Extended Thoughts on ‘National Treasure’ and ‘National Treasure: Book of Secrets’

National Treasure

Directed by Jon Turteltaub

Written by Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberley, and Marianne Wibberley

Starring Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Sean Bean, Jon Voight

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Directed by Jon Turteltaub

Written by Cormac Wibberley and Marianne Wibberley

Starring Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Ed Harris, Jon Voight, Helen Mirren

Being a spectator only allows us so many pleasures. It’s far from uncommon for people to watch something happen, watch someone do something as opposed to taking part. I’m not referring to movies or TV, I’m talking here about less passive activities. When we watch sporting events, on TV or in person, depending on the sport, it can be either thrilling or boring. Typically, it’s personal preference. Though it’s arguably very stereotypical to say so, golf is (to me) massively boring. I’ve mostly only seen golf highlights on TV, but I’ve also spent time on a golf course and was almost as dulled into submission. (Because I had to walk around the course, I can say I wasn’t as bored as I would’ve been if I’d watched the game on TV. But that’s a small distinction.) But if I watch a baseball game, I find it exciting. (Feel free to substitute something more action-heavy, like football, here.)

We’re all spectators at one point or another, and we’re all used to that feeling in certain contexts. But weirdly, movies are not a spectator sport. We’re not watching a movie being made, we’re watching the end product. As such, the audience needs to be or feel involved in what’s happening on screen. Most movies don’t fully make their audiences immersed in the proceedings; sometimes, a movie goes halfway, but loses people after a questionable plot point or action sequence. In the case of the two National Treasure movies, both of which were successful (not massively so, but solidly profitable) when they were released in 2004 and 2007, the problem is simple: it’s like watching a video game.

I don’t mean this in the way you might think. These days, when a review singles out a film for being reminiscent of a video game, they’re referring to the action either looking unreal or feeling so implausible to take place in any real world. A great/awful example is the fight sequence in The Matrix Reloaded where Keanu Reeves, as Neo, fights off an unending number of Agent Smiths, who are regenerating like the heads of a hydra. The concept of this sequence is pretty solid, but oh my, does it look fake. Fake, fake, fake. Watching this sequence, even in theaters ,was like watching a demo from a video game of the movie.

But that’s not what I mean, regarding National Treasure and National Treasure: Book of Secrets. No, what I mean that I had the same problem as I had when I watched The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. (OK, I’ll be honest: I had many, many problems in watching both of those films, chief among them an inability to keep me so engaged as to stay awake.) These films feature a globe-trotting, decent protagonist with a questionable haircut solving puzzles to crack some code. Sometimes, cracking the code leads to treasures, sometimes it leads to shocking secrets that could CHANGE the WORLD. (Sometimes both!) The problem is not that the filmmakers—Jon Turteltaub for the National Treasure films, Ron Howard for the Long-haired Tom Hanks films—don’t attempt to make puzzle-solving sequences look kind of fun. The problem is that we aren’t the ones solving the puzzles.

And this isn’t something like when you watch Wheel of Fortune (Maybe you don’t or this doesn’t apply, but just play along), shouting at the screen as a contestant struggles to come up with the answer to a long phrase. We don’t have the same clues that the characters do, so instead of feeling invested in solving a puzzle, it’s like watching someone else play a video game. I don’t care if it’s a racing game, a shooting game, a combat game, or something in between. There’s nothing you can do to get as invested in what’s going on as you would be if you were playing the game itself. So it goes with the National Treasure movies, where we watch a fairly sedate Nicolas Cage (there’s one scene in the second film at Buckingham Palace where he’s sufficiently bonkers) and other bland performers solve puzzles we can’t ever begin to figure out.

I’m aware that I may be in a minority about these films. (Boy, am I not getting tired of typing that phrase or something close to it. Not at all.) As I said, the two National Treasure movies did pretty solidly at the box office. As family-friendly entertainment, they’re…you know, OK. The problem is that these movies, to me, seem like another very big attempt from Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer to make a massive franchise from nothing, in the same way that Bruckheimer was basically able to turn Johnny Depp into one of the biggest, most popular movie stars on the planet thanks to a movie based on a theme-park ride. (At least there, something existed before the movie.) But what the National Treasure series is missing is a Johnny Depp-style lightning rod.

