at least, that I have) is: How offensive was it compared to the other films? Assessments of Indy-style flicks tend to amount to little more than weather reports where life, death and the American dream (…of a decent three-day weekend) hinge on portents in the sky and box office. In those terms, the only things worth keeping track of are relative: How much money was made compared to last summer/entry in the franchise? How much NONSTOP! THRILLRIDE! FUN! (to borrow the shouting verbiage of the movie poster) did Skull pack in compared to previous outings? In that comparative vein, Skull has the middling honor of being neither the worst offender in the series (that's No. 2, South Asian horror misfire Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) nor the least. (No. 3, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, takes the dual prize of being the best Indy movie and the least racist.) Thank heavens for small favors, right?
The Indy flicks have been accused of being, Seinfeld-like, about nothing, but that reading is, as they say, mighty white of someone. These movies may be mostly about rigorously-constructed action sequences and "fun," but many of their excitements have been a highly specific, Tintin kind of fun. Indy is a likeable Anglo-American hero engaged in various forms of derring-do against colored, exotic backdrops.
The villains were cardboard cut-out Nazis and commies in three out of the four movies, but this is still a series that started out as an update of the "mummy" genre, with all the Orientalist blind spots and racism that implies. Spielberg may have rather brilliantly flipped that particular script in Raiders by moving the movie's central artifact from ancient Egypt to ancient Israel, but the overall subject was still a lingering fantasy of a bygone British colonial world, albeit one lensed through the sensibilities of an American director. The world that Indiana inhabits and explores sits in the contested historical space between the colonial and post-colonial periods, but you'd never know it, the only struggle on screen exclusively between First World Axis and Allies, commies and capitalists.
Raiders' originating Middle Eastern setting inevitably left it littered with images of Arabs staring inscrutably at the sun setting on the British Empire, but it was largely a white-on-(ancient) Jewish affair that envisioned a Nazi quest for a Hebrew super-weapon. Although Indiana wasn't Jewish, Spielberg's tale of the quest for the Ark of the Covenant echoed a time-honored tradition ofJewish American artists and writers using the fantastic—comics, sci-fi—to frame stories about their identity and history. (Fans of afrofuturistic re-imaginings of slavery and racism should appreciate how Spielberg—who has seven WWII films on his CV—obsessively, specifically reworks the Holocaust using successive movie genres from fantasy, biopics, action and so on.)The Last Crusade featured vaguely Arab secret society members, but barely ever left Europe, focusing on English knights and the Holy Grail, the cup Jesus drank from at the Last Supper in Jerusalem.
Not coincidently Last Crusade is the best of the Indy movies, as if minimizing contact with confounding ethnics somehow kept the filmmakers focused and on point. It's no accident then that the "worst" Indy film from both creative and financial standpoints is also the series' most colored. Temple of Doom is a would-be horror film set in Northern India and focusing on the so-called "Thuggee cult," groups of Indian highwaymen who populated the nightmares (and adventure stories) of the British colonial era. Temple of Doom went the extra mile by turning what many scholars view as the potentially overstated Thuggee threat into a blood-soaked ooga-booga orgy of human sacrifice and child-abduction, and for its trouble it was banned in India for many years. (Negative reaction to Doom's bizarre violence also helped usher the largely pointless PG-13 rating into existence. Thank you, cultural insensitivity!)
So where does Skull rate on this offensiveness spectrum? For one thing, despite spending about half its time in South America, this is a film curiously bereft of, you know, South Americans. During a visit to a graveyard in Peru, mysterious, face-painted men do appear out of nowhere to randomly bust out on Harrison Ford and Shia LaBeouf's characters with what are clearlyCapoeira moves, but they're just video game enemies entering the movie on cue during a change of scene. Later, Amazonian tribesmen appear in what was supposed to be an abandoned stronghold, but their motivations, identities and provenance remain not so much mysterious as hard-coded.
