When Disney rolled out National Treasure in 2004, America was riding high on post-September 11 patriotic fervor. George W. Bush had just been reelected, and some folks were gung-ho about preserving the Union and kicking terrorist butt. Three years later, National Treasure: Book of Secrets hit the multiplex in the wake of Dubya’s botched war and Hurricane Katrina response, but the sequel still made bank (despite reviews as meh as those that greeted the first movie). Whatever the political winds, a franchise was born—including a series of novelized prequels. Fifteen years on, have the times a’changed?
Yes and no. Disney+ expands the National Treasure universe to train up a younger generation of codebreakers and “treasure protectors,” but its face and politics are different. Swaggering alpha nerd Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) is nowhere to be seen—although his exploits have made him a semi-household name. Our hero for this YA-skewing, modestly scaled 10-part spinoff is twentyish Jess Valenzuela (Lisette Olivera), a DACA recipient whose Mexican-born mother died a year earlier. Jess’ mom, we learn in the pilot’s backstory (stylishly directed by Mira Nair), had to flee Mexico after her husband Rafael double-crossed the criminal fortune hunter Salazar and stole an Aztec relic that’s key to discovering Montezuma’s buried treasure and draped a unique pendant necklace on infant Jess….
Got a little lost toward the end there? No worries: Jess and her friends will repeat the details a few times, as will another treasure bandit—ice-cold crypto queen Billie Pearce (a blonde-bobbed Catherine Zeta-Jones)—who acknowledges Jess as a formidable opponent in the search for the hidden Aztec treasure. Folks familiar with the original film, note: co-creator couple Cormac and Marianne Wibberley have less talk about Freemason Founding Fathers in Edge of History, subbing in thoughts on colonialism and the resistance of women against Spanish conquistadors.
As far as plotting, Edge still follows a similar Indiana Jones-meets-Da Vinci Code playbook, but moves at a more kid-friendly pace than the (already sluggish) movies. Jess, wasting her prodigious puzzle-busting skills at a mini-storage facility, lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with Gen Z pals Tasha (Zuri Reed), Oren (Antonio Cipriano), and Ethan (Jordan Rodrigues). Jess is the smart, hard-working one who can’t endanger her Dreamer status; the rest are vaguely sketched as feisty (Tasha), dopey (Oren), and angsty (Ethan). Life is all weekend escape rooms and friends-to-lovers tropes until one day when Jess inspects an abandoned storage unit at work. The name on the account is Latin for “I am a ghost,” which immediately grabs our riddle-centric hero’s attention. Beneath the cobwebs Jess discovers a veteran’s folded burial flag, a silver hammer, a framed Eye of Providence, and other Masonic tchotchkes, all of which lead her to Harvey Keitel.
The veteran character actor reprises his role as FBI agent and closet Freemason Peter Sadusky, retired and suffering (so we are told) from dementia in his final years. One look at Jess’s sunburst necklace and Sadusky knows it’s fate—or an absurdly improbable, convoluted conspiracy—that she came to him. “That necklace represents an ancient oath to unbury the lost history of entire civilizations,” Keitel rasps. “If your father had that necklace, he was protecting the treasure. And so must you.” We’ve come a long way from Ben Gates’ outrageous capers—stealing the Declaration of Independence, kidnapping POTUS; now we’re defending the will of Indigenous people brutally exploited by Europeans.
Thanks to Jess’ (missing) father, the Freemasons acquired proof that centuries ago an underground network of Indigenous women hid Montezuma’s treasure from rapacious Spaniards. The women divided clues to its location into three relics—one each for the Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs. Something tells me by the end of the season (only four episodes were available for review), the filming locations will expand past the Louisiana state line.
This being a Disney+ product, the breezy youth vibe can grate on the nerves. Jess and Tasha prepare to approach Sadusky’s rock-musician grandson (Jake Austin Walker) at a bar where he strums a guitar. “This Liam guy is hot, and a girl’s got needs,” Tasha prattles away, playing matchmaker. “You’re doing Mr. Tattoo Singing Six-Pack a solid.” One suspects Urban Dictionary features heavily in the Wibberley Google search history, from whence they gleaned “old-school dap” “stanning,” and the non-postal sense of “shipping.”
After initial reluctance, Liam—estranged from his treasure-hunting father and grandfather—joins the gang. Jess tells Liam his grandfather entrusted her to find the treasure. “My dad died hunting this treasure,” Liam moodily muses. “Some people think he’s a failure. But maybe I’m supposed to finish what he started. That’s why you’re doing this, right? To finish what your dad started.” As in the movies, a parent-child bond supplies the emotional stakes. Liam and Jess don’t want to end up like their fathers—obsessed with clues, maps, and treasures—yet they can’t resist the romance of solving world-class mysteries. Still, the burn is slow; by the fourth episode you may care as much about Jess finding romance with Liam as Aztec booty.
Sweetly dignified with glimmers of humor, Olivera is an appealing lead, even if you wished she would develop some of the quirky swagger that helped Nic Cage pull off the foundational films. Cage appeared in the franchise as a fully formed hero; Edge of History tracks the education of his successor (the film star may guest in the second season). Justin Bartha cameos in the fourth episode as Riley Poole, Gates’ tech-savvy, often one-step-behind sidekick. He supplies some relief from the glib, Scooby Doo dynamic of the young cast. So does Zeta-Jones, who seems to be having fun on her days off from Wednesday. Despite her current, frozen-browed waxiness, the seasoned performer squeezes juice from a glam, jet-set baddie who purrs her threats and quotes Nelson Mandela over whiskey.
Compared to the mega-popular, F/X-laden MCU and Star Wars IP that Disney has been furiously recycling, the National Treasure universe is downright homey in scale. Its target audience is very specific (and apparently large): history buffs who also love conspiracies and antiques that click and whirr when you get the right combination. In our present moment—after we survived a President who would eagerly demolish the Lincoln Memorial in search of ingots—the blurring of history and myth can be cute on TV, even if it gives one nightmares in the real world.
National Treasure: Edge Of History premieres December 14 on Disney+.