indiana jones and the search for a better plot

A couple of years ago I watched the original Indiana Jones trilogy with my kids. Over the last month, we’ve been watching the re-released Young Indiana Jones series. We’re huge Indiana Jones fans. Now, let me say a couple things up front. Raiders of the Lost Ark is very close to my favorite movie of […]

A couple of years ago I watched the original Indiana Jones trilogy with my kids. Over the last month, we’ve been watching the re-released Young Indiana Jones series. We’re huge Indiana Jones fans.

Now, let me say a couple things up front.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is very close to my favorite movie of all time. However, as a rule, I loath Steven Spielberg. I do not consider him a good director. To be sure, he’s made a couple of decent movies; Duel (his creative high water mark), Jaws, and of course, Raiders. But given that he hires top-flight cinematographers and cast, every now and then he’s going to hit something good. Most of his work is dreck though, badly plotted, badly scored, badly paced, over-done in every way possible.

How did Raiders wind up so good? Simple; George Lucas.

Lucas developed the story, produced the film, and while there’s no question Spielberg directed it, it has an un-mistablabe Lucas feel to it. Most of what’s right about that film I credit to Lucas.

It’s easy to see what happens when Lucas steps back; look at Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Key details of who Indy is are forgotten, a pointless ‘cute kid’ is introduced, Spielberg’s wife is (ill) cast as indy’s love interest, comedy and horror elements are over-played. The only thing about the movie that works is the ending, and it works out of context with an Indiana Jones movie.

For the third, Lucas stepped back in; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is back to feeling like Indiana Jones. It’s better cast, with a love interest who works, and the plot is back to being centered on archeology. It’s not quite Raiders, but it’s terrific.

And then there’s Young Indy; not only a brilliant teevee series, but incredibly true to the the Indiana Jones character; masterfully done, and 100% Lucas.

When I heard a fourth movie was in production, finally, I hoped for Lucas, and feared Spielberg.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull should be good. They had years to find a great script; they had a great cast (Cate Blanchett, John Hurt), a great surrogate Young Indy (Shia LaBeouf), and the return of Karen Allen, an actress I’ve had a wicked crush on since Animal House.

Alas – This is Spielberg Indy, not Lucas Indy.

There’s good stuff about this film, certainly. And I enjoyed it. But it wasn’t good. While it’s failings are very different than the failings of Temple of Doom, they’re perhaps bigger, because with the years they had to come up with a script, though should have come up with a good one. This has compromise written all over it. The story’s oddly meandering and all but incoherent, and it relies on super-natural and sci-fi elements that don’t fit into the Indy mythos. While the action scenes are terrific (well shot, well acted, funny and thrilling, and completely inventive), they seem to have lost the ’30s serial pacing that made them work in the past. The problem, though, is that when the action stops, you can almost see tumbleweeds roll across the screen. Everything comes to a complete halt.

I’ve never been bored in an Indiana Jones movie before. Yet whenever the characters start talking, my eyes would glaze over. Harrison Ford seemed to be sleep walking through half the scenes, and the elements that worked (he’s older and not quite as good as he used to be; people think he’s just an old teacher, til the fedora comes out) are used as throw-away gags. This could have been payed like Robin and Marian, with the re-union of the aging hero and his older-but-still-beautiful life’s love. It’s wasted though, with Karen Allen not getting enough screen time.

Blanchett as the russian villain is wasted as well; she’s a cartoon, but an under-drawn one. Her absurd accent is wonderful, even if it’s un-even, but they waste the camp element after presenting it when she walks on.

What works is that they pay brilliant tribute to Indy myth; references to the first three movies, and better, to episodes of Young Indy. What doesn’t is that Spielberg can’t stop; introducing LaBeouf with a shot and costume from The Wild Ones blows one right out of the film, and the 50’s diner fight is so out of place that it made me want to slap everyone involved.

The ending is idiotic. We don’t need fucking space aliens in the Indiana Jones mythos. Visually, the end is great, but plot wise, it’s weak, stupid, and badly written.

It’s odd though; the movie annoyed me more later than it did at the time. While I was watching it, I was happy. Seeing Indy on screen again was thrilling, even if it’s a gray-haired-and-botoxed indy; and the action is fantastic. If this were a movie featuring some other character than Indiana Jones, I’ve have said “loved it”, because it’s the kind of sugar-frosted-crack film that one should watch with the un-jaundiced eye of a teenager. But when a movie has “Indiana Jones” in the title, I just expect a lot more in terms of movie making.

