Indiana Jones and the Legend of Capitalism

Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones Temple of Doom

Hollywood is about one thing and one thing only: making money. From the key grips to the actors to the studio executives (especially the studio executives), money remains paramount. America is going to see a new Spider-Man orBatman film every three years until […]

by Chris Neumer

Hollywood is about one thing and one thing only: making money. From the key grips to the actors to the studio executives (especially the studio executives), money remains paramount. America is going to see a new Spider-Man orBatman film every three years until the series’ stop being profitable. If you’re curious to know why a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film is coming out, money is the answer. Behind Star Wars and The Lord of the RingsPirateswas the highest grossing trilogy of all time. George Lucas not only released a prequel trilogy, but also got behind an animated expansion of the time period between Episodes 2 and 3 in last summer’s The Clone Wars. New Line is producing The Hobbit. Why wouldn’t Disney do everything in its power to put out a fourth installment of the Pirates series? Forget about firing people for putting out The Golden Compass, if I’m a studio head, I’m firing people for NOT making another Passion of the Christ-like movie. Are you telling me that a Mel Gibson helmed filmed about the birth of Christ wouldn’t make money?

The dollar drives everything. It determines which movies the studios release and when they open. It determines where movies are shot and it determines who will star in the films themselves (if you don’t want to spend Brad Pitt money, Brendan Fraser will do very nicely for half the cost). The dollar truly drives everything, which is why Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is such a strange title. It isn’t just the most unusual release of the year, but the most unusual release of the last decade in addition. It is a $300 million box office hit that, in getting to theaters, dragged its feet more than the most petulant, tired, hungry five-year old who was just asked to put down the Xbox controller and come to dinner. An impressive feat for a movie that was guaranteed to be one of the biggest hits of the year, whenever it was released.*

* How much did Indiana Jones drag its feet? The reason it was finally made was that star Harrison Ford decried if the movie wasn’t done by 2008, he wasn’t going to do it.

The Indiana Jones series holds a special place in the hearts of many Americans, especially me. A lot of filmmakers cite Raiders of the Lost Ark as the reason that they got into their chosen profession. I too can make this claim, but not in the same sense or spirit as most. Unlike the aforementioned filmmakers, I didn’t aspire to make an Indiana Jones-like film, I aspired to actually become the whipped-slinging Doctor himself.

My freshman year of college, I was an extremely frustrated yet dutifully determined English major. I liked to write and, since my college didn’t have a creative writing major, I did what my advisor suggested and loaded up on literature classes. I loathed them from the first day forth. Not only was I surrounded by chain-smoking people wearing black who loved to hear themselves pontificate at length about the thematic imagery of every minute detail of Chaucer and Pope, but I had also just learned that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein to demonstrate how important a mother was to a child’s life. When the professor unleashed that nugget of information on us, I seriously thought she was joking; years of watching Men at WorkThe Burbs and Robo Cop 2 had deadened my brain to almost any and all metaphor and allegory.

Trudging back to my dorm that dreary day, I questioned my purpose in life and my position as an English major. I went to the room of a good friend and hashed out my thoughts. In the middle of our conversation, his roommate walked in and announced in no uncertain terms that we were watchingRaiders of the Lost Ark. He grabbed the cassette, put it in the VCR and that was that.

Halfway through the film, just after Indy’s marketplace encounter with the Nazi Henchmen and local mercenaries, I realized that I could never becomeIndiana Jones with an English major. By the time the movie had ended, I had officially decided to become an anthropology major.

It turns out that real life anthropology is slightly less exciting than the way it is presented in most Steven Spielberg films. Nonetheless, the lessons I learned preparing and conducting ethnographies and location studies were invaluable to my present writing career.** ironically, it was Indiana Jones who steered me towards the proper methods of collecting and processing information. Indiana Jones, the world’s worst anthropologist. The only thing that truly belongs in a museum is his on-site etiquette. Who doesn’t rope things off? Who drinks from the Holy Grail before photographing it?

** For the first several years I was writing about film, when people would ask me whether I studied journalism in college, I used to make a joke I’d borrowed from Paul Reiser. I’d tell the people, no, I didn’t study journalism, I majored in anthropology. They’d look confused and I’d say, “It’s like, how did you become an astronaut? Oh, I played volleyball.” A few years ago, it dawned on me that my anthro background genuinely did help my writing, in my eyes, far more than would have learning about reverse pyramid style of prose.

Suffice it to say, with my history with Indiana Jones, I had high hopes for the latest installment. I was not alone in this respect. The American public felt much the same way. Lucas, Spielberg and Harrison Ford realized this quickly and began attempting to lower public perception of the film, comically so in certain cases. However, there’s only so much one can do to decrease expectations for what a large percentage of people in the entertainment world saw as the most widely anticipated movie since The Phantom Menace. Taking a 19-year break between films can have that effect on things.

I remember talking to a friend who worked at Fox soon after they released The Phantom Menace. Though Episode 1 of the Star Wars series had grossed $470 million at the domestic box office, industry insiders looked at the film as something of a failure. My friend sighed and said, “If The Phantom Menacehad even been average, not breathtakingly bad, it would have out grossedTitanic by a hundred million dollars.”

As stubborn as Lucas is reported to be (his feud with Frank Darabont is a swift kick to the groin for true Indy fans everywhere), he actually learned a number of lessons from the release of his Star Wars prequels. Lucas knew that heightened expectations would be his biggest enemy. He knew that he couldn’t let the series rest on its laurels; just making the next Indiana Jones movie wouldn’t be good enough for the American public. He also knew that he had to instill the same joi d’vivre into the proceedings or he would be looked at as the man who killed not one, but two of the greatest series’ in film history.

