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Indiana Jones and the Migration Towards Science Fiction

It’s been my longstanding opinion that the original Indiana Jones movies do not fall under the genre heading of science fiction, despite the following facts:

1. Archeology is indeed a science; a “soft” science, to be sure, but a science nonetheless.
2. The films frequently included supernatural occurrences like demonic apparitions and magic rocks.
3. Every known scifi news site in existence welcomed the films into their nerd masses by including them in their news coverage.

So why don’t I consider the original Indiana Jones trilogy to be scifi?

The archeology argument makes a convenient crutch for purists, but the films aren’t really about archeology. About the closest they’ve come to it is when Indy brushes sand off the map room floor in Raiders of the Lost Ark. “Ah,” you say, “but surely all that supernatural mumbo-jumbo with the Lost Ark spirits and the eternal life properties of the Holy Grail in The Last Crusade — not to mention the magic rocks in The Temple of Doom — surely they are proof positive that this is science fiction?” To which I reply: “Pfft!” Since these elements are never explained by anything close to plausible science, they can only be described as fantasy. And as to why scifi news sites tend to include Indy in their coverage, I submit a mathematical tautology of the Internet: Popularity = $.

Indiana Jones is first and foremost an adventure vehicle. It’s about solving mysteries, avoiding the bad guys and learning about the past. It’s about derring-do, narrow escapes and hidden treasure. Science fiction can have these things, sure, but that’s not what makes it science fiction. Scifi is ultimately about sense of wonder through scientific extrapolations and applications. But all that changes with the latest film: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which not only wades in science fictional waters, it dives headfirst into its pool of tropes.

This time around the bad guys are Russian Communists — this is 1957, after all — and they are hell-bent on pursuing paranormal research. (Insert X-Files whistle-theme here.) There are even occasional scenes that support the existence of the paranormal sprinkled throughout the movie. Soviet agent Irina Spalko, for example, claims to have mind-reading powers. She also forces Indy to locate the remains of an extraterrestrial being, which is hidden inside the military warehouse that we saw at the memorable end of Raiders. The ultimate mission of Spalko, though, has more to do with national pride than personal gain. She wishes to acquire a mind weapon that would allow the Russians to rule the world through psychic warfare.

Extraterrestrials and psychic warfare? Now we’re talking science fiction.

With these elements, the Indiana Jones franchise has crossed the sometimes-blurry boundary between fantasy and science fiction. The original trilogy films were just scifi wannabes; the new film is a card-carrying member. But do the tropes hold up?

The titular crystal skull is the key to the movie’s inclusion of psychic powers and once the skull is found, it does seem to harbor some sort of supernatural hold on whoever meets its Lucite eye sockets. This isn’t the magic rock of Temple or the immortality cup of Crusade: This is a full-fledged supernatural phenomenon by virtue of the Soviets’ pursuit for world domination through its paranormal powers. The skull is therefore not only a scientific artifact; it also becomes the embodiment of the hopes and dreams of the fanboys of yesteryear who claimed that Indiana Jones was scifi. And without giving too much away about the last half hour of the film, I’ll just say: The ending is overtly science fictional – undeniably so, even with my scifi skepticism set to Kill.

To those who wished for this to be the case, rest easy. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is indeed a scifi movie. A mainstream scifi movie, but a scifi movie nonetheless. Welcome to the club, Indy.

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