Over the past four months or so I’ve (re)watched most of the Star Wars films, leading up to the one that happened before Christmas, and today I’ve just finished off the Indiana Jones series. I wasn’t blogging while I was watching Star Wars, but now I’m in a position where I’ve seen the popular pre-Disney Lucasfilm output, in many cases for the first time in perhaps decades. My post-Disney opinion is very linked to my position on the films made in the ‘70s and ‘80s: I didn’t watch them a lot growing up, so I don’t have the intense nostalgia for them others do, and so I prefer the ‘10s films that shake things up to the ones which attempt to just coddle the adult fans of these, as Patrick Willems puts it, movies about space wizards intended for children.
You would think, then, I wouldn’t care for the film I watched today, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Certainly, public opinion is pretty cool on this film. It is also the least liked among critics, at a glance, but at 78% on that accursed site Rotten Tomatoes it’s still well in the clear as far as that’s concerned. (The first is at 95%, the second 85%, and the third 88%, which proves nothing except to comfort me in my assertion that the first film is a league apart from any of its sequels.)
Actually, I liked it as much as any of the others, and even prefer it to one. It doesn’t bother me to have a divergent opinion, nor do I take it as a badge of pride. It is useful, though, to explore why you think something, and putting my workings in front of me in this regard has meant what was intended as a quick note on Letterboxd has quickly expanded into a 2000+ word thesis with a potted history of Lucasfilm and its position in the industry, just so we’re all on the same page.
They’re threatening an Indiana Jones 5 without the involvement of either Steven Spielberg or George Lucas, which seems pointless to me. Ahead of that, it’s worth asking myself three questions: how do I view these filmmakers? How do I consider their work? As a consequence, why do I like Indy 4 much more than its reputation would suggest? We’ll start with the history.
In 1975, Spielberg essentially invents the blockbuster with Jaws. I’m going to define that simply as “big action-packed film for everyone”. (That doesn’t mean everyone will like it, or that it’s inclusive, but it’s a film that moves towards the audience rather than one which expects the audience to come to it.) I’m perfectly happy to believe the blockbuster is an accidental phenomenon. Even making a good movie relies on luck, so a good movie everyone likes? Just because Marvel make it look easy, it doesn’t just happen.
I won’t claim to be an expert on Spielberg. According to this website, I’ve seen 29% of his films as director, and 18% of his films as a director. But that’s 14 films directed and 25 films produced. Which is probably a representative sample. Without making any particular effort. And some films seem to just randomly have his involvement – who knew he produced First Man? I would wager that many people across the world stumble into having watched a lot of Spielberg.
The emotional core of a Spielberg film tends to be about the father-son relationship. He will innovate new technologies to create ever-more spectacular sequences, but will start from a place of physical action in front of a film camera. As for subject, he has the tastes of an eight-year-old boy: dinosaurs, aliens, war, technology, and adventure. Tonally, he can play all the notes (romance, horror, comedy, intense drama), and turn on a dime between them. None of this is news to you, because you’ve seen his films. Spielberg has a very clear sensibility. What you may have forgotten, though, is that his sensibility has permeated blockbuster filmmaking to such an extent that his own films can be seen as generic. When Spielberg is firing on all cylinders, he’s a master at work. But if the quality drops even briefly down to coasting speed, or he does just what is expected of him, suddenly he’s lost among a sea of his imitators.
In 1977, Lucas presents the Lucasfilm with Star Wars. I’m going to define a Lucasfilm as a movie innovating on nostalgia, because that’s how I read Lucas as an artist. The Lucasfilm becomes a blockbuster, and that’s when a new era of Hollywood filmmaking began.
I won’t claim to be an expert on Lucas either. However, I’ve seen four out of the six films he’s directed, ten of the fifteen he’s a credited writer on, and thirteen of the 22 he’s produced. A smaller filmography, so a higher proportion of films. Among these are some of the most popular films ever made, and also some of the most infamous.
