Indiana Jones Retrospective: An Appreciation of Perfection
Perfection. That’s a tough word to live up to but Raiders of the Lost Ark manages it…
On New Year’s Eve, many years ago, my Dad came downstairs to our TV room after going on a food run. Under his arm was a yellow VHS box set containing three films. The box, and the cases of the three films contained within, was covered in photographs and illustrations of a rugged man with a cool hat. The man wore either an awesome leather jacket or a shirt in various stages of distress thanks to dirt, sweat, rips and blood. Illustrations of hissing snakes, firing guns, desert vistas, and every mode of transportation available being wrapped in a fireball, all coated the case.
The box set art was a promise of adventures and action the likes of which I had never seen before. And Raiders of the Lost Ark met that promise. And exceeded it. And as time passes, it sometimes becomes necessary to pull the old copy out and remember just what a perfect cinematic creation Indian Jones is, and how perfect that first movie truly is.
Perfection. That’s a tough word to live up to, and in this age of hyper hyperbole being used in reference to any pop culture that happens to mention Batman, the term has lost a great deal of its meaning. Hell, before even discussing whether or not a work of art meets that word, we need to establish what it even means.
To me, perfection is when a work of art meets all of its stated goals (stated in the sense of being established in the tone and style of the work). Many different types of movies have many different types of goals, of course. Caddyshack is perfect, in that it only wants to make you laugh hysterically for an hour and a half, and does just that. There Will Be Blood is perfect in that it wants to mire you in the mental processes of a sociopath as he deals with religion, family and capitalism, and by the end of that film you feel like you’ve been dragged through hell side-by-side with the Devil (milkshakes not included).
In the case of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg and Lucas set out to make a pure adventure-action (remember that ordering) film, one that presented a constantly expanding series of cliffhangers and thrills. And they NAILED it.
You don’t need me to tell you that. The great, iconic action beats of Raiders of the Lost Ark have entered the public consciousness to such a degree that any burgeoning film fan will probably have seen dozens of versions of them before seeing this, the originator. (Weirdly, this is never actually to the detriment of the film itself, something that cannot be said for the Star Wars series, which has lost and all relevance after being stripped for parts by Lucas and the never-ending parody industry.) The boulder run, Marion’s introduction, The Well of Souls, Indy going beneath the truck, Nazi vs. propeller and of course, the opening of the Ark. These sequences have been exhaustively played and replayed again and again. Spielberg is such a master at orchestrating gradually unfolding mayhem, and has such a precise eye for the perfect iconic image, that even after only one viewing, the ‘big’ moments stand out. And that’s not even getting into the exemplary work by everyone from a never better Harrison Ford (and his stunt double, Vic Armstrong), Karen Allen, Jonathan Rhy-Davies (GIMLI!) and Paul Freeman as Belloq.
And that’s not even scratching the surface of behind-the-scenes talent that delivered across the board to strike that perfect tone of straight-faced pulp. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe crushes it with the look of the film, somehow creating tactile, down-to-earth images that also allow room for larger than life action. John Williams delivers his best score (yes, better than Jaws, don’t even try to argue this with me), and Ben Burtt in turn provides the background sound effects that would define the film (try to imagine Indian Jones without those punches, or the crack of that bullwhip. You can’t, and if you try to say otherwise that’s just your brain lying to you). Again, these elements have been digested and adored for decades.
But nowadays, the thing that’s even more impressive than these (again, justly) legendary moments, is how patient and careful the film is. No, Raiders of the Lost Ark is not in any way a “slow-paced” film, but it is one that knows how to slow down and layout information carefully and seriously. The script by Lawrence Kasdan is almost exactly structured to the slooooooow THAN REALLY FAST rhythms of a great roller-coaster. And fortunately, Kasdan and Spielberg both understand that the careful build up to the car screaming downhill is just as, if not more, important as the actual downhill part.
That’s what sets Raiders apart. So often in modern blockbusters, the character or plot based scenes feel like empty filler, the “boring” stuff to get through until the big robots go back to unintelligibly beating each other while the camera shakes around and hot chicks wiggle around getting just the right amount of dirt on them to be “gritty” while still looking hot. The bane of modern blockbuster cinema is the constant, unending use of “comic” relief and cheap gags in the middle of sequences that are crucial to the films working. It’s like the directors have no patience (or, worse, have no faith in the AUDIENCE having patience) and so the second they see a scene where two characters sit in a room and talk, the impulse is to say “Quick, have an inanimate object fart! Or have the wacky character walk in and think something gay is happening! Because in 2012 it’s still HILARIOUS that people do gay stuff, right?”
