Indiana Jones and the weight of expectation

This coming Sunday, I am going to the Hayden Orpheum at Neutral Bay to watch the Indiana Jones trilogy. It costs a paltry $20, and there’s a $100 cash prize for the best costume. A few years ago, at a work conference, I wore an Indy costume and I’ve never put as much effort into any collection of clothes, ever.

The Orpheum, a beautiful art deco building on Sydney’s North Shore, has wisely decided to play the films as a trilogy which is arguably how they ended. Indy, Marcus, Sallah and Henry riding off into the sunset? It capped off the series on a high note.

So, noting that it’ll be the first three films only, I went back and watched Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It’s a mixed bag of a film – certainly less offensive that Episodes II and III of the Star Wars prequels – that ultimately fails to deliver despite some excellent, very Indy moments. I’ll explain what I mean below.

Firstly, the film suffers from the passage of time and the effects that has on it’s creative team. Just like the Star Wars prequels, II and III especially, lost the wondrous innocence of their predecessors, so does the Crystal Skull. Having kids made Lucas and Spielberg more conservative, more fearful and less child-like themselves.

During the making-of, Spielberg claimed that Lucas supported the infamous fridge-nuke scene with evidence showing a lead-lined fridge would indeed survive a nuclear blast. This is annoying on several levels. OK, so if the blast didn’t penetrate the lead the heat would probably have an opinion. And there’s the pulverising of bones that seemed to not affect Indy at all.

But mostly, it shows that Lucas lost sight of what made Indy exciting. I have no idea how the trap in Raiders, triggered by someone passing through the light, works. Nor how Mola Ram in Temple could tip people’s hearts out. Or how the Walther P38 could shoot through five Nazis at once. Nor do I care; you have embodied the film with such conviction that my disbelief is hanging on a peg next to my fedora, my troubles, and my coat.

I don’t have to believe that Indy could have done something, if I stop and think hard about it. I’m happy to accept the film universe as it is if you believe in it too. Sure, that Nazi flying wing couldn’t fly, but who cares? I was too busy enjoying the hell out of the film.

So what works, then? For starters, silly gopher shot aside, the opening is pitch perfect, right up until the fridge. Ford was about 65 at the time of filming, playing a 58 year old Indy (Indy being born in 1899) and they worked with that. He’s still athletic, but not as precise as he used to be – I love the scene where he tries to swing into the back of Spalko (Cate Blanchett)’s jeep, only to misjudge it and crash into a pursuing, Soviet-staffed truck. “Damn, I thought that was closer!” he laments before knocking the Russians out of the track and taking over. Yes, he’s older, but he’s still thinking quickly and adapting.

The early scenes in Peru, where Indy and Mutt are trying to find Ox – also very Indy. And there are moments when Indy leaps from one duck to another to throw fists into Russians which are utterly joyful to behold.

And, the final fight with the giant Russian soldier around the ants. The ants were dumb, but the fight was evocative of the great brawl between Indy and Pat Roach’s bald mechanic in Raiders, only Indy’s older and things aren’t as easy as they used to be…

Unfortunately, there’s the bits that don’t work. The fridge has been done to death. There’s the sentimental bullshit with pictures of the late Denholm Elliot as Marcus Brody, and Sean Connery as Henry Sr, both of whom died (people have wondered how this was possible when Henry and Indy drank from the grail – the price of immortality is that you never crossed the seal. In crossing the seal, they have up their immortality). We get it, but you have to tell us anyway?

Most if not all the Shia theBeef scenes, in fact, are grating. After Ford leaps from one fast moving duck (amphibious jeep) to another, we get Shia fencing, straddling the two and having hits nuts whacked by plants. Ho fucking ho, Speilberg and Lucas. Pinnacle. WIt. You guys.

The ending with the aliens… Look, the premise was dumb, but you made it dumber. Must I say anything here?

And the ensemble characters. You’ve got Indy, Marion, Mutt, Ox, and Mack. Raiders and Temple both had a sidekick (Sallah and Short Round respectively) and a female lead whose job it was to get into trouble and get rescued. Last Crusade introduced a capable female who, because of her intelligence, had to be given a flaw so was a Nazi. Unlike Crystal Skull, the remaining cast – Brody, Sallah, Henry and Indy, once he’d gotten away from Elsa – in Last Crusade have personalities. Mack is generic, Ox is batshit crazy and the Marion love angle, whilst nice, is kinda… flat.

I really wanted to like this film. And I do like a handful of moments in there, but it needs to me more than the sum of its parts and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull just isn’t.

Bring on the trilogy then!


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