So, with Lucas, there’s the thing you may know, and there’s the innovation. Star Wars is a ‘30s space opera serial, but compressed into two hours. The Empire Strikes Back takes the characters you know and love from Star Wars and does astonishing and interesting things with them. Return of the Jedi brings back the glorious futuristic technology of the trilogy, but it’s teddy bears with wooden spears that win the day. The prequel trilogy is an exercise in taking what you think you know about Star Wars, and giving it to you, but with a whole heap of something else along with it. Lucas has a very clear sensibility.
But this sensibility cuts the other way too. After the bold and brilliant Empire, Return does feel like an arena rock band playing its greatest hits. The Phantom Menace is too new for the Star Wars audience’s blood, but as the trilogy moves toward the Darth Vader of it all it descends into tepid false drama. Even Labyrinth, his film with lifelong innovator Jim Henson, is somewhat of a retreat from The Dark Crystal’s austere high fantasy into something a bit more fairy tale and, dare I say, Muppety.
To nick a conceit from Kogonada’s visual essay on neorealism (to much less effect than that masterful piece), what if we could do an experiment, where we took Spielberg, the consummate blockbuster filmmaker, and have him direct a Lucasfilm? Well, we don’t have to. It happened four times.
The final thing we need to get in front of us before we look at the Indiana Jones films is that it doesn’t add anything to our understanding of Lucas and Spielberg to think of them as blockbuster filmmakers. By 1981 that’s what they had become: Lucas had two Star Warses under his belt, and Spielberg had followed up Jaws with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They had already redefined the theatrical experience, and that was nearly four decades and the majority of their filmographies ago. It’s far from unfair to view them as blockbuster filmmakers.
But they didn’t come from the blockbuster world. (How could they? They invented it.) They came from the New Hollywood movement. In this brief period, from let’s say ’65 to ’80, the young New Hollywood director took control of a film, not the producers, and they made hits with an authorial sensibility. 1971 is the key year for both filmmakers, as both make their feature length debuts. Lucas released THX 1138, a development of his student film, and Spielberg makes waves on television with his feature-length episode of The Name of the Game airing at the beginning of the year, and Duel airing at the end.
The demise of New Hollywood ironically came as partly a result of its success. The movement produced Jaws and Star Wars, studios wanted more money where that came from, so took control back from filmmakers in order to get it. Also, Heaven’s Gate cost a bomb, was a box-office bomb, and killed a film studio. But the filmmakers who came up in that movement stuck to its ethos. On a Spielberg-directed film, Spielberg is God. On a Lucas-produced film, Lucas is God, largely. On the Indiana Jones movies, they formed a two-headed god-monster, which answers to no-one, and is the author of its own success and failure.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is the gold-standard of a Lucasfilm. All the pulp aspects are present and correct – foreign locales, daring heroes, Nazis, magical MacGuffin, you name it. Harrison Ford develops the Han Solo character into a more romantic, more fallible, and smarter figure, with a clearer sense of his involvement in the events. It helps that Lucas has learnt that he is more of an ideas and story guy than a final drafter, so the dialogue snaps rather than sinks.
What Spielberg’s direction improves upon Is the sense of movement. Star Wars is at heart a well-edited sequence of still set-ups. The shots that stick in your head from The Empire Strikes Back tend to be iconic, single images, like comic book covers. There is some great movement in the trilogy found in the vehicle and, increasingly as the technology develops, model work, but it’s only in the prequels that you find sequences that match what Spielberg does in Raiders. Plus, a lot of the model stuff is set in space, and the vehicles float, so there isn’t necessarily the sense of danger felt when the rubber hits the road or Indy’s head is precariously close to the cliff.
Even the still shots in an Indiana Jones film aren’t still. Spielberg is an emotive and involved filmmaker, so when a character is sat there talking, you listen. The chatting sequences in a Star Wars sometimes feel like a necessary evil in order to move on to the more interesting action sequences. In a Spielberg, it’s all action.