Yes, I know, Nicolas Cage can be, in the right movie or role, gonzo and insane and unforgettable. (Whether he’s unforgettable in a good way…well, your mileage may vary.) But he’s fairly neutered as Benjamin Thomas Gates, a treasure hunter who’s really a modern-day Indiana Jones. This is, I think, one of the other problems with the series. Too many movies that Nicolas Cage stars in these days—the ones he has to for tax purposes included—feel like he basically was lying around one day, thinking, “I want to be Indiana Jones.” And here we are, talking about the National Treasure movies. “I want to be a superhero.” Thus, Ghost Rider. And so on. Just because someone wants to be Indiana Jones or a superhero or a wizard (see The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, about which…oh, I cannot wait to discuss on the show) doesn’t mean they should be any of those things, or that they can believably portray them.

Can Nicolas Cage portray a bland, leading-man type in an action movie? Sure. But these movies, especially, desperately need a spark of life. Even when the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies got bloated and overlong, there was some ingenuity thanks not only to Depp’s then-singular and now-somewhat-old-hat performance, but to the visual flair that Gore Verbinski brought to the story. Verbinski isn’t a lifetime-best director, but as weird as, say, Captain Jack Sparrow interacting with crabs that look like white rocks is…it’s not something you’ve seen in lots of other action movies. Cage can be strange, but Turteltaub isn’t a very stylish or singular director. He belongs to the journeyman camp of directors, those who make a lot of moderately successful films (and Turteltaub, until The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, made a lot of those films for the Walt Disney Company) without any discernible style.

What I kept thinking of as I watched these movies—and what I thought of them the first time around—were procedural television shows, predominantly the ones on CBS. (Being fair, this applies for any procedural, not just those on the Tiffany network.) Each of the characters in these movies, after having their single character trait established, act in very specific ways, bringing the stories to a natural, happy ending. There aren’t any surprises here.

Take, for example, the very nature of suspense in mainstream blockbusters, such as the Bruckheimer-produced Disney films. Captain Jack Sparrow doesn’t die. We can be led to think he may (as at the end of the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie), but we know he’s not really dead. When he’s eaten whole by the Kraken in the climax of that film, it’s perhaps a bit shocking, but also a very blatant attempt on Disney’s part to…let’s say, pay homage to Han Solo’s story in The Empire Strikes Back. (I’ll say “pay homage to” because otherwise, we’re talking about a rip-off, and that would be just plain crazy.) Either way, it’s not an issue of us actually thinking we’ll never see this massively popular character again. What matters is if the filmmakers make us forget the logical conclusion that Johnny Depp wouldn’t be killed off.

There is never a point in either National Treasure movie where we’re held in actual, legitimate suspense about the fates of any of the main characters. One memorable scene in the second film—I define it as “memorable” here not because it’s some classic moment, but because I distinctly remember it being used often in the marketing campaign as an example of a scene that’s meant to be both tense and funny—has Gates sticking his hand into a crevice between two rocks to get closer to the treasure within. His mother, played by Helen Mirren (of course, she’s wasted in the role), warns him that doing so could be dangerous. He does so anyway, but then screams in fear and pain. Everyone around him does, too, worried that his mother’s concerns were true. But then, Gates laughs it off, showing that he was just pulling a prank. This joke is a minor exhibit of the films’ lack of tension. Hey, maybe, the crevice in those rocks is dangerous, and sticking your hand in might be a bad idea. Instead, the writers worry only about moving the characters from one spot to another.

In short, both National Treasure movies hit the same tired old beats almost entirely. I don’t know what it was about the films that drew out so many people. Maybe it was the “Well, I want to go to the movies, and I don’t care what I see, just something” mentality that still dominates some consumers’ minds. Maybe people liked the concept; relative to at least the second film, the puzzle-based nature may have appealed to fans of Dan Brown’s popular Da Vinci Code books. But I think the familiarity helps out. People aren’t, I think, against being challenged by cinema automatically During the holidays, though, it’s much easier to imagine people wanting to let their minds wander and just have fun, or something closely resembling such enjoyment. National Treasure and National Treasure: Book of Secrets look like they should be fun. I just wish they actually were.

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By Josh Spiegel

Josh Spiegel contributes to Sound on Sight as a podcaster, its chief film critic, and editor of the Film section. (And that's just in his free time.) He started up the all-encompassing Disney film podcast Mousterpiece Cinema in June of 2011, and joined Sound on Sight officially in January of 2012. He joined the ranks of the Sound on Sight flagship podcast in early 2013. He's also a member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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