Last night the buttons on the remote control burned brightly in the deep December darkness, so we dialed up Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for ourselves and sat back to take in the spectacle of it all. We had that cozy feeling you get when your entertainment needs are modest and highly likely to be met, so we welcomed the big budget buffet of artifice and A-listers that was coming our way. We wanted the catacombs and crystal skulls. The Soviet agents and sardonic one liners. Cate Blanchett in an improbably stylish military jumpsuit.
As it turns out, we were not only disappointed but utterly un-transported by this film. We couldn't manage to suspend disbelief for even a single minute, despite being perfectly primed to do so. For me the deal-breaker happened within the first few seconds of the film, and I didn't even try to engage with it again after that. It was game over already, and all because of a single song.
Spielberg apparently aged his characters in "real time" for Crystal Skull, so when we meet up with them it's the year 1957. The film begins with some unidentified teenagers taking a joyride in a convertible. Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" is blaring from the car radio.
Spielberg uses the Elvis track in a very prominent way in this scene and does that thing where allows the music to sound as if it's coming from the car radio (source) for awhile, but then shifts and expands it to become the larger soundtrack sitting atop the whole scene. It's one of those road-tested directorial devices used to heighten mood. Reliable.
So, what's wrong with it? Well, "Hound Dog" (as in "you ain't nothin but a") is precisely the track you'd expect to be playing on a teeny boppers' radio in 1957, so as a music choice it's at best boring and at worst, deeply unimaginative. When "Hound Dog" was first released in the United States in 1956 it acted as an absolute lightening rod to the still nascent genre of rock, and it has remained in ultra-heavy, practically planetary rotation ever since, so it is—quite literally—the single most obvious choice Spielberg could have made for that scene, and a tip-off to the viewer that she's about to experience about a squillion other things she's experienced before.
(I think even a slightly less well known top-100 hit from 1956 like Little Richard's "Keep a Knockin" or "Matchbox" by Carl Perkins might have made me want to follow that car, but Presley? Hound Dog? Come on.)
Salon critic Andrew O'Heir observed that Crystal Skull contains an absolute barrage of 1950's tropes within the film's first few minutes: A-bombs, the Red Scare, Roswell, drag racing... it's completely fine that Spielberg really goes for that broad, comic book style so appropriate to the franchise, but with Crystal Skull he rockets over the fine line between icon and cliche so willingly that it's hard to stay engaged with the film even when that's your explicit goal.
As it turns out, I was so removed from the experience that it's already receded into a wash of bad Russian accents and Wild One allusions. It's too bad. Spielberg comes by his mainstream preferences honestly, but in a tale this grandiose you need a real foothold, and I just couldn't find one. It was all too slick.