Spielberg, Kasdan and editor Michael Kahn are much, much smarter than that. Just look at the early scene when Indy discusses the Ark with Marcus Brody and the government agents. This scene should be the most ‘boring’ moment in the entire film. It’s just four guys sitting in a classroom discussing old history texts. And yet, it’s exactly as gripping as the entire rest of the film. For one thing, by having the agents ask questions and interject comments, and by using the school-room setting, Kasdan manages the neat trick of laying the exposition on super-thick, while managing not to violate the show-don’t-tell rule.
But this scene accomplishes two other things that are of vital importance to the entire rest of the film.
1) It tells us everything we need to know about why The Ark matters: This scene tells explains, in detail, what the Ark is, what’s in the Ark, where it came from, where it is now, how to get it, what is needed to get it, establishes that the Nazis are after it, and establishes what they’ll do once they get it.
From this point on, we don’t ever need to have the Ark explained to us. The audience is aware at all times why it is so important for Indy to reach the Ark before the villains, AND Spielberg has established what all of the steps he will need to take to retrieve the Ark will be.
2) It tells us everything we need to know about INDY: The opening chase told us everything we needed to know about Indy as the icon, as the man of action. But it’s in this dialogue scene that we really see Indy come into focus as a character. He’s smart. He thirsts both for knowledge and to share that knowledge. Watch how excitable Ford is when Indy really gets into describing the history of the Ark He’s a geek. And with only one aside (“If you believe in that sort of thing.”) Ford completely established the mind frame and worldview of this guy. He’s cynical. He’s down to earth. He holds no place for the fantastic. Every other meaningful point of Indy’s journey through the film will be challenging this perspective (how many damn times does he get warned off of opening the Ark?) until it all comes to a head and he finally, Finally! realizes to look away before it’s too late. All of that established in one moment of one dialogue exchange.
And most important is that the entire scene is played completely straight. No one’s cracking wise or yelling about how “Impossible!” the whole thing is. There’s a real world quality to it, an understated professionalism to everyone’s manner that allows the audience to believe completely in this world. We’ve already experienced the boulder chase sequence, so we are already primed to except the fantastic, but this scene allows us to believe in the PEOPLE that exist alongside those fantastic elements.
This is where Karen Allen comes in and damn near steals the film. Marion Ravenwood in that first movie is one of the great female characters in genre films, and it’s because Allen has such a real world charm to her. She’s gorgeous, but almost in a tomboy kind of way. She’s the kind of beautiful that you see on the street every day, not the impossibly proportioned figure on so many magazine covers and TV screens.
(The only other time this charm was properly utilized was in the deeply, deeply underrated John Carpenter film ‘Starman’. Jeff Bridges got the Oscar nod for being so convincingly alien, but it’s Allen who makes you actually believe it. Anywho…)
Marion isn’t perfect. She gets captured often and she screams quite a bit and she does end up needing to be rescued. But beneath that is an incredible, deeply human, foundation of strength. She may not win, but she’s always ready to challenge whoever steps up to her. She may love and depend on Indy, but she’ll also spit in his face and call him out on his flaws. As much as Ford is the icon that all audiences dreamed of being, it’s Allen who is the true audience identification character, the relatable human who reacts to the otherworldly events surrounding her. It’s because we understand and love Marion that the rest of the film works.
It’s disappointing but not ‘exactly’ surprising that none of the sequels could recapture that magic. Temple of Doom is interesting in concept, but then, so is mixing matter and antimatter, with the results being exactly as explosive. It’s an interesting experiment to invert the characters and tone for the sequel, but it just doesn’t work. Willie Scott is perhaps the single most grating creation ever put on celluloid (at least prior to the Jar “Meesa Wuv Annie!” Jar) and the few points where she generates laughs or pathos are thanks to an almost superhuman act of will by Kate Capshaw.
Short Round is even worse, thanks to the tonal nightmare that he creates. Temple of Doom plays like a snuff film aimed at the Daycare crowd for much of its running time, so the inclusion of a wacky kid doing slapstick and beating up adults is…odd, to say the least.
That said, there’s great stuff in Temple of Doom. The opening dance number is a great fake out, and the ensuing action beats are great. The final Mine Brawl-Cart Chase-Bridge Climax may be the best action stretch of the entire franchise. And the technical credits are, from top-to-bottom exceptional. Doom is a gorgeous movie, no questions about it.
Also exceptional from top-to-bottom: Indian Jones and the Last Crusade. Last Crusade works a great deal better than Doom, but it strays a little too far into comedy. More, instead of earning the emotional resonance that Raiders exuded so perfectly, Crusade most just cashes in on Sean Connery being awesome, and him standing next to Harrison Ford being the height of awesome.
