Indiana Jones 5: Lessons from the Crystal Skull

Earlier this week, Deadline reported that Steven Spielberg wants to direct Disney’s reboot of Indiana Jones, with Parks and Recreation and Guardians of the Galaxy star Chris Pratt donning the legendary fedora. There’s no confirmation, but another Indy film is pretty much guaranteed. In December, Disney CEO Bob Iger tweeted that the Mouse House intended to revisit the franchise at some point.

Bert Macklin and the Raiders of the Lost Park

With this news, I decided to go back and re-watch the last Indy instalment, the much-derided Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I hadn’t watched since first seeing it in summer 2009, when I rocked up to the glorious Prytania theater in New Orleans, and left hugely disappointed.

To refresh your memory, in case you’ve tried to forget you even saw the film, it’s set in the 1950s and sees an older Indiana Jones following the trail of a missing fellow archaeologist to find a fabled Incan crystal skull before it gets into the hands of ruthless KGB operatives (led by Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko). Indy teams up with a young greaser (Shia LaBeouf) who, it transpires, is Indy’s son by Marion Ravenwood, who’s been captured by the Russians.

On second viewing after all these years, I enjoyed the film far more. Put simply, I just found it fun, offering a good mix of action, mystery, humor, bickering and romance. Maybe I’m more forgiving as someone who directed and starred in a (rather cringeworthy and sadly unfinished) Indiana Jones fan film in 2006:


But anyway, back to Crystal Skull – here are some lessons it offers for Indy 5:

1) Make the action physically plausible (or, stay away from CGI)

The excessive CGI in Indy 4 is what makes the film feel ‘un-Indylike’. It’s not simply a case of artificial-looking digital stormtroopers, a la the Star Wars prequels. Rather, having abundant CGI at their fingertips led writer Koepp and director Spielberg to construct stunts and set pieces that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise–and precisely because of that, they lack the physical realism that’s classically Indy. The heroes tumble over three successive waterfalls and emerge unscathed. Indy and a Soviet operative blast through the desert on a missile-powered train, startling CGI groundhogs with Star Trek-esque lens flares. Many of these scenes are also baffling. Shia LaBeouf goes swinging with monkeys–who seem to take a shining to him and then very precisely attack the Russians–and a swarm of ants chases everybody, but after they consume a couple of Soviets they conveniently leave and clear a neat path for Indy and friends to carry on with their business.

The emerging trend of relying more on practical effects–which we’ll see in action in Star Wars: The Force Awakens this December–is to be encouraged, certainly for Indiana Jones films. The next film should return to Indy’s dusty, often gruelling action that was believable because it was all physically plausible.

2) Pick a truly fascinating mythology and also make sure it stands up to scrutiny

George Lucas’s insistence on having aliens is well known. Aliens weren’t necessarily a doomed ‘monster of the week’, and given the 1950s setting of the film ‘space men’ kind of fit. It’s just that the film’s conceit was basically that a glowing crystal skull had to be returned to a spaceship lying under a Machu Picchu-type ruin so that the glass aliens resting there could leave. And if it wasn’t returned, then the Russians would use the aliens to learn how to commit ‘psychic warfare’. Only they wouldn’t, because actually the aliens would just fry their brains (as they did at the end). Throw in some cursory mentions of a city made of gold and we have a recipe for I don’t care.

Many TV dramas make their ‘case of the week’ a reflection of whatever personal arc or struggle the protagonist is grappling with (Fringe comes to mind as a particularly un-subtle example), and solving the mystery enables the hero to surmount their internal trouble. Last Crusade arguably had that element.

3) Make sure Indy has a compelling reason for continuing with his adventure

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s final act is actually pointless. There’s no real reason for Indy et al to venture into the city of Akator. Mutt sums it up when he pointedly asks Indy, “who cares?” In the earlier movies Indy always had a pressing reason to go into the heart of supernatural darkness. In Raiders he went after Marion and they were both captives until the end. In Temple of Doom they were, again, captives and made the moral decision to free the enslaved kids. In Last Crusade, Indy and Henry Sr were trying to beat the Nazis and they were also genuinely passionate about the mystery–that shared, almost competitive zeal they had served as a way for Indy to connect with his father. And it leads to Indy actually having to save his father’s life. Immortality, and the quest for the grail, linked thematically to Indy and his dad making the most of their relationship as they grew older. In Crystal Skull, Indy goes into Akator…because the alien skull told him to take it back. ‘Return’, the characters keep repeating ominously. It’s just curiosity, and only mild curiosity at that. “Knowledge was their treasure” – seriously?

