Discover more from Carl Beijer
Indiana Jones and the Oedipus Complex of Doom
American culture, thoroughly dominated by Boomers, has developed a disturbing relationship with younger generations.
Fifteen years ago, you couldn’t watch an episode of Monday Night RAW without getting seeing a commercial for incontinence medication. The contrast was striking. One moment, you were watching young athletes at levels of fitness that only a tiny subfraction of the world will ever attain, and they were performing absolutely astonishing gymnastics and enduring a horrifying degree of pain with no difficulty whatsoever. The next, an aging boomer hobbled onto the screen, took a pill, and found himself on the dance floor of some kind of club, gently dipping his partner. “My urinary incontinence is gone!” he said. “Sixty really is the new twenty.”
I couldn’t help think of that commercial yesterday while watching Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. As an Indiana Jones movie, it succeeds perfectly: it has the mid-century exotic aesthetic, the historical touchstones, the character archetypes, the clever action set-pieces, the understated wit, and the earnest modernist romanticism of the original three movies (and to a lesser extent the fourth that followed in 2008). But what it wants to be is an Indiana Jones movie from forty years ago, and here it cannot help but fail.
Dial, to be fair, is well aware that its star is eighty years old. Indy has retired, he is haunted by a long past, and his face tells the same story every single time the adventure revs up: “I’m too old for this crap.” But the film’s last scene — a playful shot where his hat, hung up on a laundry line, is swiped off by his hand at the very last moment — gives us the film’s second subtext: “…or am I?” This is a film by Boomers and for Boomers, saturated with anxiety about Boomer problems (retirement, obsolescence, infirmity, regret, impending death), but still leaning on the same hope: that
40 60 80 is the new 20.
It is also to Dial’s credit that it mostly avoids the kind of fan service nostalgia that fuels most other sequels. Harrison Ford’s recent sequel, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, was often just an endless parade of returning characters from the original trilogy; and to paraphrase Homer Simpson, whenever they weren’t on the screen, the other characters simply asked “Where’s Han Solo?” Even the marketing seemed more interested in the originals than the movie it was promoting: one teaser has Rey asking about “the old stories,” and in Ford’s big reveal he declares that “it’s true, all of it.”
Dial has its share of cameos, but they aren’t the focus of the film; this is first and foremost a movie about Jones refusing to act his age as he searches for the Dial of Destiny. Force always looks backwards because it wants to; Dial looks backwards because it has to. It no longer has the luxury of youth, of living in the present and for the future, of writing the story of Indiana Jones on a blank sheet of paper. It can’t always find new places to explore because Indy has already travelled through most of the world; in fact, some of the film’s humor comes from him forgetting places he has already been to (see: “I know Tangier” during one the film’s chase scenes, and just before it becomes obvious that he does not actually remember the streets of Tangier).
Perhaps most conspicuously, Jones can’t even find a new love interest. Romance with a new woman met on his adventures is central to Raiders of the Lost Ark (Marion), The Temple of Doom (Willie), and The Last Crusade (Elsa); but that time of his life is over now, and he has since married and divorced Marion, who is offscreen for most of the movie. In her place the new young, attractive female lead — Helena Shaw, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge — is repeatedly sexualized as she eyes various men around her. And so, quite unintentionally, a new Oedipal tension emerges in the film: she isn’t going to fall in love with Indiana Jones, her godfather…right? Surely these older men in Hollywood, telling a story about how maybe their life isn’t over and they can still do all the things they could do when they were young, aren’t going to pair the very single and lonely Jones with a woman less than half his age…right?
Thankfully, Indy returns to Marion; but the memory of his past with other women imposes a rotten chemistry on his relationship with Helena. It’s the problem with a film where old people want to feel young and where young people feel oddly out of place. Shaunette Renée Wilson has received critical praise for her performance as the first black woman in the Jones franchise; but watching her give orders to 57-year-old Mads Mikkelsen as his CIA handler, her age as one of the film’s youngest characters (33) stood out as much as anything. Most young people who see this film will have worked under a black woman at one point or another; but how many of them will have ever bossed around someone in their late fifties? And the age reversal ends up having a real impact on the drama; the magnitude of Mikkelson’s eventual betrayal is diminished by the seeming ambiguity over whether Wilson really is his boss.
Dial is the product of an America that is dominated, politically and economically, by a ruling class that is rapidly aging. Some socialists are loathe to acknowledge the generational inflection of power in our world, as if it is somehow at odds with class analysis; but capitalism is a historical process, and as it develops the consequences for different generations will vary. In the United States, the story barely needs to be told: our country experienced a period of rapid capital accumulation in the wake of the second world war. People who became rich in that era naturally worked to entrench their class position against everyone else: a pool of workers that has become younger with every passing year. This dynamic, along with America’s diminishing position in the global economy and the expansion of inequality, has left us with an aging Congress, an aging oligarchy, and an aging class of consumers with significant disposable income, and a culture industry built to keep them rich and entertained.
When Harrison Ford was the age that Phoebe Waller-Bridge is today, he was starring in Temple of Doom. Today he is still playing Indiana Jones; his son, of course, is dead. Perversely, meanwhile, Waller-Bridge is consigned to a supporting role that tempts young audiences to ask “will they or won’t they” — and answer, for the love of god, no.
Carl Beijer is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.