To Lucas’ credit, he attacked these issues head on. In a very memorable interview with the USA Today, he called Indiana Jones “just another movie”. He spent years looking for the exact script that he wanted, reportedly getting drafts from top Hollywood scripters Darabont, M. Night Shyamalan, Jeff Nathanson and David Koepp among others (Koepp got the final credit). Not only that, but the movie’s most redeeming quality is the sheer volume of enjoyable, larger-than-life fun that it contains. Nobody does it quite like Indy and this is on full display in the latest installment.

There’s only one problem with the new Indiana Jones: it’s completely absurd. It’s absurd even by George Lucas standards. (This is a real problem because being absurd by George Lucas standards is like being patently awful by Chicago Cubs standards; there’s not a whole lot of room below you).

This one problem, the absurdity of Indiana Jones, manifests itself in two separate ways: 1) Lucas and Koepp gave a big middle finger salute to the conventional rising and falling action of a three-act script and attempted to and succeeded in crafting a screenplay that featured no conventional villain or conflict and that peaked about an hour in, and 2) the whole movie is about aliens. This would be fine for Star Wars (obviously), but doesn’t hold the same weight for a character whose one area of supreme expertise is the study of human beings and their cultures.

When Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed Pulp Fiction, he was both heralded and lambasted in differing circles for the way that he shattered the mold of the three-act script. The three-act script consists of a beginning, rising action, the climax and subsequent resolution. (And yes, I realize it’s somewhat ironic that I just listed four points to describe the three-act script). Pulp Fictionhad characters die and then come back, ended where it started and if there is an inciting incident I have no idea what it is of for whom it took place. The newIndiana Jones feels much like that.

There’s a problem the lead character is attempting to resolve—there always is in an adventure movie—but what that problem is another matter. The Russians are after something that does something really impressive that they believe can be weaponized. If history is any indicator, that ‘something’ in question absolutely, positively cannot be used as an instrument of warfare. Unfortunately for them, the Russians never saw the first three Indiana Jonesfilms nor heard through the grapevine what happened to the French archaeologist Belloq or the Austrian researcher Dr. Else Schneider.

The title suggests the problem involves a crystal skull and its mysterious mind-control powers, but the actual movie seems to be of a different mindset. Indy is chasing after the skull, but he finds that about 40 minutes in and the search, rather naturally, ends. Indy is also trying to find the lost city of gold, but is doing so by merely following in the footsteps of a good friend who has been there previously For the same reason it’s not that big of an accomplishment to navigate the West Village if you’re driving behind a friend who lives there, Indy’s path to the City of Gold is equally mundane. And surprisingly easy. Any and all native enemies that the group encounters during their journey, from rock throwing Indians to large fire ants, beat a hasty retreat once Indy & Company pull out the magical crystal skull that they’re carrying.

As the film’s (supposedly) climactic scene unfolds and Indy, his son, Mutt, (Shia LaBeouf), his soon-to-be-wife, Marion Ravenswood (Karen Allen) and his old colleague Ox (John Hurt) watch as a flying saucer takes off from the jungles of Peru. Mutt looks at the silver aircraft and asks if the spaceship is going to, you know, space. In response to this question, Ox lets fly the following line of dialogue, “No. Into the space between spaces.”*** Mutt looks suitably confused and says, “That’s makes no sense at all.” True that.

*** The space between spaces? I’d argue that that is just, you know, space.

In the last sixteen years, there have been five Batman movies, three Spider-Man movies, four Star Wars movies and zero Indiana Jones movies. With this in mind, you’ll understand why Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Indiana Jones) is not only one of the most unusual releases of the year, but of the last decade. The thing about profitable entities in Hollywood is that they will keep coming out until they stop making money.

Indy then pushes up his fedora and explains that the ‘gold’ spoken of in reference to the City of Gold wasn’t actually gold, but treasure. And that treasure is knowledge. And the knowledge is that you shouldn’t have gotten the knowledge, if we can take anything from the fact that Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) met her unfortunate demise at the hands of learning material. Of course, there was a room of priceless jewel encrusted statues and coins and the whole city was covered in and made of gold, but whatever. Knowledge was the real treasure. I will not delve into the irony that the one thing that Spalko would have wanted to know was that not knowing was actually better than knowing more. (While that doesn’t make any sense at all, it is accurate within the context of Indiana Jones’ world).

The whole situation brought to mind a favorite joke of mine. A college professor is golfing and shanks a ball into the woods. When he goes to retrieve the ball, he finds a golden lamp. He rubs the lamp and a genie pops out. The genie says, “Since you released me, I will grant you one of the following three things: unlimited money, knowledge or beauty.” The professor thinks about it for a moment and says, “Give me the unlimited knowledge.” The genie claps his hands and the professor instantly becomes the most wise, learned person the world has ever seen. Several days later, the professor is asked by a fellow teacher to say something wise. The professor thinks about it for a minute and says, “I should have taken the money.”

Indiana Jones is the cinematic equivalent of this. Not only for the on-screen characters, but for the audience watching them as well. At the end of the movie, Indy has learned who his son is, who his soul mate is and what his place is in the universe. Everything is great except for the fact that what I have described is simply not an acceptable conflict for an action hero to have… particularly when everyone watching the action hero was well aware of all this before they even entered the theater. Unfortunately for the audience, all we could take with us from Indiana Jones is that we shouldn’t have hoped for anything remotely resembling a logical or cognizant script based off of a Lucas-conceived story.

If there’s a saddest part of all this, it’s that this is a tidbit of information that should have been beaten into all of our heads after watching The Phantom MenaceThe Attack of the Clones and The Revenge of the Sith. But hope springs eternal… which is precisely why I’ve pushed aside all logic and rationale and am intensely looking forward to the fifth film in the series. A film that will be many years in the making and that I will then deem Hollywood’s most unusual release since 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

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