One solution might have been making more of the father-son dynamic. One of the things that I really liked about Crystal Skull was the banter between Indy and Mutt early on, and the quirky family reunion that takes place amid all the intrigue and action. It actually makes the film a decent send-off for the Harrison Ford era of Indy. But the characters seem to reconcile pretty quickly. Mutt denies that Indy’s his dad, and expresses displeasure at it for a while, but they press on in a fairly collaborative way in their empty alien errand. There could have been more tension or hostility between them (Indy knows what it’s like to have an absent father; now he ought to have faced more flak for it than one line from Mutt at the end of the movie), with big egos flaring, and then maybe have to put this aside to work together. Having said this, it might then have been too similar to Indy 3.

In any case, Indy’s always started off his adventures seeking ‘fortune and glory’, and then been reluctantly drawn into greater and greater peril because of a relatable personal reason. That will make us care.

4) Give us another phenomenal John Williams score

As with the Star Wars prequels, I feel fortunate that we got Indy 4 because it allowed the great John Williams to revisit one of his great works and give us more magic in that musical universe. The Indy 4 score is not just pretty good. It’s stellar! One of Williams’s best scores in the past ten years. The theme for Irina Spalko has a cinematic grandeur to it that transcends this single movie and feels like something for the ages. The crystal skull theme actually makes the mystery feel, well, mysterious. And in 2010 when I hiked up to Machu Picchu, I was listening to the climactic cues from Indy 4.

It is tremendously exciting that John Williams will be scoring The Force Awakens, and with any luck he’ll be back for an Indy 5.

Parks and Speculation: how Indy 5 could work

For me, Indy will always be Harrison Ford, and I’d rather Disney created a new adventure series rather than making endless iterations of an old one. But inevitably this franchise will continue and the torch will be passed. Crystal Skull teased us with Indy Jr Jr, aka Mutt Williams, taking on his father’s mantle, and that was very much what Lucas had in mind. I thought Shia was pretty good in that role. But he doesn’t carry the same star power as he did back at the end of the last decade, and so names like Pratt and Bradley Cooper, men of the moment, are being bandied around. Both are strong actors with a lot of range. Ford has said he wants to play Indy again, so it’s possible that he’d appear as an older Jones in the film that introduces his successor, or maybe we’ll cut back to his earlier days as in the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. The idea of Indy trying to solve a mystery in the past and present, intercutting between time periods like the fantastic Argentine thriller El Secreto de sus Ojos could be interesting.

I quite like the idea of the new hero being introduced in the film as an imposter–an unscrupled grave robber traveling far and wide, claiming he’s Indiana Jones (like the fake Batmen at the beginning of The Dark Knight). Somehow, despite the age difference, Indy’s name being bandied around in some fashion could land Indy in some trouble. He is then forced to follow the trail of this man apparently wreaking havoc in his name.

But if we have a clean break and a new actor takes on the role of Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr., what happens to the time period? Would it take place in the modern day, James Bond-style? Do we want a modern, ‘internet of things’-era Indy? In a word, no. Fortunately there’s very little chance that Disney would opt for this. Indy’s charm is in the fact that he, like his quarry, is something of a relic.

Equally, do we want a return to Nazi-era 1930s-40s stories? It feels a little tired, and Last Crusade was a pretty good culmination for the stories in that world (Indy bumped into Hitler, no less). Temple of Doom (which I happen to like) shows that you can create a gripping threat and villain in a small context and not need to rely on a ‘big bad’ like the Nazis or Russians. A rebooted Indy with a younger Jones could be set in the 1920s, and explore an archaeological / mythological mystery in East Asia, Australia or sub-Saharan Africa, amid the political tensions of the time.

No details about the film have been confirmed yet, save that it will probably happen at some point. If Disney’s actions in the Star Wars world tell us anything, it’s that the studio is very driven about landing strong writers (Michael Arndt, Lawrence Kasdan, Rian Johnson). So there’s reason to be excited about this film — especially if Spielberg is back to helm it.

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