With the long-awaited fourth movie in the Indiana Jones series hitting theaters this week, the obvious question is: Will “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of The Crystal Skull” be a worthy successor to the iconic “Raiders of the Lost Ark”? The answer, of course, will be up on the screen, but in thinking about what creators Steven Spielberg and George Lucas need to do to recapture the early Indy magic, it’s worth looking back at how the previous stories have succeeded — and sometimes failed.
Though “Raiders” was followed by two sequels and a TV series, it’s still the original movie that’s largely responsible for Indiana Jones’ continued appeal. It’s a perfect piece of pop confectionery, developed by Lucas and Spielberg as an homage to the 1930s and ’40s action serials they’d watched as kids. Lucas had done something similar with his earlier mega-hit “Star Wars,” which drew inspiration from 1930s Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials. This time out, they aimed not for space opera, but old-school pulp-fiction adventure — full of daring action, exotic foreign settings, deadly traps and an eerie flavor of the supernatural.
Spielberg didn’t have lofty ambitions for the movie beyond entertainment, saying, “I didn’t see the film as anything more than a better-made version of the Republic serials,” but it’s obvious, especially compared to the sequel “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” that he really cared about making “Raiders.” His eye for great visuals and the craft of a good action sequence is at its peak here, and the movie works both as homage and sly reinvention of the old serials. It certainly had vastly improved production values, stunts and special effects, but that, in and of itself, isn’t what makes “Raiders” a classic.
It had more going for it, starting with a witty script that moved quickly, boiling down dialogue and explanation to get to the next big stunt scene as fast as possible. Lots of other action movies do that too without being especially memorable, but “Raiders” is a great example of how to keep a movie simple and streamlined without losing a sense of humor, a sense of mystery, and a whole crew of instantly memorable characters who not only drive the story but are interesting in their own right.
That’s also a credit to the actors, from Ronald Lacey as the hissable villain Toht with his frightening collapsible coat hanger, to the movie’s unheralded secret weapon, Karen Allen as the scrappy sidekick/girlfriend Marion Ravenwood, who shows herself just as smart and resourceful as the hero. (It’s great to see she’s returning for “Crystal Skull.”)
Indy in a nutshell
Everything that works in “Raiders” is laid out in miniature in the short sequence at the beginning of the film when Indiana finds the golden idol in the jungle temple. Everything you need to know about him, you find out here: He’s brave, he’s an expert at arcane lore, he’s full of surprising tricks like bullwhipping a pistol out of an enemy’s hand, and even then sometimes his best-laid plans go wrong and he winds up running for his life from a rolling 10-ton boulder.
Though not the original choice to play Indy, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Harrison Ford in the role now: He’s perfect at capturing Indy’s combination of Errol Flynn derring-do and hard-weathered Humphrey Bogart noir style. Jones is a dashing swashbuckler and hero when the occasion demands, but when he takes a punch, you know he feels it.
Indy wins the day, but not because he’s superhuman — dumb luck saves him as often as quick thinking, and he’s all the more human and relatable for being battered and bruised after a hard fight. Ford adds just the right tone of world-weary, sardonic humor that makes Indy’s world-spanning exploits seem real.
Seemingly everything “Raiders” got right, though, the 1984 sequel “Temple Of Doom” got wrong. Though a box-office hit, it was a critical failure that stands up quite poorly today. Spielberg himself says he hated “Temple,” telling Premiere magazine in 1988, “It was too dark, too subterranean, and much too horrific.”
Sandbagged by a lackluster, meandering story, “Temple” sinks after a great opening sequence set in Shanghai. The worst problem was the replacement of the endearing Marion with the shrill, screaming, foul-tempered nightclub singer Willie Scott, played by Spielberg’s future wife Kate Capshaw. The movie’s problems extend to the editing; every scene drags on too long, which is unusual for Spielberg’s typical mastery of fast-moving action. But the script, full of the dopey conceits and caricatures that George Lucas would later use to such appalling effect in the “Star Wars” prequels, is the real problem.
When it came time to make the third movie, Spielberg said, his chief ambition was “to apologize for the second one.” And indeed, 1989’s “Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade” so consciously returns to many of the defining elements of “Raiders,” with the Holy Grail taking the Ark’s place as the mysterious and legendary religious relic that Indy and his Nazi enemies are after — that except for the great addition of Sean Connery as Indy’s father, it would be unforgivably derivative if it wasn’t so much fun to watch.
In a way, “Last Crusade” homaged “Raiders” in the same way “Raiders” homaged the old serials. That will be the key to making “Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull” work, too — sticking close to the established format for the series while adding new touches that keep things fresh, lest audiences decide that this tomb has been plundered once too often.
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