Sometimes you just want a movie which makes you smile and the Indiana Jones series does this in spades. They are in many ways like Bond movies, featuring a nice simple idea which is easy to define. Baddies, a McGuffin plot device, lots of pretty places and plenty of action to showcase
what a badass Harrison Ford really is. Having recently rewatched The Last Crusade, it really is an incredibly solid movie from two directors who have been alternately terrible beyond all limits after an inspired early career; George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. I always find Spielberg to be unpredictable to say the least as he has a fair few shockers on his CV. This is a simple movie and works for that reason. It’s as effective as when I first saw it years and years ago even though I remembered most of the plot. The John Williams score is so effective in helping it feel epic and adventurous, along with someone pretty to accompany Indy. So many films have tried to replicate the magic of Indy and so many have failed. How can you screw up something so simple? Well, let’s have a look.
Case 1: The Da Vinci Code: Dan Brown basically wrote ‘Indiana Jones: the books’ featuring a rather combat-able academic beloved by all who see him and a load of mystery and discovery. I was very hopeful for the movie because it had Tom Hanks who can act and Audrey Tautou who is pretty, French and can also act and the rest of the cast was solid so I was hoping for something in the Indy vein. But what The Da Vinci Code didn’t get was that you need more than just pretty scenery; you need tension and pacing. Otherwise it’s dull and uninteresting and it just feels like going on a tour through major historical sites with some paranoid conspiracy theorists. The fact that the cast seemed to have phoned in their performances makes watching it an even more insulting experience as they clearly saw it wasn’t up to much, which rather mirrored my feelings after siting through so many turgid performances when I felt no fear, no risk, no sense of the great challenge that you know you should be feeling as we all felt the first time watching an original Indy movie.
Case 2: National Treasure (god knows who actually watches them to make three – two have already been made with one more to be released in 2014): Other than having Nicolas Cage (who I really like in some movies), this series has the problem that it needs someone more normal to play it straight in the main role. It rams through the plausibility barrier which is not a problem on its own but its internal logic doesn’t work with the wider movie. Of the 8 or so characters you can guarantee that at least half will have something to do with a secret society, plus there will be the ‘Ah! Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!’ moment which I don’t mind per se, but when you can spot it in the first half hour it sort of ruins the pacing.
Case 3: The Crystal Skull looks like an Indy movie. It’s got the characters from an Indy movie so why isn’t it an Indy movie? Its return to the love interest from the first movie just doesn’t work and there is a severe lack of chemistry between what should be the two leads. Also, it should be someone pretty and not middle aged as its appealing to the same audience as a Bond movie. Secondly, CGI is a major problem in the movie as it is filmed on green screen which means you have no ‘real’ reactions by the actors to the environment which was always part of the fun. Everything’s that much more wooden and everyone seems that much more bored. Thirdly, the issue of dodgy history. Alright, so we don’t watch Indy movies for a history lesson but a little bit of research wouldn’t go amiss. Placing a red scare on campus doesn’t work as they were particularly conservative places in the 1950s (and full of ex soliders getting an education from the GI bill). Featuring a Russian with superpowers (not a problem in itself but trivializing it reduces the threat) with no fear of Indy is also underwhelming. Also, aliens in an Indy? For fucks sake. CGI bullshit which allows actors to endure long, dull fighting sequences, Indy in a fridge, FBI interrogation making no sense, Indy not being a badass (ie nothing like when he shoots the martial artist in the first movie ) and strange ease of discovery all stops it being a true Indy movie as it has none of the things that made them special .
The Last Crusade show that it is not easy making an Indiana Jones replica. So many recent movies have shown how easy it is to screw up a simple idea and forget one’s origins and what made the idea successful. And of course giving George Lucas creative control is invariably a bad idea. The Last Crusade is my personal favourite of the series and is an enjoyable trip which will end with a smile on your face, while of course learning about a lot of fun, pretend history.
Retrospective by Harry Riedl