Lost and Indiana Jones

I have been thinking about the relationship between the new Indiana Jones movie and the television show, Lost. The season finale of Lost connected the dots between the six survivors of a still unexplained airplane crash (which is at the origin of the show) and their 'exile' on a strange island that by the end of the show this season had disappeared into the ocean.

The six, who also happen to be the main characters, are to varying degrees suffering from a series of physical and psychological ailments as they struggle to survive in the 'real' world. They attribute all of this to the pain of being away from the island and to its magical qualities which were disrupted by their departure. In particular, Hurley has descended into a psychotic state. Jack has become a drug-addicted depressive and Sayeed has become an executioner as he takes vengeance on all those who might be associated with the death of his wife. (Warning, none of this makes sense if you have not been watching the show!!)

The island's powers seem to live inside Ben (who has also left through a magic portal frozen in ice underneath the island). He has become obsessed with killing the main antagonist and seemingly the agent of everyone's problems, a man by the name of Widmore (an all-powerful character drawn more from James Bond movies than a police drama or mystery show). Ironically, Widmore's daughter Penny has been searching for her lost lover for years, Desmond, who also happens to have landed on the unnamed magical island deep in the pacific as a result of a boating accident. (They do find each other, although that particular scene in the season finale is rather pathetic. )

If this sounds convoluted, it is. Part of the problem with Lost and the reason that its audience has shrunk, is the complexity of the plot and the continual way in which every story is extended into another story and so on. There is never any closure and there wasn't one at the end of this season as well. At the same time, it is the messiness of the narrative that makes it not only interesting, but a bit of experiment in television drama. The narrative is driven by the same elements that we have become so used to in both film and television early in the 21st century — evil that gets more powerful meets people of integrity who fight for truth and what is right. (See Heroes for another example of this, but there are many other shows as well.)

Lost experiments with all of this by sometimes inverting good and bad and by creating a deep ambivalence about why people act as they do irrespective of their negative or positive characteristics. Lost also experiments with the history of the characters in what can best be described as a psychoanalytic manner unveiling more and more about their past. Their personal history becomes a laboratory of human behaviour in which the audience plays researcher and analyst.

One of the key characteristics of Lost is the use of tunnels and portals and underground installations which are both mysterious and somehow full of technology. Lost endlessly explores Alice's hole in the ground both metaphorically and literally. The foundations of the island seem to be built on a series of basements that lead to other worlds. This is of course a central element in children's stories but has also become a defining element of many contemporary films. The portal in the Narnia series would be the most current example, but there are many others including Harry Potter and of course the many films that are now based on comic books.

The latest Indiana Jones film also centres on caves and underground installations within which there are artifacts that reveal some historical truth or connection to the present. Archeology meets anthropology and both connect to history and to adventure. The early part of the film is fascinating because it takes place at ground zero in Nevada where the first atomic bombs were tested in the 1950's. Further mention of Eugene McCarthy and the witch hunt for communists situates the film within a critical historical narrative (and is perhaps why it was so well received at Cannes). In addition, Indiana Jones brings ET into the narrative as Steven Speilberg and George Lucas play with their own work as well as that of other filmmakers. They generate a phantasmagoria of cinematic references that suffuses nearly every element of the film and all of this is made possible by a variety of portals which progressively reveal more and more about the causes of history in general and about the role of images in particular.

Mystery meets truth meets pseudo-science in a dance of questions about the unknown forces that really rule the world, from god-like spirits to angels. In Lost those forces are explained (somewhat) through the appearance and disappearance of the dead (like Clare and Jack's father) incarnated by a biblical character with the name of Jacob who is only visible to those with the power to see him. His messages are certainly understood by the key characters like Locke. For Indiana Jones the unknown forces are often old civilizations like the Mayan which are wrapped in riddles that can only be solved through a fight with evil or the accomplishment of some near impossible task or challenge. The film takes place in the 1950's so inevitably it is the Russians who represent evil. Cate Blanchett plays a horrible Soviet acolyte of Stalin's who is searching for absolute power. There are an abundant number of cliches, but Blanchett is simply channeling numerous characters in hundreds of films as opposed to simply being THE evil one. In this, both Lost and Indiana Jones are trying to be critical, even analytical but in both cases, the mysteries of history are really insoluble. This notion that we cannot understand why certain events happen is repeated so often that it almost becomes a mantra. The mantra reads like this: History and people's roles in history cannot be explained by rationality and in the end cannot be explained at all.

The world is wrapped in mystery because humans don't recognize how their understanding of reality is inherently distorted by forces which they cannot control. Human agency is both fragmentary and a figment of our collective imaginations. There will always be other powers greater than that of humans which will determine the outcome of events, their direction and impact. This deference to mysticism and spirituality and finally to religion is at the heart of the work of Lucas and has always been central to Speilberg's films. The startling similarity between the island in Lost disappearing as a round disk into the ocean and the appearance of a spaceship that it also disk-like in Indiana Jones is not an accident. The fact that both use portals in a play with magic realism is also not accidental.

Ironically, the world is a broken place because irrationality has taken hold and the only explanation both Lost and Indiana Jones offer is that the irrational is fundamental to the human psyche. All that is left to conquer, even examine, is the dream-like space of the unconscious manifested in the mutterings of Hurley and in the metaphoric resonances of dead languages. Coincidence, chance, sorcery and the accidental are at the heart of a dadaesque swirl of stories that ultimately produce protagonists and audiences without any control over their lives — a dire message in these very difficult times.