Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Throw me the idol!: 16 elusive movie objects of desire

Illustration for article titled Throw me the idol!: 16 elusive movie objects of desire

1. Gray's Sports Almanac, Back To The Future II (1989)

Objects don't come more pedestrian than the dull recitation of facts and figures comprising Gray's Sports Almanac—unless, of course, you have a time-traveling DeLorean, in which case it's a ticket to untold riches. Perpetually shortsighted when it comes to maintaining the space-time continuum, Marty McFly recognizes the chance to make his fortune with a few "sure thing" bets—an egregiously greedy plan, considering that his most recent tinkering with the fabric of time already bumped him up a couple of tax brackets—but he's shot down by the ever-conscientious Doc Brown, who once again warns the myopic Marty of the dire consequences inherent in toying with the past. Multigenerational bully Biff Tannen provides a more concrete illustration: He steals the almanac, the DeLorean, and Marty's plan, then returns to 1955 to give his teenage self the chance to rewrite his life. Never has so much hung in the balance over a mere collection of sports scores—except perhaps in a Martin Scorsese movie.

2. The Fountain Of Youth, The Fountain (2006)

Since his debut feature, Pi, about a mathematician's attempt to find a numerical formula for everything from patterns in the stock market to God's presence in the Torah, director Darren Aronofsky has been interested in impossible quests. In his madly ambitious studio fantasia The Fountain, Aronofsky follows mankind's desire for immortality throughout the ages, as seen in a scientist convinced that death is a disease that can be cured, and a tai-chi-practicing astronaut who floats around in space inside a bubble full of magic. Or something like that. But the third story, about a 16th-century Spanish conquistador, is inspired by Ponce De León's actual quest to find the Fountain Of Youth in what's now known as Florida, except here, the conquistador succeeds in finding the "Tree Of Life." Pierce it with a Mayan dagger, and you get the healthiest maple syrup in creation.


3. Treasure map, Treasure Island (1920, 1934, 1950, etc.)

With his first novel, Treasure Island, Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson almost single-handedly put together all of the major elements of the still-thriving pirate genre. (Except for their longstanding antipathy to ninjas.) And just as the story's swashbuckling sailors and parrot-bedecked scurvy dogs are spurred into action by the discovery of a secret map showing the location of long-lost buried pirate loot, the book itself was inspired by a map drawn by Stevenson's stepson. His creativity piqued, Stevenson elaborated grandly on the boy's initial watercolor painting with tantalizing place names like "Skeleton Island" and "Spyglass Hill," not to mention a chest of stolen gold—it's from this map that we get the phrase "X marks the spot." He eventually spent weeks spinning the tale into a full-fledged, much-adapted-to-film novel featuring the unforgettable one-legged, treacherous rogue Long John Silver. And with it, he sailed into literary history.

4. White Castle burgers, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle (2004)

It's said that one of marijuana's negative effects is that it robs a person of ambition. So when a couple of young eggheads—Indian medical student Kal Penn and Korean investment banker John Cho—smoke their weight in weed in Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, their life goals are downgraded significantly. Suddenly, a simple trip to square-mini-burger paradise becomes an epic journey fraught with perils, including bad directions, vicious animals, skinheads, a racist police officer, the Asian-American Students Association, and Neil Patrick Harris as a manic, horndog hitchhiker named Neil Patrick Harris. For anyone who's spent a lazy hour trying to motivate themselves to go get that bag of chips a few feet from the couch, this is a movie that understands how hard it can be.

5. A bike, The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985)

On the surface, Vittoria De Sica's neo-realist classic and Tim Burton's rollicking, cartoonish comedy seem to have little in common, but under the surface… well, they don't have much in common there, either. But they do share lead characters who believe a bike is the most important thing they own, and who are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to find it once it's been stolen. For a poor laborer and his son in post-war Rome, the bike represents their livelihood and survival; as they conduct a needle-in-a-haystack search for it, De Sica tours through a devastated city and into the hearts of fundamentally decent people forced into a shameful act. Pee-wee's beloved bicycle is a more tricked-out, one-of-a-kind creation, but finding it takes him on a circuitous journey where he survives run-ins with leather-clad biker toughs, an escaped convict, and the ghost of a trucker named Large Marge. All roads lead to The Alamo, in the basement.

