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The Ark Knight Returns
SOME SPOILERS, DETAILS OF SCENES DESCRIBED
"There's always a space between, in popular songs and grade B movies " Dr. Benway speaking in The Naked Lunch by William Burroughs
A compelling adventure tale about a hero approaching his last days, past his prime and his time but nevertheless through trials finding his place in the world. Just as the previous movies of two decades ago mixed in many themes from films, serials, pulp novels and comics strips of the thirties and forties and matched them with real world events, so does this film contain real world reference and cultural themes matched with high-flying adventure, "the stuff that dreams are made of." The original movies highlighted how the seemingly trivial matinée heroes of early film were a young culture's clumsy but genuine mythical figures. With their superhuman abilities they conquered some of the apparent and some of the almost-subliminal fears of an America in its innocence. Since it is now 1957 for the aging Indiana Jones, later on the American scene, the themes of fifties culture atomic apocalyptic fear, television, the miraculous kitchen appliances of commercials, cold war communist paranoia, suburbs, the nuclear family, flying saucers, spacemen, rock and roll - all find their place in Jones' dreamlike cinematic landscape. He may not have a place here, as hauntingly illustrated in the now infamous nuclear blast site scene.
As befits heroic epic, especially one based on primitive storytelling forms, the human drama is all in bold strokes. It is the tests the hero faces that mirror our true struggles in life. Like in the other films, like the serials themselves, the plot is very simple, with a couple of objects being sought and possession of at least one of the objects reversed several times between the heroes and the villains. There is a chase, and this one is done very well. It is not done to outdo the previous movies' chase, nor is it a by rote retreading. It contains many clever moments as Jones and his party fight members of the Red Army only to come to a stop upon a giant hill full of red army ants, rendered in very lifelike CGI with maybe a 5% unreality gap. Since the scene as it plays out would have been impossible without CGI, the use of this technology that is barely out of the stage that animatronics were in circa the original King Kong, is eminently forgivable. For one of the first times I can remember, the characters seem to actually occupy physical space with the computer creations. The CGI will likely one day make this film look as dated as its influences do to us now, but this may actually give it more poignancy. We'll see. I really say that on behalf of those more critical of effects because for myself, if I am into a story, I really don't care. If I'm not into a story, effects don't make a difference one way or the other. In this case I was very into it. There is a moment of sublime irony as Cate Blanchett's Colonel Spalko, who elsewhere in the film, in true movie-Red form, expresses admiration for creatures with a hive mind, is almost done in by the ants acting as a group.
Direction and cinematography, strangely for a movie partly based on light entertainment, is the most mature and layered I have seen yet from Spielberg and his faithfuls. Many of the angles and the way they are lit evoke the feel of classic films without being direct rip-offs; in fact in comparison some parts of Raiders of the Lost Ark look almost embarrassingly derivative. But they were younger then. When you are young, you are enthusiastic to be like your heroes.
The key enjoyment here comes from star Harrison Ford, who put on his hat to once again evoke one of his heroic signature roles. Again this is more mature and individual, there are not the obvious nods to Bogart and Wayne of the earlier movies. He plays an older and wiser Professor Jones, who with time has become more pedantic, more rambling yet even more seasoned, more resourceful, and usually less excitable than in his younger years. The movie completes the picture of this character that is partly wish fulfillment and partly a flesh and blood human complete with some of the foibles and vulnerabilities of ourselves. Ford tackles it with gusto, throwing in his trademark references to reality that made characters like Han Solo seem so dimensional long ago. For instance, in the first scene he has been captured by the Russians and carried in the trunk of a car from somewhere in Mexico into Nevada. And so, for the entire opening scene, Jones' voice is weaker than it will be later, like a man who is very thirsty. And yes, it reminds us that he is older, even as the voice's growing power as the film develops shows how he is gathering his strength for what may be one last grand adventure. It is this sort of attention to detail that has helped Ford make a career of selling fantasies. It is a fantasy world with certain laws like our own world, the real world around us. Some laws can be broken; others are irrevocable such as the passage of time and its effects.