Harrison Ford to the rescue in Crystal Skull
If you ever speculated how much better the later released Star Wars movies might have been had George Lucas found a way for Harrison Ford to act in them, you need not speculate any more.
Indiana Jones and the Kindgom of the Crystal Skull is not a bad movie, but it is as terribly written as all three of the Star Wars prequel movies. Fortunately, Harrison Ford was around to save it from becoming as disaster.
Even at 65 years old, Ford manages to provide a performance that allows viewers to overlook the deeply flawed plot, dialogue, characterization and dramatic presentation.
It his Harrison that Spielberg and Lucas have to thank for the massive sales the film got during its first weekend after the release.
The film for all of its flaws, manages through Harrison’s performance and Spielberg’s fantastic visuals to engross the viewer in a way the equally flawed Star Wars follow up movies could not.
Unlike the first and the third Indiana Jones films, Lucas seems impatient with developing character and plot, rushing through these with hurried explanations and artificial set up devices so he can get to the stuff he is most interested in: the chase scenes and special effects.
Lucas has always had a larger than life vision for his films which give them a mythical quality, but lacked the basic writing skills to allow his movies to unveil that vision.
Yet the latest and presumably the final chapter of the Indiana Jones series manages to also conclude the myth with a sacred marriage and the return of the father – two themes Lucas learned early in his film-making career.
The film also allows Spielberg to play a few of his own tricks, especially in playing off other movies.
Spielberg often communicates between his films, picking up themes and characters from one film to the next. For instance, in War of the Worlds, his male lead tells his ex wife that he will clean the auto parts off the kitchen table, a complaint that the wife in Close Encounters had with her husband. Is it accidental that in Saving Private Ryan we get a translator that is also a map maker, as we did in Close Encounters? There are so many of these references throughout Spielberg films they deserve an essay of their own.
But this Indy film, Spielberg seems to pick up a conversation he left off between father and son in War of the Worlds – where the main character’s son won’t call him father and complains about his not having a plan of action to get out of the certain crisis. We get this, too, in the Indy film.
Critics, who are often out of touch with mass appeal or worse want to influence the masses in regard to taste, have to be confused as to why the latest Indy film has become a hit.
The fact is Lucas’ film ideas – despite his flawed presentation – are the stuff greatest is made out of, and he simply lacks the skill to flush them out.
Part of the problem is that he seems to dismiss the opinions of professional writers, thinking they would spoil the purity of his ideas. This was the same basic creative flaw that caused Lucas to under rate The Empire Strikes Back, when it clearly was the best of the six Star Wars movies since it was authored by a professional writer.
In the last chapter of Indiana Jones, we see the same sketched out plots Lucas gave us in his three prequel Star Wars movies, thick with fictional clichés better plotting in previous Indiana movies allowed him to get away with.
The critics, of course, are largely mistaken about Indiana’s new side kick. Although it was heavy-handed of Lucas to dress Mutt up to look like Marlon Brando from the film The Wild Ones, the character provides Indiana with a good foil, especially because Lucas needs someone for Indiana to explain things to in order to advance the plot.
Unlike the Back to the Future trilogy, this film tries to evoke the 1950s by dumping a collection of period icons on us without them having deep enough rooting in the fiction.
This adventure could have happened in 1967, 1977 or later with a few minor changes to the ornaments. Indeed, at one point, Indy uses a handheld missile launch that looks remarkably like one development more than a decade after the setting of his film. Lucas also botched a little when he had beer being served to college kids in a tarvern that looks like a soda shop, since most of the students are clearly under the drinking age of 21.
As with Temple of Doom, Spielberg and Lucas are forced to front-load the time period references, crowding them into the early scenes so that we get a Howdy Dudy song from a TV in a house that is filled with mannequins and about to get blown up by a nuclear bomb. In the first and third Indiana Jones movies, we get so many references to the Nazi that we cannot mistake where we are in time.
The Crystal Skull also suffers from one other major change similar to what Lucas did in the Star Wars series. For some reason, Lucas has lost his faith in higher beings. In Star Wars he violated the myth by trying to find a scientific reason for The Force, here we find a film skeptical of the god-like powers that were vital in previous films. Mutt makes reference to it when he looks at the skull of the alien and says that it doesn’t resemble his God.
The Soviet woman has a lot in common with Doc Brown of Back to the Future, in that she cannot read minds, but often thinks she can. Even the skull doesn’t respond to her. Instead of God as being the source of power as in the other previous Indy films, space aliens are.
Indiana Jones has changed, too, and has become a new James Bond, not the adventurer we knew from the previous films. Although Lucas and Spielberg borrowed from the Bond films in The Last Crusade, Indiana remained Indiana. But in this film, he seems to have developed a history as a spy, and you have to wonder if it interfered with his work as a professor.
Even the Soviet female villain comes straight out of “From Russia with Love,” a combination of the KBG agent and the beautiful temptress who fell in love with Bond. This Indy movie would have been much more interesting if Lucas had stolen a little more from the Bond film and had the Soviet fall in love with Indy the way she did with Bond.
As it is, the Soviet agent is as one-dimensional as some of the mumpets Lucas is so fond of using, dragged onto the set when needed, then stuffed back into the closet when not.
This is also true of Indy’s CIA partner, whose greed isn’t even convincing.
One of the more interesting twists in the film Lucas dropped a third of the way through, and this involved the FBI and the anti communists From what people told me to the original script and what I saw through the first third of the film, I expected Crystal Skull to have indiana being chased by the commies while the FBI chased both.
Mary is a much deeper character partly because she has real back story to explain how she got where she is from where she was at the end of the first Indy movie. She even maintains some of the spiciness of the original performance; although she falls into line a little too fast after Indy mentions that his other lovers didn’t live up to the memory of her.
She helps save this film from becoming another Temple of Doom, where Lucas substitutes cheap thrills for plot and character development – a flaw that marred the last three Star Wars movies as well.
The template for Indiana Jones films is both a blessing and a curse in this film since we have seen everything in previous movies, the same truck and motorcycle scenes, the same eerie grave yard scenes, the same secret clue scenes – often not done as well as the original.
Reports from behind the scenes suggest that Lucas fiddled with the work he hired professional writers to create, which explains why writers with the skill to create films like War of the Worlds and Jurassic Park, came up with this cliché riddled film.
Of course, it is nostalgia for the older films that brought so many people to see Crystal Skull the first weekend and nostalgia that kept them in their seats. Yet there is more underlying this film that just nostalgia, and in some ways, Lucas had to create this film in order to bring together the romance he started in 1980 with the first film, bringing the hero back from the magic realm as myth requires him to, and in the end, we do not see the hero riding off into the sunset, but joining us all in ordinary life, bringing back to us the nectar of our salvation.