6. The Mysterious Briefcase Of Doom, Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Pulp Fiction (1994)

Robert Aldrich's 1955 pulp masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly pushes the darkness and brutality of film noir and pulp fiction to surreal extremes. Big slab of beefcake Ralph Meeker stars as Mickey Spillane's iconic Mike Hammer, a tough-as-nails shamus chasing down a mysterious nuclear valise that just might bring about the end of the world. In the process, Aldrich gave the world the very first atomic detective and provided a haunting metaphor for the free-floating paranoia and apocalyptic danger of the Cold War. Thirty-nine years later, pop-culture magpie Quentin Tarantino "borrowed" the concept of a mysteriously glowing briefcase for 1994's Pulp Fiction, this time putting it in the loving care of a pair of philosophical, wisecracking hoods (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta) who inhabit the same hardboiled universe as Meeker's unsentimental gumshoe. In paying homage to his pulp predecessor, Tarantino once again embodies the old adage that the good borrow, while the great steal.

7. The Maltese Falcon, The Maltese Falcon (1941)

For his 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett constructed a labyrinthine plot of murder and deception in which all paths lead to a black statue of a bird. Filmed three times—most famously by John Huston with Humphrey Bogart as Hammett's iconic private eye Sam Spade—the story follows the pursuit of a priceless, long-lost, bejeweled bird later covered in enamel to hide its value. In the climactic scene of Huston's take, the bad guys get their coveted bird, only to find nothing of value beneath the black coating. All that in pursuit of a worthless trinket. Or maybe it was, in Bogart's famous closing lines, truly the stuff that dreams are made of.


8. 1964 Chevrolet Malibu, Repo Man (1984)

In the grungy world of Alex Cox's caustic cult classic Repo Man, products like beer and food come in generic white packages labeled with their contents in big black letters: "BEER." "FOOD (meat-flavored)." Which could be taken as an anti-consumerist, anti-merchandising message, or just an indication that nothing in the movie's grimy world is particularly special or significant—neither the products nor the worn-down people using them. But one item does stand out: the 1964 Chevy Malibu that all the film's repo men are trying to get their hands on, for the remarkable $20,000 bounty. The FBI wants it, too. Why? That's the point of the film, and the key to its bizarre, transcendent ending. But here's a hint: It's glowing, dangerous, and another clear reference to that nuclear briefcase in Kiss Me Deadly.

9. The Holy Grail, Excalibur (1981)

The Holy Grail isn't the original elusive object of desire, but it's undoubtedly the one that's dominated the Western imagination since the popularization of Arthurian legends began in the 12th century. It's been in countless films, but few played up its symbolic value to the degree of John Boorman's Carl Jung- and Golden Bough-informed Excalibur. The Grail quest comes relatively late in the film as Arthur lies sickened and sends his knights out on a desperate quest for this earthly token of Christ's time on Earth. Only the purest of them, Perceval (filling the role usually played by Galahad), makes it to the Grail and obtains it, only after realizing that the King and England are one, and when one is healed, the other will return to greatness. Cue blossoming flowers. Cue "Carmina Burana."

10. The Ark Of The Covenant, Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)

Though Raiders Of The Lost Ark opens with daredevil archaeologist Harrison Ford escaping an impossible series of traps to get his hands on a golden idol, the idol is only the first in a string of treasures that Ford and an assortment of Nazis and fortune-hunters hotly pursue. At the end of the trail: a legendary golden box which is said to contain the remnants of the original Ten Commandments. Those who possess it wield the power of God and shall smite all enemies. (Unless God doesn't want them to have it, in which case… It's face-meltin' time!) The ultimate fate of the ark provides Raiders' creepy ending: The U.S. government seizes the property from Ford, crates it up, and wheels into a warehouse full of secrets, effectively re-burying it in a bureaucracy that no action hero can overcome.