I don’t hold much regard for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. If there’s one major criticism I have of all the Indiana Jones films is that, like the titles, they’re overstuffed. Even though it would be painful, and the films are presented as such that it would be hard to imagine which sequence could go, to my taste you could probably do without at least one. Temple of Doom is not just overstuffed, and the most racist of the films (brown people are often the enemy in the Indiana Jones franchise, but least they’re not usually in a Hindu death cult that enslaves children and probably never existed). The plot is ridiculous to the point where it’s actually quite dull, the sidekicks seem to be written in such a way as to be intentionally irritating, and the dialogue doesn’t spark like it should do. Also, why is it a prequel? It’s supposed to be a dark follow-up like Empire, and the discontinuity between the entries is meant to wrongfoot the audience and suggest the breadth of adventures Indy goes on between films, but it all seems like being different for the sake of it, rather than the differences having a purpose. There are great sequences, such as the fake-out Bond opening, but it’s the one I would least want to put on.
The Star Wars trilogy came out three years apart from each other, as did the first two Indiana Jones movies. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade took five, and thrives because of the extra care taken in that period to make it the right film. By making the love interest the villain, and Indy the sidekick to his father, it iterates on the core formula of an Indiana Jones film enough to make it fresh, but obey the internal logic of the series. Plus, Spielberg and dads, classic combo move. Lucas’s obsession with prequelising his films works in the River Phoenix prologue here, since it reveals more about Indy’s character and provides insight for the core relationship of the film. Bringing back Brody and Sallah also brings back the larger-cast camaraderie of much of Raiders, and Julian Glover is always a great choice for the villain role. A return to form, and this film is the argument for having any sequels at all.
I haven’t spoken about Spielberg for the last two films, because you just take the man for granted. In brief, Crusade seems in much better control of its material, and it’s only unique flaw is that it essentially has to do more work than Raiders in order to attempt to match it, and still doesn’t get there.
There were nineteen years between Crusade and Crystal Skull. During this time, Spielberg pivoted to making serious films alongside his blockbusters, won two directing Oscars and countless other awards, and had essentially cemented himself as America’s leading filmmaker. Lucas oversay the massive multimedia expansion of the Star Wars franchise, remade the special effects for the original trilogy, made the divisive prequel trilogy, oversaw the creation of two separate Clone Wars TV series, and essentially cemented himself as the head one of America’s leading independent film studios. The major differences between them are that Spielberg had directed twelve films in that time, whereas Lucasfilm’s four, with the prequel trilogy only reluctantly directed by Lucas, suggests they were on very different artistic paths, and that while few people have a bad word to say about Spielberg, he’s few people’s favourite, whereas Lucas has long been a fanboy pariah.
This toxic attitude towards Lucasfilm productions, and combination of ambivalence and high expectations for a Spielberg project, coupled with the extensive wait for a sequel, doesn’t exactly set the best platform for success. There had been a generation of people who had only watched the series on television, and sometimes obsessively so on home video, which is an intense relationship to have with any film.
Let’s also briefly discuss the idea of a trilogy. The term dates back to Greek plays such as the Orestia from the 5th century BC, and this structure has a cultural weight like few others. The Godfather trilogy, the Apu trilogy, you name it. People even prefer to call The Lord of the Rings a trilogy, even though it was clearly a single book split up by the publisher. Lucas in particular loves a trilogy. Star Wars became a trilogy, trimmed down from initial imaginings of nine or twelve films. When Lucas added Episode V to Empire, it signals the intention of a prequel trilogy somewhere down the line, and how important the idea of a trilogy is to Lucas. Indiana Jones was pitched to Spielberg as a trilogy, even though Lucas barely had the first story.
Because of the primacy of the trilogy, an addition to a set of three can feel like a rending. Even the thought of an Indy 4 is a desecration to the complete world that was the trilogy. Why do we think this way? The Toy Story films were never intended as a trilogy, it was just a film successful enough to support sequels. However, as soon as there was three of them, it was a trilogy, and the thought of doing more seemed close to irresponsible. Then they made Toy Story 4, it was pretty decent, narratively justified, and the world moved on. Our weird narrative addiction to the number three probably needs a lot of psychological unpacking. Not here, though!