Then, there are the space aliens. (Hit the back button on your browser now if you don't want to know about the space aliens.) Although some critics have accused Skull's "ancient astronaut" plotline of cannibalizing Spielberg's own Close Encounters, (Surprise! The crystal skull of the title came from outer/inner space!) the movie can be better described as cribbing from Leonard Nimoy's trippy old television series In Search Of… . For those either too young to remember (or drug-free at the time), In Search Of was a masterpiece of '70s psychedelia where early electronic music, weird science, conspiracy theories and supermarket tabloid riffs were blended together willy-nilly for 30 mind-blowing minutes a week, all of it presented in a loopy deadpan by Star Trek's Spock wearing not Vulcan ears but a swinging turtleneck and blazer combo.
One of the show's favorite themes was the notion that pre-colonial tribes and civilizations were often in mysterious possession of unusual objects and factoids that the poor, primitive dears could "only" have gotten from outer space. (Where else could the artifacts and astronomical information have come from? They hadn't encountered the white man yet.) These curiosities ranged from the Dogon tribe in Mali's knowledge of astronomical features that are invisible to the naked eye, to the 2,000-year-old, mile-wide Peruvian line drawings known as the Nazca Lines which appear prominently in Skull. According to at least a season's worth of In Search Of… episodes, the Nazca lines are obviously the remains of an alien spaceport. Dug into the hills, the massive outlines of humming birds and hunters can only be "seen" aerially, and even though more than one researcher has shown they could have easily been made using techniques available at the time, the Nazca artifacts are a key part of little green men tales from here to the X-Files.
Much of what is passed along as the "ancient astronaut" thesis is lifted from the classics of schlock UFO-ology like Erich von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods, which, like In Search Of…, had their heyday in the go-go '70s.
In addition to Nazca and the Dogon, Däniken argued the alien origins of the prophet Ezekiel's flying wheel ("And when I looked, behold the four wheels by the cherubim, one wheel by one cherub, and another wheel by another cherub: and the appearance of the wheels was as the color of a beryl stone." Ezekiel 10:9), Stonehenge, the spirit journeys of Australia's First People, the heads on Easter Island, and, of course, the pyramids of the Egyptians, Mayans and Inca. Although the Great Wall of China got a pass, in Däniken's ancient world there seemed to be nothing that couldn't be attributed to an alien architect.
The idea of such secret, forgotten contacts between people of color and ETs isn't always a colonialist ploy. Artists from Charles Glaubitz to Sun Ra have used the extra-terrestrial and extra-sensory to short-circuit traditional depictions of people of color (Mexicans in Glaubitz's case and black folks in Sun Ra's) by leapfrogging over Europeans and the European encounter. It's a fruitful and powerful image when deployed the right way, but in the hands of invariably white Hollywood filmmakers the meme is most often a weapon used to deny the creativity and inventiveness of indigenous peoples and colored civilizations. Whether you're talking Skull, or the Stargate franchise, or sub-basement dreck like the Alien vs. Predator movies, indigenous peoples are most often depicted as easily fooled, slavish worshippers of superior alien races. Even modern franchises like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, where the black scientist played by Joe Morton "invents" our robot overlords after lucking to a computer chip from the future, colored knowledge always comes from a non-colored outside.
Stephen Spielberg is a stunningly intelligent crafter of popular and fantastical entertainments, and for fans of the art of genre movies, his run over the last 10 years has been unprecedented:Saving Private Ryan (1998), the under-appreciated A.I. (2001), Minority Report (2002) and the also under-appreciated War of the Worlds (2005).
All those movies shared Raider's serious appraisal and re-invigoration of what makes action and sci-fi movies tick, and it's a shame to see him muck up that streak with lazy colonialist crud like Skull. Still, the man who some argue is among America's greatest living directors must feel he's onto something with these tales of white men on the loose at the close of empires, as next up for him is a feature-film trilogy based on the adventures of boy reporter (and Belgian colonial icon) Tintin. No doubt the first flick will open on Columbus Day.
Gary Dauphin is a Los Angeles-based writer.