The passage that opens this piece may provide some illumination, here. In The Jet-Man, Barthes analyzes the emerging public fascination with jet pilots, concluding that their mythos provides a sort of public catharsis for humankind’s desire to surpass nature. Not merely to overcome it, mind you, but through the application of “our marvelous new technologies,” to surpass it. In so doing, the jet pilot transcends the physical realm and ceases to be merely human: he defies physics in simple repose. Such TechnoPromethean gibberish is, of course, an exercise in grandiose hubris that the Nuked ‘Fridge sequence parallels two-fold. First is the bona fide hubris that motivated the real-life nuclear arms race: man had tapped into a force he was not emotionally ready to wield. Second is the nondiagetic hubris the motivated Indy’s improbable escape: here is written a scene in which, through the proper application of technology (in this case, refrigeration technology) a man releases himself from the confines of the physical world, and transcends to a realm where the most dire of threats can be circumvented in ease.
I argue that the difficulty we have in swallowing the ‘Fridge-Nuking sequence is that each of these elements–humankind’s (specifically, America’s) wielding of the Ultimate Weapon, and Indy’s passive transcendance of physics–is completely disconnected from the rest of the Indiana Jones mythos. In part, the original trilogy resonates with so many because it speaks to a time that we nostalgically perceive as simpler and more innocent. Most moviegoers simply cannot gloss over the Cold War and the threat of global nuclear annihilation with the same degree of wistful longing. Furthermore, these films touch so many because of the uniquely satisfying character of Jones himself. Indy’s an odd mix of everyman and cartoon superhero, a character we’d like to project ourselves upon, and one that we enjoy gently stretching the realm of plausibility. Our credulity of his impossible acts is in part the sort that allows us to believe Frodo and Sam can destroy the One Ring–in that we wish we too could show such pluck and character–and in part the sort that allows to to believe that Wiley Coyote can continue running off of a cliff-face without falling–in that it’s funny to watch a character play around with the laws of physics, when it’s been established that the laws of physics are free to be played with.
But, as many of us understand, the laws of nuclear physics are not free to be played with.
I suspect that Lucas et al intended this sequence to fall within the pantheon of whimsical scrapes akin to the famous boulder chase in Raiders, or the life-raft escape in Temple. And yet, while those sequences employ a cartoonish defiance of natural laws to achieve a comedic effect, the ‘Fridge-Nuking sequence toys with too grave a threat to permit lighthearted comedy. (Though black comedy’s definitely fair game). Rather than avoiding death by luck and pluck, our dear Indy instead seems unwittingly thrust into an inappropriate time, equipped with inadequate tools, like some kind of sad, unintentional Quixote.