11. The Necronomicon, Army Of Darkness (1993)

Reluctant monster-slayer Bruce Campbell—and his Oldsmobile—get dropped through a time warp and land back in the 14th century, where Campbell is imprisoned. A priest advises him that he can return to his own time if he retrieves the ancient Book Of The Dead and beats back the encroaching hordes of demonic "Deadites." All he has to do is say three magic words: "Klaatu barada nikto." When he messes up the spell, supernatural mayhem ensues, so Campbell grabs The Necronomicon and mounts a defense against the armies of the undead, led by an evil version of himself. All of which only proves—as if the first two Evil Dead movies hadn't already—that maybe some books are better left unopened.

12. The "intercostal clavicle" of a brontosaurus, Bringing Up Baby (1938) The mild-mannered paleontologist played by Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby might just be able to extricate himself from the smothering attentions of flibbertigibbet socialite Katharine Hepburn, if only he could get his hands on the rare dinosaur bone that Hepburn's dog has stolen and buried. Over the course of one long outing in Connecticut, Grant ducks Hepburn's other pet—a leopard named Baby—and the attentions of the local authorities, in order to complete his brontosaurus skeleton and land a million-dollar grant for his museum. Now where did that dog bury that bone?

13. The treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948)

It's an old story: Poor, desperate men go searching for gold, and end up driven insane by all-consuming greed once the treasure is found. The definitive cinematic telling of this classic morality tale is unquestionably John Huston's masterful The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, where buried gold ends up being as fleeting as the wealth and status it represents to three destitute Americans (played by Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and Tim Holt). A parable about the dark side of capitalism, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre suggests that the pursuit of money ultimately leads to betrayal, hatred, and death. Worst of all, the riches you've attained end up scattered to the wind, like dirt or lost dreams.

14. The One Ring, The Lord Of The Rings trilogy (2001-2003)

For all their epic, larger-than-life stateliness, it's easy to forget that the Lord Of The Rings films are essentially one long (really long) chase movie, and what's being chased is the destructive, all-powerful Ring. But unlike most stories featuring an elusive object, the point of getting the Ring isn't to possess it—at least not for our hero Frodo—but to destroy it. Holding out against the persuasive powers of the Ring prove difficult, however. After finally making it to Mount Doom, the only place where the Ring can be annihilated, Frodo is overcome with a desire to keep it for himself. In the end, though, it's Gollum, the Ring's most committed pursuer, who ends up both winning and losing the great Ring sweepstakes.

15. The gold watch, Pulp Fiction (1994)

Sure, the mysterious glowing briefcase gets plenty of deserved attention in Pulp Fiction, but if Bruce Willis' cutie-pie French girlfriend hadn't forgotten his gold watch when packing for their escape, a good chunk of the film wouldn't exist. First there's the incredible backstory: Christopher Walken's monologue about the watch's history, from its purchase generations before to its notorious travels ("I hid this uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass two years") is one of the film's most memorable moments. And of course there's the major plot point: If the watch didn't mean so much to Willis, he never would have gone home to retrieve it, thus never going on his little "adventure" with Ving Rhames.

16. Declaration Of Independence, National Treasure (2004)

The Declaration Of Independence isn't all that interesting in and of itself—it's just some old piece of paper that constituted the backbone of American government. Sure, it's a heavily guarded historical artifact kept under thick glass at the National Archives in Washington DC, but really, all that security is just for show. No one would ever want to steal it… Unless, of course, it also happens to include a secret hidden treasure map only visible through Benjamin Franklin's bifocals. Which just so happens to be the plot of Jon Turteltaub's adventure movie National Treasure. Nicolas Cage and his unstoppable band of American-history buffs waste no time in stealing the Declaration Of Independence/map-to-the-most-overblown-treasure-in-the-world, and then spend the rest of the movie carrying it around in a special sling, and fighting to keep it out of the hands of evil people who are always interested in things like secret treasure maps.