0 thoughts on “indiana jones and the search for a better plot”

  1. Like you, I feel that Raiders is easily one of the greatest films ever. But I’ve got the disagree with you almost entirely about what went wrong in this new one, and who is responsible. The movie’s a mess — great start, lousy middle, fitfully entertaining but ultimately hugely disappointing third act, preposterous overblown finale — but I’ve got to disagree with you on the idea that Lucas’ input has any sort of positive impact on this film.

    Mind you Spielberg didn’t help — he long ago lost the ability to make anything resembling the brilliant, enjoyable romp that Raiders was. If anything, successive Indiana Jones films have done a really good job of showing just how much Raiders was like catching lightning in a bottle — probably helped along nicely by the fine work of Lawrence Kasdan on the script(who along with Leigh Brackett wrote teh best SW film of them all).

    Regardless, Spielberg consistently does one thing right, and that’s hire good folks to work with/for him. This typically includes hiring great editors that create a solid pacing — assuming the story allows them to. The story and plotting of IJatKotCS simply do not. Spielberg’s heavy-handed visual affectations (like The Wild Ones bit, for example) don’t help things, BUT the vast majority of this film’s problems lie in the plot and story, and those problems can be laid directly at George Lucas’ feet.

    By all accounts the entire space alien fixation was 100% Lucas from the get-go, and his initial crystal skulls plot ideas were rejected by both Ford and Spielberg. The plodding pace, overly complicated dialog and tortuous, never ending expository monologuing that fill the entire middle hour of the film are entirely story driven (story by Lucas, bearing all of the hallmarks of his writing/story arc creation “skills” that so utterly ruined the Star Wars prequels for me…). Lucas was also 100% responsible for approval of the scripts that were submitted, including rejecting a script by seriously talented writer Frank Darabont that focused on Indy and Indy’s brother.

    A couple of other points of fact — Spielberg did not cast his wife for Temple of Doom. He was married to Amy Irving (who was originally considered for the role of Marian…) until 1989, 5 years after Temple was released. He met Kate Capshaw during the filming of Temple of Doom but didn’t marry her until 1991. As for cute kid casting in Temple, again, keep in mind that the story and characters for ALL the IJ movies are credited solely to Lucas, and as Executive Producer he would obviously have casting approval as well. Lucas also was responsible for the dumbing down of some of the best Raiders characters (Salah, Marcus) in his story/character drafts of Last Crusade.

    Simply put, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Spielberg can’t direct anything with a sense of lightness, and hasn’t been able to for 2 decades. And Lucas’ best work occurs only when he is Executive Producing something while he is heavily invested in working on something else that forces him to stay out of the way (Young Indy — all done while he was ruining the Star Wars franchise, Raiders — while he was finishing Empire and starting to ruin Return…).

  2. Whatever responsibility lucas may carry, 95% of Speilberg’s work is fucked up in the exact same way this was fucked up, so I’m sticking with my Spielberg’s contention. When he gets it right it’s due to someone else’s help. The very best example of the difference is that Young Indy was great, which was all Lucas, and the fact that a couple Speilberg’s best films were the ones he made with Lucas producing.

    Yes, Lucas he fucked up the last three Star Wars films; but given that he’s produced a few great films and a few bad ones, his average is still good, where Speilberg’s average is awful.

    Re: Kate Capshaw; there’s no way she gets cast there other then casting couch. She was horrific in that film. Sure, maybe I had the marriage at the wrong point in time; let’s just say she got cast for her oral skills.

  3. Again, Young Indy WAS great. It was also only Executive Produced by Lucas, with most of the stories being credited to him, but little else. According to production notes, Lucas’ main input on Young Indy was creating a detailed timeline of his adventures as a young man, from which all of the scripts and stories were drawn by others later. Otherwise, he was busy re-releasing the first 3 SW’s in their special editions in order to beta test all the digi-crap he was going to use for the new movies. So, again — decent enough story ideas and when he’s too busy to do anything other than executive produce, they don’t get fucked up. Similar to the Clone Wars cartoons — the only good new SW product in twenty years. Story and characters by Lucas, but he was too busy to get his deca-thumbed mitts into the daily production and things went well as a result.

    As for Capshaw, given the character of Willie Scott and the story created for her to perform — both created by and credited to Lucas — the casting is exactly, entirely, and tragically perfect. Lousy actress, but one doing precisely what is called for her to do by the role. Katherine Hepburn couldn’t have saved that piece of crap.

