Alexander the Great. Julius Caesar. Genghis Khan. Steven Spielberg. In an era where conquest is achieved not though territorial annexation but through cultural ubiquity, Spielberg is king. And now his most famous creation is back, looking out from billboards, signs and posters, sporting a case of 27 year-old three-day shadow: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Clearly, the S in Dreamworks SKG is not a man who needs to look far for a dollar or who has wanted for success in recent years. So why, at this point in his career, would he bring back Indiana Jones - and the aging, long-in-the-tooth Harrison Ford - rather than letting well enough alone?
In recent years, we've seen an increasing number of latter-day sequels attempt to revive aging franchises: Terminator 3, Rocky Balboa, Rambo, in which pre-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone showed off impressive musculatures underneath sagging, leathery skin. So what are Spielberg and Ford doing in their company? Though he's famous for Indy, for all the mass entertainments Spielberg has made, he's only made one sequel that wasn't in the Indiana Jones series, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, one of his worst movies.
Then again, like his friend George Lucas, Spielberg took his inspiration from the cheesy movie serials of the 1930's, filling the screen with good guys, bad guys, and the supernatural - you could argue that much of Spielberg's career has followed the pattern of the serials he grew up loving. And that includes bringing back the old heroes for yet another episode.
His movies' black-and-white simplicity has made Spielberg the most famous and successful moviemaker of his era. Lauded for his unerring, crowd-pleasing eye, for making glossy mass entertainments with high budgets, big explosions, and huge box office returns, he's equally criticized for his movies' relative lack of intellectual curiosity, moral ambiguity, or formal complexity. His movies are often told through the eyes of children, and those children are often put in harm's way, which is a good way to create an empathetic connection, but also a good way to manipulate an emotional reflex. However, his technique is so masterful that it's hard to fault him until you get out of the theater.
His devotion has always been to the indelible image, the sort of five-minute snapshot that people say was worth the price of admission. And he's created a tremendous number, movies that can be rewatched ad infinitum and that will be be fun forever: Jurassic Park, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, War of the Worlds, Duel, Jaws, Saving Private Ryan, E.T., Catch Me If You Can, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Spielberg's movies reveal a man of personal themes, or obsessions: dinosaurs, aliens, futuristic sci-fi, World War II, children's stories, creepy crawlies, and Warner Brothers animation (like Animaniacs, which he produced). And, though it once would have been unthinkable in Hollywood, the Holocaust.
When Hollywood was founded, its Jewish power brokers were famously so self-conscious about their shared ethnicity that they tacitly agreed to mute Jewish themes in their films. Times changed, and Schindler's List has a lot to do with the change. However, that and the terrific Munich are Spielberg's only two overtly Jewish movies, however. Although he battles Nazis, Indiana Jones is a decidedly non-Jewish hero, even if his famous fedora wouldn't look out of place in Crown Heights. The movie is more in line with the Old Testament fire and brimstone of Cecil B. DeMille than with Jewish tradition, and that holds true for most of Spielberg's movies. But unlike those of his predecessors, the lack of overt ethnicity in his movies seems to come less from personal embarrassment and more from a desire to tell universal stories.
And those stories seem to resemble one another -- substitute a shark for a dinosaur, or a dinosaur for a Nazi, and a lot of the filmmaking technique in each of his best movies looks pretty similar. His love of animation isn't hard to understand, since so many of his movies involve both special effects and nonhuman villains, from his debut Duel through Jaws, Jurassic Park, and War of the Worlds. He is the preeminent FX director of his day, and the new Indiana Jones movie will undoubtedly feature effects more eye-popping than any the '80s sequels could muster. Thankfully, it's set in 1957, so there will be no attempt to digitally mask Harrison Ford's natural aging process, twenty-seven years after the release of Raiders.
We can only hope a similar good sense will inform the rest of the movie. And if there's a single moment to match Elliot's bicycle silhouetted against the moon, or the Nazis' faces melting off when the Ark is opened, or Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler seeing the dinosaurs for the first time, or the beach landing on D-Day, it will have all been worthwhile.