National Treasure: Edge of History complicates the Nicolas Cage films to thrilling results
Justin Bartha and Lisette Olivera in National Treasure: Edge of History. (Photo: Disney+)
When rebooting a beloved piece of IP, one must walk a tightrope between recycling old tropes and reframing them for a new audience. While some expansions fail to strike the right balance between old and new (Criminal Minds: Evolution chief among them), others, such as AMCs Interview with the vampiresucceeds by subtitling existing projects to text, a decision that expands the show’s world while staying true to the characters.
Disney+ drama National Treasure: Edge of History is the latest of these revivals, and in one of the year’s most delightful surprises it lands right on Interview with the vampire end of the spectrum. The spinoff series maintains the light-hearted, campy tone of Nicolas Cage’s film series, which followed a group of explorers as they search for lost treasures of great historical significance. However, it ups the ante by introducing a new lead treasure hunter with a very different relationship to American history, spinning a far-reaching mystery yarn that raises questions about whose stories are being told and who are left on the margins.
With its PG rating and minimal violence, the 2004s National tax was always aimed at a younger audience, but Edge of History makes it explicit by replacing Cage’s Benjamin Gates with 22-year-old Jess Valenzuela (Lisette Olivera). Jess, a resourceful DREAMer grieving her mother’s recent death, hopes to one day join the FBI’s cryptanalysis division, but in the meantime, she’s content to outsmart escape rooms and solve little puzzles with her friends. Little does Jess know that her long-deceased father, a man she always believed to be a “thief and a ruthless good-for-nothing,” was one of only a few people tasked with protecting an ancient Pan-American treasure that was hidden by indigenous women when Europeans colonized the Aztec Empire.
Soon enough, a mysterious stranger gives Jess a clue to the treasure, causing her to rethink everything she’s been told about her father. Putting her skills to the test, she ventures with her friends to find answers in her hometown of Baton Rouge. But their efforts are quickly derailed when they are caught by Billie Pearce (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a billionaire black market antiques expert willing to do whatever it takes for a big payday. Zeta-Jones plays up Billie’s bad side, and she carries herself with the uncanny swagger, not to mention the wardrobe, of a woman who has done unspeakable things to acquire wealth. (“I didn’t expect someone who looks like they walked out of town in Big little liessays Jess when they first meet face to face).
Still, Billie is reluctantly impressed by Jess, who Olivera gives a Disney-fied spunk, and by the end of the first episode, they begin a race to the treasure that requires viewers to completely suspend their disbelief. Everything has to go just right for Jess to find the first piece of the puzzle, located in a place that would almost certainly have been checked in the last 200 years. The series even includes a few magical flourishes to reinforce that Jess is on the right track, like when the stars carved into the altar at a Masonic lodge glow beneath her fingertips.
But what is National tax if not proof that fun can be had by fudging the line between fact and fiction? The franchise’s best moments were also its most ridiculous, like the lemon scene with the Declaration of Independence or the crew dumping their water bottles to find the entrance to a lost city of gold. The series – created by Cormac and Marianne Wibberley, co-writers of the original film and its 2007 sequel – similarly embraces theatricality. Episode 3, “Graceland Gambit,” includes a sequence that feels like a callback to Ben Gates’ National Archives heist, but takes place in Elvis Presley’s home in Memphis; the following episode, “Charlotte,” sees Jess and Riley Poole (franchise alum Justin Bartha), Ben’s right-hand man, puzzle their way out of a deadly trap.
In these episodes, and throughout the season, the Wibberleys create seemingly insurmountable challenges for Jess and her friends to overcome, only to reveal an escape hatch at the last minute. Usually, these 11th-hour savings would limit viewers’ investment in the characters (why does their journey matter if we know they’re going to be okay in the end?), but Jess’ status as a DREAMer proves to be Edge of Historyhis secret weapon. Finding the treasure requires a certain amount of criminal behavior, what with all the burglaries, internet hacking and fraud, and if Jess is caught at any point, she’ll likely be deported to Mexico. This isn’t something Ben Gates has to think about, but it affects every decision Jess makes. When she chooses to continue her search, she does so fully aware of the risks, creating an extra layer of tension that simmers beneath the treasure hunt plot.
Jess’s identity also becomes an interesting wrinkle in a franchise that previously focused on white male figures in American history. Unlike Cage’s character, who revered the Founding Fathers, Jess approaches the story with a healthy dose of scorn and skepticism: She is particularly frustrated that she cannot apply to the FBI until she is a naturalized citizen, a fact she finds laughable, given that ” Texas used to be Mexico.” Even though she has heavy dialogue, Olivera shines in these sassy moments.
Edge of HistoryIts greatest strength is its commitment to complicating the narratives we’ve been told for centuries. The legend of the treasure hinges on a reassessment of the woman known as La Malinche, who was forced to act as an intermediary for the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. La Malinche is a complex figure — she’s considered both a traitor and a victim, depending on who you ask — but the show adds another interpretation to the mix, suggesting she was a “master spy” who used her position in Cortés’ camp to protect the Aztecs’ most valuable objects.
Whether this is true or not, Edge of History begins from the perspective that La Malinche’s bravery, and that of generations of indigenous women who followed, has been conveniently forgotten by white society. As Jess and her friends follow the clues, they realize that these unsung heroes hold the key to the treasure, and along the way, they begin to chart a new story that finally celebrates the contributions of these non-white and Native figures.
It’s a credit to the Wibberleys and executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer who National Treasure: Edge of Historythe lessons in history writing never feel preachy or, worse, boring. Instead, they’re a natural extension of Jess’ identity and point of view, one that adds another layer to a franchise once preoccupied with white, male heroes. History may have been written by the conquerors, but the Disney+ series aims to reclaim some of the spoils, to exciting results.
National Treasure: Edge of History premieres Wednesday, December 14 on Disney+.
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Claire Spellberg Lustig is a senior editor at Primetimer and fellow at The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.