Divorced of its immediate hostile context, and the weird trilogy thing, Crystal Skull holds up rather well. Any individual sequence stands toe-to-toe with any individual sequence from any of the films. It’s the frothiest entry, but the series has always been funny, and I’d rather frothy than self-serious. John Hurt’s in it. Jim Broadbent’s in it, briefly. The plot is coherent. Maybe one cast member could have been cut, but it would have probably been Marion Ravenwood, and that would have been a shame. The Mutt/Indy thing is cute reversal of Crusade, if not groundshaking. It’s perfectly entertaining, and there’s even a lovely wedding.
The things people think are problems are not problems. Being set in the ‘50s make sense, because Ford looks two decades older. Sure, half the films are Nazis hunting Judeo-Christian relics, but there are always Nazis in cinema and The Da Vinci Code had nicked the Judeo-Christian relic bit very recently. I much prefer Russians and aliens to racist Kali death cult, thanks. Things people say “that’s ridiculous and wouldn’t happen” about, such as the nuclear fridge, tends to be what’s more commonly known as humour. It’s fine if it’s not your cup of tea, but it’s doing what it intends to do in the film. Shia LaBoeuf is fine. He was a great child actor, and is now a fantastic independent film actor, and was just weathering the transition between the two by being a little bland in action movies. At least he’s not screaming.
If there is a fault, it is that the film didn’t do the magic trick. The magic trick is where the umpteenth sequel of a successful franchise convinces you that it was important and necessary and a big deal that it is happening. Crystal Skull doesn’t even attempt this. Kamiński’s sumptuous photography matched with a digital finish, more greenscreen, brighter studio work and some studio work means the look is slightly different. Slightly different can all it takes to spoil the trick. Ford is older. That can spoil the trick. Maybe the general audience needed that trick to work. I didn’t. But then again, I’ve told you about what I think about these films now. I haven’t told you how I felt the first time round.
Full disclosure, four months ago I didn’t think much of any of Lucasfilm at all, and Spielberg is so pervasive I’m still struggling to form an opinion on him. (Maybe Spielberg can follow my soon-to-come Ridley Scott season.) I only watched these films once, maybe twice, growing up, and while I may have wanted to watch Star Wars a little more than that, I don’t think I missed out on anything. Worst of all, I never thought much of any of the Indiana Jones films, and have always considered Crystal Skull on a par, and Temple of Doom below it.
What that has given me is an opportunity to appreciate these films now. Star Wars is a weird, personal project, and The Empire Strikes Back a brooding, sumptuous art film, and I’m delighted these films found the largest possible audience. Raiders of the Lost Ark, to put it in the most irritating possible way, is the Mad Max: Fury Road of its day – a masterclass in action filmmaking. Return of the Jedi set a bad precedent by being the first Star Wars film made for its fans, but at least it was made for its younger fans, and it’s a film that gets away with it being lovely hanging out with characters we know. Temple of Doom is still not great, but I appreciate more about it. Last Crusade is cinematic comfort food. The Phantom Menace is a weird, personal project in the guise of being the most anticipated film of the decade, but it’s fairly likeable. If Attack of the Clones lost half an hour it might just cross the line to somewhat exciting from tedious. (I’m not sure the romance element can be helped.) (Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars is possibly the best Star Wars thing ever, save The Last Jedi.) Revenge of the Sith sounds great when you talk about it, but watching it is often excruciating. And finally, Crystal Skull is an enjoyable go-around in a classic car kept in surprisingly good nick.
It has also given me an opportunity to appreciate these artists. Lucas’s imagination is unparalleled, and his willingness to take risks and make new things is the prefect counter-balance to his nostalgia, and somewhat reductive view of what children like. Spielberg is a born visual storyteller, and he makes what turns out to be really difficult look incredibly easy. I’m probably going to put these films away for a good while now, but it was a pleasure bringing them all out. Now to get Disney+ so I can watch Willow.