It’s May 15 as I write. By the time you read this, I will be dead. By the time you read this, we’ll know with absolute certainty who the Democratic candidate is. By the time you read this, we’ll know if the Indiana Jones franchise has been turned into utter crap by the series’ first film in 19 years, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The rumblings in the underground aren’t positive. George “Yippee!!” Lucas, the film’s executive producer (he also gets credit for the story along with Catch Me If You Can‘s Jeff Nathanson), has already started up the spin machine, saying that fan expectations could never ever ever be satisfied with the reality of the moviemaking process, and that unfair disappointment is sure to happen. This is, of course, patently untrue. But let’s step back a moment …
I have never been on board for “Indy IV.” My status as a royal geek is in jeopardy, I know, but I always thought Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) ended just right, the book closed on the last page of the story with grace and a ride into the sunset. (For those who’ve been in a coma the past 27 years, the series began with 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and continued with 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.) In the intervening years everything changed, not the least of which was the director of the Indy films himself, Steven Spielberg. Gone was his movies’ simplistic yet entertaining worldview of good guys versus bad guys. The world no longer crested to happy endings; instead, the rightly cynical topics of World War II, the Munich murders, and what it means to be human as opposed to being a machine that is programmed to want to be human demanded nuance, pathos, and a lingering sense of darkness. That darkness has been aided by longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski’s moody and textural cinematography ever since Schindler’s List (1993).
While Kaminski’s style has served Spielberg well for his more mature films, it hasn’t done much for the director’s popcorn flicks. Consider the thrill and chill of Jurassic Park (1993), photographed by Dean Cundey in bright and sunny ways, showing that scary things can happen in the brilliance of daylight. Now pair that with the 1997 sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park, where Kaminski lays on the darkness and fog and mist and, essentially, turns that original dichotomy into the same old shtick that has hounded horror movies for decades. Although he’s been required to adopt the crisp style of Douglas Slocombe, the director of photography for the first three Indy flicks (Slocombe turned 95 back in February, so he presumably wasn’t up to the task of shooting one more adventure), I just don’t think this type of tale is his bag. Assumption one.
Jurassic Park was famously adapted by the writer of the novel, Michael Crichton, and screenwriter David Koepp (Spider-Man, War of the Worlds), so there was pressure to maintain a degree of faithfulness to the book, except for notable changes requested by Spielberg. But The Lost World was adapted by Koepp alone and by all accounts bears little resemblance to Crichton’s book. Famously, a script by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile), who penned several episodes of the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV show in the ’90s, provided some of the foundation for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Spielberg purportedly liked it. Lucas didn’t. The bones of the script were handed off to … wait for it … David Koepp. Assumption two.
The original Indy films were made during the last great period of hands-on special effects, where a certain degree of fakery played into the fun. Miniatures, matte paintings, and animation augmented stuff that was there on the soundstage. Today, thanks to digital czar Lucas and his special-effects factory Industrial Light & Magic, an entire world-traveling action film can be shot in front of a green screen, and stunts can be performed by CGI stunt doubles who don’t mind being dropped off cliffs or shot out of cannons. Now even the youngest audience member knows how the magician made the assistant disappear Á¢€” the computer did it. Worse, even though the magicians who do these computer tricks are consummate artists, a digital character still looks digital and still moves with a calculated precision that throws us headlong from the illusion. Spielberg demanded, against Lucas’s protests, to shoot Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on film, not digitally. Were Spielberg’s assertions equally upheld in the FX department? Assumption three.
While the ever-obedient fanboy in me saw the Star Wars prequels in the theater and bought the DVDs, I don’t watch them now. My opinion of episodes I, II, and III is low, to say the least; it’s the extenuating memories of seeing them with family and friends Á¢€” a momentary escape from familial mortality Á¢€” that keep me connected, not the movies themselves. I always thought that maybe, just maybe, Lucas would fight the urge and let the first three flicks and our rose-tinted impressions of them stand. He didn’t. Things just ain’t the same anymore. Nerds the world over wet themselves when they heard Lucas, Spielberg, and Harrison Ford were actually going to do it again, but I stayed dry. I’ve had my expectations cold-chopped one too many times to have it happen again. Assumption four.
This brings me back to the original statement from Lucas that fan expectations are far too high to be credibly met and my response to that being “wrong answer.” The Achilles heel of sequels, apparently more so on fourth-or-more installments of franchises, is that the filmmakers feel indebted to honoring legacies they made themselves. They start top-loading the new sequels with all the stuff they think the fans want to see, making assumptions of what those things actually are or aren’t. Again we go to the Star Wars analogy: The fans wanted to see Yoda in his prime, a strong character who despite his small stature could rival any foe, but they didn’t want a ninja frog. They wanted the land-speeder race, but not 20 long minutes of it. They wanted Darth Vader to come into his own, but not by throwing a hissy fit like a PMS-addled Frankenstein. The original films weren’t made to honor legacies, they were made to be entertaining bits of escapism. Really, that’s all we want right now Á¢€” something to take us away from our current societal, political, and financial aneurysm, that can entertain us for a couple hours and not make us feel cheated on the other side of the auditorium doors. That’s really all we want.
So yes, I will be seeing the movie on opening weekend like all the rest. I’m hoping to have fun and to lose myself for a while, but I’m not expecting the second coming of Jesus Christ, and besides, anyone who puts a movie that far up on their wish list deserves disappointment. But my expectations are duly reserved. It will be interesting for me to read these present musings in the future when all hype dies down and all we have left to dissect is what truly is — and ain’t — up there on the screen.