There’s no better way to celebrate ten years than looking back…
Few films series have ever cemented themselves within pop culture as successfully as Indiana Jones has. Directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by George Lucas, both at the peak of their careers, the original trilogy of Jones films are all classics. Like many others, I consider Raiders of the Lost Ark to be one of my absolute favourite films. The fun, the adventure, the characters, the action, the story, it all played together so well. The script by Lawrence Kasdan gave us the perfect balance of suspenseful action and engaging drama. While not perfect, particularly in its final moments, it’s a great film and unquestionably is one of Spielberg’s best films – not something to be said lightly.
Following Raider’s success, Spielberg and Lucas gave us The Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade. Both of which are flawed masterpieces. Neither quite matched the success of the original and were both – albeit not by much – inferior to Raiders. Temple is a fun adventure film that takes a turn for the dark, and even horrifying in the middle. It’s oddly meanspirited and did, admittedly, give me weeks of nightmares when eight-year-old me saw monkey brains, human-skin tapestries and the famous heart-ripping scene. For this, it took me a while to warm up to it – but I’ve come to appreciate it more in the years. Crusade is far sillier, and until the zeppelin scene, was a little too childish for most. Now hailed as a classic, I love it as much as the other two, even if it does lack their bite.
Crusade ended on a perfect note, something Spielberg agreed on. But that didn’t stop people from wanting more from their favourite archaeologist. Then, in 2008, the world was treated to the release of a new Indiana Jones film. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had the promise of greatness that everybody was wishing for. It looked familiar, yet new. Our favourites were back, and what new characters there were looked to be as strong as those that came before. With new effects, an entertaining trailer and a poster that captured the spirit of the films we had come to love, Skull was a guaranteed box office success. It became one of the highest grossing films of 2008 and was met with mostly positive critical reviews. Unfortunately, when audiences watched the film, all they could say was ‘What did I just watch?”
The CGI was horrible. The new characters were forgettable, despite being played by some excellent character actors. Shia LaBeouf played Jones son, in one of the most misguided casting and character choices in recent memory. Somebody thought that Jones surviving a nuclear explosion in a fridge was scientifically sound. And there were aliens in it…need I say more? Skull felt like many things – most of which were bad – but one thing it did not feel like was an Indiana Jones film. What this gave us was similar to the Star Wars prequels in how it was received. With a lot of people trying to like it, but then years later just accepting that it was a bad film.
Of course, in defence of the film, it isn’t all bad. Spielberg is one of the greatest directors of all time, it’s not like he forgot how to make a film here. The cinematography and editing are still what we’d expect from such a film. There are some great shots here and there throughout. The sets, when they are actual sets, are very nice and well utilised. I even think that the Cold War Era setting was a wise choice and would fit with the age that Harrison Ford was at the time with that of the character. I thought that the opening in the warehouse was a lot of fun and there’s one or two other fun action scenes. The music by John Williams is still great and some of the humour is genuine. It’s just pretty much everything else that lets the film down.
By now it’s well documented that Spielberg had no interest in a fourth Jones film. It was only with the pestering of Lucas and later Harrison Ford that he decided to direct it. While Spielberg’s dedication to the film and enthusiasm as the project was underway can’t be faulted, it’s clear that his heart was no longer in it. It’s also apparent that sometime during production, Harrison Ford found himself frustrated with the film. His performance is dry, and his usually quick wit was coming in off que – so jokes and witty one-liners felt out of place or forced. Script writer David Koepp – who wrote Spider-Man, co-wrote Jurassic Park and directed A Stir of Echoes – was going through a rough spot too. His script here is one of his worst, falling as low as his scripts to War of the Worlds, The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Secret Window (which he also directed). Then we have George Lucas. At this point, Lucas was content to make whatever film he wanted – thanks to the poor reaction to the Star Wars prequels, he had learned how to shut out criticism and had accepted that people would likely reject what stories he came up with. Lucas is the man we have to thank for Jones meeting aliens and believe it or not, the film we got was better than the one he had planned originally.
An issue that stood out though, one that plagued the film and was its ultimate downfall was not the story. It wasn’t the horrible overuse of poorly rendered CGI. It wasn’t even the bizarre performances from the likes of acclaimed actors – such as Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, John Hurt and Jim Broadbent. Nor the horrible casting of Shia LaBeouf as greaser son of Jones, Mutt. It was that Spielberg and Lucas had grown from the days of the original trilogy. They had become fathers, they had found a nice place to settle with their well-earned success. They had simply grown up. Lucas typically stayed away from the directing chair and had become an exceptional business man, helping filmmaking friends and newcomers alike find their place in the filmmaking world. Spielberg now only occasionally made the action oriented or family friendly fare that made him famous. Jurassic Park, Minority Report and War of the Worlds were projects that he made between productions of films like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Amistad and Munich.
Having grown up, they found elements of the previous three films to be a little inappropriate now. Sadly, these things are what gave the original trilogy its teeth. Jones was an almost Bond like character, he was killing bad-guys and henchmen, visiting exotic locations and getting a different woman every movie. While the locations are still enjoyably exotic, we now have a returning Jones-girl and their son – again, which makes sense to add when you’re a father yourself. The issue is that they don’t play off each other nearly as well the second time, with a lot of their screen time dedicated to fan-service. The son element feels like they’re deliberately trying to pass down the torch to a very poor character – not to mention that it was done better before with The Last Crusade.
Throughout the film, Jones is only responsible for the deaths of two characters, with other characters deaths being either self-inflicted or coincidental. This takes away from the tension. It just feels like a censored down version of the films that came before. The moment where Indiana is fighting the big guy as a horde of flesh-eating ants surround them is a good example of why this bite is needed. It’s a good action scene, and not just because it’s well shot. It’s tense, the action carries weight, every punch is felt, and we feel like Jones could be the one who dies here. I want to feel that with every action scene, not just one! I know that the thought of making a family friendly film was on their minds. But the other three, even the unpleasant Temple of Doom, work as family films, and have been enjoyed by families for decades now. They will last forever; Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has been forgotten by many for the past ten years now.
I’ll always remember when, for a birthday I received all four films and decided to watch all of them in order. But when I got to Skull, I realised that I couldn’t be bothered with it. That is very telling of this film. There are elements I like, but it’s overall forgettable and overly tame. It is treated as one of the worst blockbusters ever made nowadays, whether or not that is deserved is certainly down for debate, but I think that title gives it too much credit. It’s not awful, it’s just aggressively mediocre. Perhaps that’s worse, but for me it doesn’t linger on the mind long enough to be insulting.
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