Which, yes, yes it is. But Henry Jones Sr. isn’t really much of a character. He’s just a wacky old man who is kind of a dick to his son, and so most of the big emotional moments (“Indiana…let it go.”) work only because Connery’s presence and lifetime in movies carries such weight for audiences, not because the film itself builds a believable, compelling father-son dynamic.
But it is a fun time at the movies, and has the by now expected great number of chases, death traps, and future-meme fodder, like the Knight at the end. All in all, a solid close to the trilogy.
And then there’s Crystal Skull.
If it’s somehow possible for a film to be underrated while also not being very good at all, well, Crystal Skull is that film. It is not ‘that’ bad. In fact, for large sections, it is indeed quite good. Ford, Allen and LaBeouf all work well together, and the action is all well designed and choreographed and escalates nicely. Better yet, Cate Blanchett completely owns the pulp-leaning tendency of her character and nails the sort of alien intensity of her villain.
The problem is that the script sucks. Now, before blaming any one writer, know that the thing went through two decades of development and received dozens of writers and voices poking at it. Not to mention the script needing to go through all kinds of contortions to better suit any of Lucas/Spielberg/Ford’s given whims AND having to change to accommodate shifting cast members, budgets and the realities of filmmaking, like hurricanes and release dates.
Those are real problems that can’t be totally planned for or overcome. But the greater problem is that Indian Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull never actually tells a story. It fucks up right from the get-go by absolutely BURYING the nature of the Skulls and Indy’s relationship to them in layers of obfuscation and confusion. Instead of laying out all of the narrative/character pieces right out from the get-go, Skull dances around actually stating what the skulls are, or who Mutt is, or what Indy knows and wants.
The entire film seems ashamed to mention the word “Aliens” which is too bad considering that THE ENTIRE PLOT IS ABOUT GODDAMN ALIENS. It’d be like a studio note telling Spielberg that they shouldn’t mention God when explaining the Ark of the Covenant. Can you imagine the disaster of that?
And so you wind up with a movie with no clear stakes for either side, no clear drama between the characters, and no clear reason to care about any of the events happening onscreen at a given moment.
And because the film tapdances around the fundamental nature of, well, everything, it gives the ENTIRE FILM this bizarre start-stop pacing. Instead of revving up into gradually escalating action sequences, the film just sort of throws obligatory beats out there. Some work, some don’t, but they exist largely in isolation from the rest of the film. And instead of organic exposition, there are loooooooooooong info-dumps that try to set-up information RIGHT BEFORE it becomes important. So they only explain what is going on with the Skulls SECONDS before the big dramatic sequence that hinges on that knowledge.
It just doesn’t work.
But here’s the thing: Even though the film is underwhelming, I will always cherish the experience of getting to see Indian Jones cracking the bullwhip and being scared of snakes on the big screen. Over nine years from the day that my Dad brought the original trilogy downstairs to us kids, my brothers and I drove out to the local theater to see the new Indiana Jones movie. The same character that had excited and amazed us as kids was back, and we went to see the latest adventure with that same sense of openness and excitement as we had when he first crashed into our minds. That’s an experience I’ll treasure forever, even as the movie itself fades from memory.
That’s the thing about icons: they take on a life all their own, and that life often has nothing to do with the original intent.
Indian Jones means many things to many people, but the place he holds in my heart is unique to my own life and experience. To me, whenever I think of Indian Jones, I think of my Dad bustling home on a cold New Year’s Eve, his face red from the cold but burning with excitement about sharing these movies with us.
And I’ll think about that boulder coming rushing down, and how I tensed up and asked my Dad if Indy was going to be OK. And his reply, “Brendan, it would be a VERY short movie if he didn’t make it out.”
Or the snake popping up at the bottom of the Well of Souls, igniting a lifelong phobia.
Or getting so freaked out by “Kali-Ma” that I had to leave the room.
Or cheering when young Indy pulled down the bullwhip.
Or cheering again when it was revealed who smashed the pot over Indy’s head.
Or laughing hysterically.
Or staring in awe.
Or yelling in terror when the Wrath of God was unleashed.
Or sitting in a movie theater in the dark with my brothers, excited about the possibilities of what a fourth Indiana Jones movie might hold.
Or sitting on the floor of in the dark with my brothers, excited about the possibilities of the movies that Dad brought home.
There’s no other word for it: Perfection.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is back in theaters in IMAX this month! Also, fans will be able to enjoy all 4 films for the first time on Blu-Ray in an epic box set that is set for release on September 18th.