Growing up, Indiana Jones was always my Star Wars. That’s not to say I didn’t like Star Wars – the fact that as an adult I’m writing weekly reviews for a Star Wars cartoon would indicate otherwise – but it was something that was part of my life from an age before I can even recall. Like the Disney animated features or Jim Henson’s Muppet creations, Star Wars has always been part of the background texture of my life. Not so with Indiana Jones. I was made to wait until I was a little bit older to see Raiders of the Lost Ark and I vividly remember the way it completely rewrote my 7-year-old mind.
The other side of this coin is that the disappointment of the Star Wars prequels wasn’t nearly as devastating to me as the experience of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. As Scott Wampler of Birth.Movies.Death. so aptly put it, walking out of that theater, it felt as if someone had died. As far as I’m concerned it might as well have been a death. The series was over. Done. They had definitively proven that continuing Indiana Jones two decades later was a mistake, and there was no coming back from that tragedy. And yet, yesterday’s news is just the realization of an inevitability we’ve been staring down since Disney bought Lucasfilm back in 2012. Indiana Jones will be returning, whether anyone thinks that’s a good idea or not.
It’s definitely a bad idea, but as far as bad ideas go the return of Spielberg to the director’s chair makes this a little bit harder to dismiss. Spielberg is, without question, our greatest living filmmaker, and if Indiana Jones must continue (and Disney insists that it must) giving him a chance to right the ship is the best case scenario.
Still, I approach the entire notion of this sequel with a great deal of trepidation. If Indiana Jones is to be brought back from the dead there are a few things I’d like to see. You’ll note that there’s nothing on this list as specific as ‘no aliens’ and that’s for a reason. Spielberg’s a smart man, he’ll be fine. He doesn’t need some chucklehead blogger reminding him what didn’t work in the last film. Instead, these are five things that I think are essential to the fabric of Indiana Jones and the only way I could see a continuation working out.
No Forced Continuity
This is a big one for me, because it’s an essential part of the series that happens to run totally counter to the current trend in blockbuster filmmaking. Indiana Jones, very much in the style of the James Bond films that inspired it, is a series of one-off adventures. There’s no grand, overarching narrative, there’s no interlocking continuity. Each movie is a complete adventure with a beginning, a middle, and an end. What happened to Mutt Williams after the last movie? How does Indy manage to balance a life of adventure with the responsibilities of marriage? It doesn’t matter! It’s ten years later, Indy’s off on a new adventure, and we’re good to go.
Temple of Doom is technically a prequel to Raiders, but if not for the date at the beginning of each film, there would be almost no indication as to the chronology of the series, and that’s the joy of it! As similar as they are, each film has a different feel in terms of its setting, its tone, its supporting cast, and even the demeanor of Indiana Jones himself. Yeah, people have tried to track the arc of the character from one film to the next, but that’s kind of spoiling the fun. The fact that our hero can slip right into whatever role that particular story demands of him is what makes this loose serialization so appealing. Bond faced off against Blofeld in You Only Live Twice movie, but On Your Majesty’s Secret Service needs them to be unfamiliar with each other? No problem, just go for it! Connery’s sick to death of playing the role and is making absurd demands? We have an audition with a Mr. Lazenby at noon!
The issue is that, thanks to the precedent set by Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and the Marvel movies, people have come to expect longform storytelling as the default for any major movie being released. It’s gotten to be such a problem that even Bond – the quintessential example of a laissez faire approach to serialization – had a whole bunch of dunderheaded retroactive continuity crammed into his new movie. Don’t get me wrong, I like elaborate, interwoven stories as much as the next person, but there’s a time and a place for it, and Indiana Jones is not that place. That’s not to say elements like the supporting cast or villains can’t carry over across entries, but the story of the film should be wholly self-contained.
But while we’re on the subject of cast…
A Really Strong Supporting Cast
Harrison Ford has not been the most consistent performer as of late. He’s really, genuinely great in The Force Awakens, but one needn’t go back very far to find a performance that feels as if it was delivered at gun point. Part of it definitely comes down to Ford’s interest in the project and how much he’s engaging with the material, but as with any actor, a big part of it comes down to the quality of the other actors he’s playing off of. Ford does great work with Chadwick Boseman in 42, he’s solid alongside Viola Davis and Asa Butterfield in the otherwise not very good Ender’s Game, and he’s, of course, terrific working with Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Adam Driver in The Force Awakens.
Not only will a strong supporting cast bring out the best in Ford, but if we’re staring reality square in the face, Ford will be 76 before this movie comes out. The worst sequence in The Force Awakens (the “rathtar piss break” as a friend of mine calls it) also happens to be the most action-heavy scene Han Solo participates in. No disrespect, Ford is in better shape at at 73 than I can probably ever hope to be, but surrounding him with younger actors who can do the heavy lifting in the action department is probably for the best
I’m not sure how many existing characters could realistically return for this – Sallah is the only one that seems even remotely likely – but either way, it would behoove them to take a page from the Star Wars playbook and invest in an exciting new faces to go along with the old favorites.
