Indiana Jones and the Fridge of Nuclear Doom

The newest Indiana Jones movie Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is generating a lot of derision for an early scene in which Jones finds himself in a mock-up of a 1950s subdivision populated with mannequins. He quickly realizes that this is a nuclear test site, and as a countdown echoes over a loudspeaker he seeks the only refuge he can: a refrigerator that turns out to be lined in lead. The blast hurls the fridge what appears to be several kilometers across the desert, where it crashes into the sizzling sand and tumbles repeatedly before coming to a steaming stop in front of a (CGI) gopher. Jones pushes the door open, and walks away with no apparent injury, watching as an enormous mushroom cloud rolls into the sky.

The scene is admittedly spectacular, and in its sunny evocation of all the requisite 50s suburban stereotypes in the shadow of a nuclear bomb tower (a mannequin family is seen watching Howdy Doody), rather creepy.

But Indy' survival of the nuclear blast has so strained the audience's otherwise willing suspension of disbelief that it has already generated a new buzz-phrase -- "Nuke the Fridge" as a successor to "Jump the Shark" -- meaning, that moment when a film series has gotten so ridiculous that it marks a new low in quality.

To show just how rapidly our culture can gorge on itself, the phrase has, in two short weeks, taken on a life of its own. Nuke the Fridge has its own website and FaceBook Page. There are also a number of creative YouTube videos mocking the sequence.

I too was annoyed by the scene, but not just for its extreme unbelievability. It marks a new low in American cinema for its disturbingly casual use of nuclear weapons as a narrative device.

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have turned the most horrifying technology ever devised and made it into a minor plot juncture, as if it were just another fight scene. What is worse though, is that the set-up of the scene is so horrifying, so realistic and apocalyptic in its execution that its corny, jokey denouement (the aforementioned gopher stares at Indy and then jumps back into its hole) creates a jarring psychological rupture in the mind of the viewer.

I personally found the cognitive dissonance of the scene very disturbing, and it affected my experience of the rest of the film, which seemed akin to Alfred Hitchcock's -- very purposive -- early set up of Vertigo, in which Jimmy Stewart's character is suspended off a building with no hope of rescue, so that all subsequent action in the movie, too, is 'suspended' over an abyss.

In this case, I doubt very much that this was the intention. But intended or not, the "nuke the fridge" scene suggests a more serious psychological consequence for the viewer, owing not only to the dissonance it evokes, but to the particular juncture in history when this film was released.

The rhetoric coming from the governments of the United States and Israel threatening Iran with attack is getting more frequent and more bellicose. Whether through the direct use of nuclear weapons on Iran's nuclear facilities, or simply through the destruction of such facilities by "conventional" means, we are probably closer to seeing a nuclear war than at any time since the end of the Soviet Union. It has become politically mainstream to threaten Iran with destruction (John McCain went so far as to sing about it) and none of the major political candidates running for U.S. president have stated that nuclear weapons are 'off the table.'

So to my mind Spielberg's and Lucas' narrative use of the Bomb is rather tone-deaf. While Crystal Skull isn't without its political commentary (it makes Indy the subject of a McCarthy-esque witch-hunt and has a character mutter, "I don't recognize this country anymore"), its attempt to bring the series into the 1950s fails, chiefly because of this sequence.

In the 1950s, the specter of nuclear destruction was so recent, so possible and so widely feared that it could not be treated this casually at the movies. In fact, a filmed depiction of nuclear destruction this realistic (minus the fridge, of course) would probably have panicked an audience in 1957 and retained a chilling reputation for decades. Yet 50 years on, it's little more than an inconvenience for Indiana Jones.

While nobody is going to be going out to buy lead-lined refrigerators after seeing the movie, I do worry that, like the actual nuclear tests of the 1950s, Crystal Skull will serve to desensitize audiences to nuclear war, normalizing atomic destruction at an historical moment when we should be most aroused against it.

Michael Dudley is a Research Associate at the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg. He teaches city history, environmental psychology and urban sustainability.


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