Sacred Cows: Introduction

by Jay Stringer

Sacred cows is a chance to revisit films with a new eye. Many films have become canonized over the years as classics, and just as many have been written off as duds. Sometimes though, when you come to look at them with a new point of view, the opinion can be reversed. Maybe you’ll come to dislike a sacred cow, as I did with STAR WARS, or to defend a Pariah, as Shia LaBeouf does every summer.

Today I’m looking at two films from the same franchise; INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE and INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. One is loved, the other hated and I honestly don’t see a reason for the difference.

First things first, a qualification; I’m an Indy geek. In the deep hole inside of us that everyone seems to put STAR WARS, I put Indiana Jones. When all the other 80’s kids wanted to be Luke or Han (or Axel Foley), I wanted to be Dr Jones. So though I may go on to tear these films apart, it’s with the love of an obsessive fan. These films can do no wrong to me on some level, even when they do.

I love the films so much that I manage to hold a grudge against the (otherwise fantastic) JURASSIC PARK. It boils down to this; why were they farting around with scientists on an island when Spielberg could have put the same technology and passion into, say, INDIANA JONES AND THE LOST WORLD. Come on! You know that would have been the best thing ever!

CRYSTAL SKULL has been written off as a dud and “Nuke the fridge,” has entered into the same lazy Internet lexicon that holds, “jump the shark.” Now granted, it’s a film with many problems, but its biggest problem was one it could do nothing about; us.

We view all of life through a nostalgic lens with Older meaning better. Our life was better when we were young. Our food was better, our health was better and our art was better. We could leave our doors unlocked at night, and skip merrily through open fields with nothing but the stars to guide us. Every generation starts to fall into this trap at some point, and it colors the way we watch films.

We remember films from the 80’s (or perhaps more importantly, from before the internet) as classics and any attempt to follow them up is kicking dirt over a legacy. I believe that if we step back and start removing that nostalgic lens, our senses wake up again and our observations become keener. So, while LAST CRUSADE is loved (and seems to be the general public’s favorite of the series,) it is just as flawed a film as CRYSTAL SKULL. And yet, as I said, one is loved and one is hated.

Nostalgia can be a wicked thing.

Of the four films, only one is really a great movie. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (none of George Lucas’s renaming will wash with me) is a stone classic. I hold it as the best film ever made, though I’m usually alone in that view. It is perfect in its structure, perfect in it’s revelation of character through action and dialogue, and perfectly paced. It’s a simple guide in how to tell a story on screen.

Every film that followed was basically a Bond film; formulaic fun, each with new flaws and less depth. TEMPLE OF DOOM is a rarity, it’s a sequel (prequel, actually) that takes risks and dares to do something different. It’s not perfect, but it may be the last time that George Lucas showed any balls or creative juice, and marks one of the last times that Spielberg tried stepping out of his comfort zone. But the public mauled it, and the creators shrank back.

This brings me to LAST CRUSADE. A film that both apes the first film while in the process tramples on it. Whereas TEMPLE took risks and took the characters to new places, CRUSADE reset to the basics of sand, Nazis and the bible. Beat for beat it’s a very similar film to RAIDERS, but lacks the real soul of the first film. It asks us to wonder if Indy can take a leap of faith in a higher power, when we already saw him to that at the end of the first film. It asks us to believe that a woman he has known for five minutes will distract him from the prize when, in RAIDERS, we saw that the love of his life often came out second best to the Ark. It gives us some of the same set pieces -simply swap a truck carrying the Ark for a tank carrying his father- and waters down the first films cynical edge until it’s a simple comedy. The first film was Humphrey Bogart, it was the world-weary edge of action and romance while the third film was Cary Grant. There’s nothing wrong with Cary Grant, he’s an icon and starred in some great films, but to go from Bogie to Grant in the space of three films is to betray your original character somewhat.

And while we’re speaking of betrayal, let’s look at two of the supporting cast. Sallah was introduced in RAIDERS as something of Indy’s moral compass. He had the brains and the ability to locate the ark, but the wisdom to know it should be left buried. He had the balls to walk into a Nazi camp, and the brains to save Indy’s life. In the third film he’s comic relief. He still has brains, but now he’s a cliché, the jovial uncle of the film, the man who just can’t help but get into trouble but is never in any danger of not getting out of it.

That pales into insignificance next to the treatment dished out to Marcus Brody. Brody was the secret weapon of the first film. Indy’s mentor and partner in crime, he funded Indy’s mad trips and provided a roadblock between our hero and the authorities. In the film he says, “If I was five years younger, I’d be going with you,” and we imagine a young Englishman dashing across the globe in the same way Indy does. He’s clever and sharp, and can go toe to toe in an argument with the American government. In the third film, He’s a bumbling idiot. He’s a fool. He gets lost in libraries and captured at the drop of a hat. He shies away from adventure and can’t speak any other language than English. You have to wonder, at times, how the screenwriter could copy the first film so slavishly without actually understanding it.