Responsible Application of Nostalgia
If we assume that the setting of this film will reflect the eleven year gap between it and Crystal Skull, that means Indiana Jones 5 will be taking place in 1968: the same year Steven Spielberg released his short film Amblin’. There’s a bizarre ouroboros quality to the notion that Spielberg is making an ‘80s nostalgia film that could also very well be a ‘60s nostalgia film. And nostalgia is all well and good – after all Raiders of the Lost Ark was born out of Lucas and Spielberg’s nostalgia for the old adventure serials of the 1930s – but it’s a quality that should be handled with care.
Go too far one way and you’ve just done a cover band version of something we’ve already seen, but go too far the other way and it becomes unidentifiable. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull weirdly has both of these problems. It simultaneously trades too heavily in nostalgia to while also feeling stylistically and aesthetically alien (pardon the pun). Indy and Marion’s lovers’ spat in the quicksand felt like bad fan fiction, while the flying saucer finale essentially ceased to be Indiana Jones.
If you want to see the Platonic ideal of this balance, look no further than Creed. Creed is an astounding feat of filmmaking because it takes the basic, familiar framework of Rocky, but makes every single structural callback ring with an entirely new meaning. Yeah, Adonis, like Rocky, is just some rookie fighter who gets a shot at the championship because of his name, but what that means to each character and how they are motivated by these similar situations are as different as night and day. Creed feels like a Rocky movie, but not like one we’ve ever seen before, and not only did it bring one of the most beloved characters in film history back in spectacular fashion, but it also managed to tell a brand new, deeply personal story in the process.
That’s a high target to shoot for, but that’s exactly where Spielberg needs to aim.
An Ending for Spielberg and Ford’s Indiana Jones
In all honesty, I’m kind of surprised that Disney got Spielberg to sign on for this. I’m glad that he’s onboard, as it’s the only saving grace this project has, but regardless of how it turns out, this is almost definitely going to be Spielberg’s last Indy movie. As for Ford, I could maybe see him sticking around for one or two more, but even that’s unlikely. Look at Han Solo’s fate in The Force Awakens and you can get a glimpse of where Ford is at with these characters.
But even if Spielberg and Ford were game to do a sixth Indiana Jones movie, they really, really shouldn’t. I don’t think Indiana Jones works in the second half of the 20th century. His story is rooted in a world that no longer exists: a world caught in between the cataclysmic upheaval of two world wars, where the entire structure of our reality is changing concurrent to technology’s ability to let us fill in the blank edges of the map. It’s a world where gods and monsters could plausibly exist in some deep, dark, unexplored jungle, and by the back half of the century that world had ceased to be. For all their similarities, Indiana Jones cannot transcend his setting as James Bond has done; he belongs in the 1930s.
Even if this is the glorious return to form we’d all like it to be, there’s no sustainability in continuing to move Indy closer to the present. Good or bad, this needs to be The End.
A Satisfying Passing of the Torch
But of course, this won’t be the end. Disney’s not in the business of finishing franchises, and Indiana Jones will continue to have adventures until all of us are dead. With or without Spielberg, with or without Ford, there will be more Indiana Jones movies. And they will be Indiana Jones movies, not some supporting character bumped up to take over the series. It’s the name and the hat and the whip that sell tickets, and you’re not going to get that with a legacy character. So if you can’t keep pushing Indy into the future, the only way to go is to take him back to the past.
If you want to keep making Indy movies forever, you have to go back to the 1930s and recast the role. If you drop the convention of listing a specific year at the beginning of the film, Indiana Jones can run around fighting Nazis and discovering supernatural artifacts in that early WWII period in perpetuity. Again, these things shouldn’t be strictly serialized, so if the continuity is kind of a mess, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that Indy is back in the setting that people respond to having a whole slew of new adventures.
The question, then, is how to handle that passing of the torch. I’m still somewhat partial to Devin Faraci’s Godfather II-esque idea of intercutting Indy’s present day adventure with one he went on back in the ‘30s, but the trick will definitely be to get people to fall in love with this new version of the character before he headlines his own movie. Again, we need only look at The Force Awakens to see how powerful this formula can be. Get people in the door with the thing they’re already familiar with and then get ‘em attached to the new thing so they come back next time.
As much as I may think it’s a bad idea to keep making Indiana Jones movies, there’s not much I can do to stop it. The best I can hope for is that they’ll find a way to do it right, to make it fresh and exciting and do for this dead and buried series what they’ve already done for Star Wars. Five years ago I thought Star Wars was scorched earth, incapable of bearing healthy fruit, but now I’m maybe more excited about it than I’ve ever been in my life. If Star Wars can come back from the dead, maybe my favorite film series can do the same. I remain skeptical, but it’d be a hell of a thing if they managed to get this right.