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Indiana Jones And The Nineteen-Year Hiatus

May 28th, 2008

Vic and I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on Monday afternoon. When it was over, Vic declared that while George Lucas had not repaid any of what she feels he owes her, neither did he owe her any more because of it. That’s high praise from her!

My own feelings are mixed. It’s certainly enjoyable, and no one involved embarrasses themselves. It’s not Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s also not The Phantom Menace. I’d say that it’s roughly comparable to the other two Indy flicks. But it wasn’t worth the 19-year wait.

My belief–and I know that Vic will back me on this–is that the biggest obstacle Indiana Jones faces is a power-tripping George Lucas. While it was hard enough syncing up the work schedules of Lucas, Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg, it’s been widely reported that the main reason it took so long to make another Indy installment is George’s stubborn insistence that the film had to revolve around the eponymous crystal skull.

Indeed, one big problem with the film is that Lucas thinks we care about the damned skull. (He also thinks that Raiders worked so well because viewers were invested in the Ark of the Covenant. He’s wrong.) Whereas the entire backstory of the Ark was covered in a single scene, we get a ton of exposition about the history and properties of the Crystal Skulls. George, we got that it was about aliens the moment we arrived in Area 51. And it really doesn’t matter: the point of a “MacGuffin,” per Alfred Hitchcock, is that it really has no point beyond motivating a story’s characters.

Set in 1957, Skull wisely takes Harrison Ford’s advanced age into account. And I give them credit for not trying to make him or costar Karen Allen (reprising her Raiders role in a welcome development) appear unnaturally younger.

Lucas was said to believe that Skull should’ve been inspired more by ’50s sci-fi films than ’40s serials, as was the case with the earlier Indy chapters. If so, he blew it. While there are some obvious nods to the decade–the biggest being the striking image of Indiana standing on a rise with an atomic explosion looming in the background–it’s still more Republic Pictures than 20th Century Fox. That’s because it’s trying so hard to recapture the earlier Indy films, especially Raiders. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it’s just that the familiar tropes–truck chases, trap-laded tombs and creepy crawlies–have nothing to do with flying saucer flicks.

Familiarity is both a blessing and a curse here. It’s fun to catch the little winks to the audience, such as the inevitable appearance of the Lost Ark in the midst of the Area 51 warehouse, unseen by all except the audience. Still, a big part of what made Raiders work was surprise, and my familiarity with the previous films’ pacing meant that I could predict, down to the second, each occurance of a gun-wielding villain dropping “unexpectedly” into the frame. This predictable unpredictability continued, as in the scene in which Indy and company faced a series of three waterfalls; the little kid behind me in the theater (accurately) declared “the third one’s gonna be huge.” When the eight-year-olds can tell what’s gonna happen before it does, it’s time to change up your pitch.

Okay, enough negativity. Look, it’s a fun film. While there are some slow sections, there’s plenty of humor and action. The interplay between Ford and Allen is enjoyable, and I’m glad that the story devoted a fair amount of attention to their relationship.

Shia LaBeouf is fine as Indy’s sidekick/son (what, did I give it away?), but Lucas is smoking crack if he thinks I’m signing on for “The Adventures of Mutt Williams.” Nothing wrong with the actor or the character, it’s just that Mutt’s not a headliner. If there’s to be a further continuation of the series, I’d prefer to see the filmmakers take the James Bond approach and allow another actor to play Indiana Jones.

Honestly, I think that the best thing for Indy would be if Lucas, Spielberg and Ford gave up their stranglehold on the character. As I suggested earlier, there was no reason that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull couldn’t have been made in 1992, three years after The Last Crusade. Allowing other actors and directors to take a whip crack at Indy during the last 19 years would’ve invigorated the franchise and kept this perfectly-agreeable fourth chapter from seeming a relative disappointment.

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