The third film is a parody of the first one, and that is a real kick in the teeth. That said, if you ignore the problems, the script is finely crafted. It’s much more precise than the second film, and perfects the very thing that the fourth film lacked; structure.

CRYSTAL SKULL does, as I’ve said, have many flaws. But the ones it gets attacked for are not fair, in my opinion. The fridge scene gets it with both barrels, and yet is it really that crazy? Yes, in the real world, that is impossible and unbelievable. But this is a world where we’ve seen people have their hearts ripped out and not die (I can explain that one). This is a world where we’ve seen a magic box made by a man in the sky that kills people. This is a world where we’ve seen a 700-year-old Knight looking not a day over 102. Let’s be honest, at the end of the first film Indy drinks from the Holy Grail. We’ve already seen the Holy Grail heal a fatal wound, and prolong a Knight’s life by nearly millennia, so is it hard to believe that Indy can be cracking his whip in his mid fifties and surviving an atomic blast by hiding in a fridge? Let’s get a bit of perspective here folks; you either accept all of them or none of them.

And he finds an alien spaceship at the end. This is apparently a big deal. Now I’m not here to offend anyone’s beliefs. If you have a strong religious attachments to any of this objects in the first three, then that’s fair enough and I can respect that. But at the same time, we’re talking about entertainment here, not real life. So, we accept the magic-death-box, we accept stones that can bring life, and we accept a cup that gives immortality. But we do not accept that there might be beings that can create ships that travel through space and time, and that these beings may have visited us in the past? How does that work? Again, surely, it’s all of the above or none of the above when it comes to suspension of disbelief.

While CRUSADE trampled on RAIDERS, SKULL paid homage to it. We see the reunion of Marion and Indy (and Harrison Ford’s reaction was perfect,) and we see explanations for what passed in the years between. We see Harrison Ford caring about a project for the first time in a decade, and we see Spielberg almost rekindling something that he lost after JURASSIC PARK.

The film’s biggest problem, and the one thing above all else drags it down is its structure. All of its other many small problems would have been fixed if they had addressed the big one.  The film is full of pay-offs to things that haven’t been set up. There’s no sense that Indy is longing for a son, so there’s no weight when he finds that he has one. There is no real skepticism about the existence of the aliens, so there is no wonder when they are found. Ray Winstone’s character of Mac floats in and out of the film with no structure, and his many turns and double turns lack any real weight. The characters are never in any peril, so there are no stakes. And the dialogue is filled with lines that would have been very funny if they had been set up in advance. “You’re a teacher?” Mutt asks, for Indy to crack, “part time.” It feels like it should be a defining line, it should be a funny moment. But what it lacks is set up. Perhaps if, earlier in the film, Indy had defended his funding at the university by declaring he was a teacher, and his bosses had said, “Only part time.” There is no story ark here for Indiana Jones, and that’s the single element that the first three films all perfected. First film he went from world weary, lonely and “fallen from the true faith,” to moral, righteous and loved. In the second film we saw him learn that there were more important things than, “fortune and glory, kid.” And in the third film we saw he discover a relationship with his Father and therefore approval for his life choices. In the forth film? Nothing. What it lacks is a real WRATH OF KHAN style ark. We needed to meet Indy as an old man, not as the same adventurer as ever. We needed to see him in his creaking bones, feeling that the world was passing him by, only for him to rediscover his passion and his youth in one more adventure.

The frustrating thing is that script exists. Frank Darabont wrote a decent script that covered that exact journey for Indiana Jones, but George Lucas rejected it. Maybe it’s still the wounds from TEMPLE OF DOOM. Maybe Lucas believes that we don’t want to see anything new done with Indy. I hope I’m wrong, because they could still pull of a great final film if they all got back in touch with what was so perfect about the first one.

What we can see by comparing CRUSADE to CYSTAL SKULL is the invisible art of storytelling. If you get the basics of structure right, the audience will forgive a lot of mistakes. If you ignore structure, then the audience will find things to hate. They may not know why, they may look for small errors rather than the simple big one, but they will find you out.

But structure alone cannot save a story. That structure has to be padded out with heart and meaning, with understanding and wit. The story needs to understand its characters and to take them on a meaningful journey of some kind. Both films are filled with heart and wit. But both lack some very important basics. CRUSADE didn’t understand its own characters or what was special about them, whilst SKULL failed in the basic steps of setting up a mystery, a quest or a story.

So, there you have it. Okay, I’ve not exactly proven that CRYSTAL SKULL was a masterpiece. But hopefully I’ve shown that, if you strip away nostalgia from the equation, it’s unfair to see it as any less of a film that the other two sequels. It belongs on the same shelf, even if none of them belong on the same shelf as RAIDERS.

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