  4. [puts hands over ears and says loudly “lah lah lah I can’t hearrrrrrrrrrr you]

    Agree. Except that I generally like Spielberg movies, I agree with your whole assessment of the latest Indy. It could have, should have been so much more. All the raw material was available for great and pretty much none of it was used properly.

    That said, I’ll still put my hands back over my ears because we had a great time seeing the movie. I willed it to be so! 🙂 I need my happy summer blockbuster thrills.

    hugs, E

  5. Dood, you were supposed to review Ironman first.

    Now I’m all out of sync with the blockbusters!

    (no, I’m not ready for a review of Prince Caspien yet either.)

    But I did like Ironman. 😉

  6. Three words why you are completely incorrect:

    1. star
    2. wars
    3. prequels

    You keep giving Lucas credit for things he did decades ago. You aren’t using the modern Lucas who has completely raped the Star Wars universe to the point that when I hear those words I get a sick feeling in my stomach.

    And here he goes again, the modern Lucas, control freak. You really think that Spielberg wanted CGI gophers? Give me a break man. You need to think this through again.

  7. Let’s put it this way, jason.

    Spielberg’s made, what, thirty films?

    How many good ones? Jaws, Raiders 1 and 3, Duel. Private Ryan. Maybe a couple more. A fraction of his career. Note that Raiders was at least half Lucas, so Spielberg gets almost no credit there.

    How many bad ones? Even being generous, he’s got more than twenty that are utter dreck. That’s an amazing number of bad movies credited to one person.

    Percentage wise, he’s a failure, artistically (never mine commercial success, that’s no measure of goodness).

    Lucas? Well, he’s made several great films (THX1138, American Grafitti, Star Wars (the original one), and about the same number of not-that-good ones, and no absolutely terrible ones.

    So you have one director who’s about at 50/50, but gets extra credit for inventing one of the world’s great sci fi franchises, and who gets extra credit for coming up with one of the world’s great action heros in Indy.

    You get another who’s made a few good films and a WHOLE LOT of bad ones.

    The math is obvious.

    Add to that, the fact that the bad indy films are stylistically and visually pure Spielberg.

    I don’t see how anyone can do anything but point a finger at Spielberg and say “hack” when they look at Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Yeah, it was bad, and sure, Lucas could have saved it. But my point is, Spielberg couldn’t; he can’t tell good from bad.

    I only wish Lucas still had the sense to say, wait, we need to make an Raiders film like I and III, not another Spielberg turd like Raiders II.

    But as you say, Lucas has lost that ability, which is the great shame of it all.

  8. Comparing percentages isn’t really applicable here considering George Lucas really hasn’t made many films. And even fewer all by himself.

    I can admit I don’t like all of Spielberg’s films, but I give the guy credit for trying new things. I wouldn’t say most of his films are crap either, they aren’t all great, but that doesn’t make the rest a complete waste, but that’s really a matter of opinion, so I won’t go into it.

    What hurts Lucas most is that he HASN’T done many films. Being an idea man, I doubt he’s out of ideas, and I don’t think he’s so in love with Star Wars that he doesn’t want to venture out into new territories.

    While Spielberg has made some stinkers like Catch Me If You Can and the Terminal, at least he’s out there doing something. Lucas is just working on what? Working on Star Wars some more, making them 3d and stretching the franchise as far as it can go.

    Lucas has become lazy and over reliant on the franchises he has created and that’s what sucks the most about him tainting what he has created, is that we have nothing left to like. And unfortunately, I’m not sure if he has anything left in him.

  9. We’ll have to disagree on Spielberg; I find even his *best* work heavy-handed and cheaply manipulative, though I’ll admit in those few, it works in spite of his stylistic flaws and poor directorial technique. It’s just that as the work gets weaker, said flaws become more and more obvious.

    I’ll agree, I wish Lucas has stepped up more, early on, to actually make movies. BUt I think his gift has never been as a director, so much as a creator. Most of his best work ever has been when collaborating well (Young Indy, Indiana Jones I & III, Empire Strikes Back), supplying ideas while working with others to convert them to finished vision.

    And yes, he needs to leave things alone when he’s done The video versions of Young Indy are kind of fucked up, played in the wrong order and with poorly-imagined inter-connecting segments replacing the original old-indy segmets. And of course, there’s the director’s cut versions of the original Star Wars films (shudder).

    But my point has never been that Lucas is so brilliant, so much as it is that it’s Spielberg’s hands I see all over the look and feel of Crystal Skull. Lucas may have come up with the moronic Space Alien plot, but Spielberg is the guy who turned in a movie with horrible pacing and wall-to-wall corn.

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