MOVIE ESSAY: Raider of the Lost 80s – by Scott Essman

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When RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was released in 1981, it did the unthinkable – the movie superseded the previous works that creator-producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg had each done individually in genre filmmaking. And that said a lot, with Lucas on the heels of the first two STAR WARS films, and Spielberg just a few years away from JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. Add Harrison (Han Solo) Ford to the mix, and you had a producer-director-star team that couldn’t miss.

Of course, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts, and RAIDERS was perhaps the finest work that any of the three men had delivered to date. Every shot in RAIDERS was a mini-masterpiece, every line memorably delivered, every image indelible. It would be impossible to surpass, and though Spielberg released the ultimate genre pic E.T. the next year and Lucas and Ford provided the third STAR WARS film the following year (failing to top the instant classics of STAR WARS and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK), the group re-teamed with INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM for a monster summer 1984 release.
DOOM had more thrills and chills than RAIDERS, and like EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, was a significantly darker film than the original which spawned it. Rumors of an X rating abounded, and critics lashed out at the violence, though most audiences ate up a return trip with the character and the frantic pace of the film’s second half. DOOM was not as good a film as RAIDERS, but as sequels go, it provided much of the content that audiences beckoned in a genre sequel.

Five years would pass before the third installment, INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, which dumbed down the character by making him the infantile son to Sean Connery’s father. Much of the magic of the first two films was long gone, as the time differential between films seemed to have sapped the intangibles away from the screen. Lucas was way past the original STAR WARS trilogy by that period, and Ford and Spielberg had both established themselves in more serious non-genre material in the mid-to-late 1980s. Were their hearts not in it anymore? One would think so, and the aging franchise seemed destined for trilogy status and endless DVD repackagings where it would rightfully claim its position as the best homage ever created to classic movie serials which simultaneously gave audiences one of the great movie heroes of all time.

But then a funny thing happened. After a near decade without much in the way of original filmmaking content, Lucas decided to resurrect the STAR WARS franchise, albeit with mostly new characters. Thus, the late 1990s and early 2000s were rife with re-releases of older films infused with new material and highly trumpeted newer films, all of which reminded us why the original STAR WARS trilogy was great in the first place and probably should have been left as is in the collective minds of fans as one of genre’s most awesome triumphs.

Was a return to the RAIDERS cinema machine inevitable? Lucas’ lone dual franchises were ripe for continuation despite evidence in STAR WARS of the unlikelihood of re-popularizing a long deceased property. Surely, the new STAR WARS films made loads of money, but with Lucas’ many holdings and businesses, money would hardly seem a goal of his at this juncture. Or would it?

With few artistic reasons to continue a dormant cinema legend, one could only intuit that Lucas banked on STAR WARS and now INDY to rebuild his empire or at least re-found the monuments that he has built to himself in the Bay Area. More rumors of possible scripts have come and gone over the years, with the newest version lastly credited to David Koepp. With this final screenplay and guaranteed participation from Spielberg and Ford, why not attempt another Indy? If STAR WARS showed Lucas anything, he has a whole new generation of fans who are willing to shell out unlimited cash for what were cinematic icons.
Surely, age must have been weighing on the minds of the participants. Lucas and Ford are both well into their 60s with Spielberg just entering his, and the trio must have assumed a now-or-never philosophy if they were going to do INDY again. If they had a winning script and the same team that created legend once, why not once more, even though the first film was realized almost 30 years ago.

Alas, what Lucas has ultimately presented this time out in the form of a MacGuffin—as he and Alfred Hitchcock have designated the somewhat meaningless object of a quest whose journey is the real treat—is a faint echo of lost arks, magic stones, and holy grails. In fact, the crystal skull of the title turns out to be less an inventive sacred object and more one of minor curiosity, of primary interest to UFO conspiracy theorists, more likely for completists alone.
Much more troubling is the fact that the magic, already waning in 1989, has clearly suffered in many other ways. Spielberg is still the filmmaker he has always been, but without the formerly fresh qualities of the character and his predicaments abounding, has far too little to work with to conjure a compelling film. It is at first thrilling to see Ford back in the familiar Indiana Jones hat, but shortly into the film, we also realize that with little of interest to pursue in the story, the actor is having a difficult time wearing his Indy role decades after he stopped doing this type of work onscreen. However, his advancing age – 65 when he shot the movie – ends up being less of a factor than one would think.

All of which leaves most of the blame at Lucas’ feet. His co-writers on the story and screenplay are really at Lucas’ behest, and other screenplays for CRYSTAL SKULL which Ford and Spielberg loved were reportedly rejected by Lucas for unknown reasons. What remains is thoroughly underwhelming even if it exists in the province of the INDIANA JONES realm. Car chases only serve to remind one of the brilliance of RAIDERS. Caricatured villains from the earlier films are replaced by even more implausible and forgettable Russians. Setting the film in 1957 was an inevitability with Ford in the cast, but does little to provide a sense of time and place after an extended prologue. Surely, there are some fun touches, like seeing Karen Allen again, although she is in the story for no particular reason. Plus we catch a glimpse of that lost ark, last viewed in the shocking warehouse epilogue from the first film. But reminiscing about the earlier films just make us wish for their glory again.

As a footnote, the filmmakers, fronting their piece with a sexagenarian, must have felt it necessary to cast a young character with whom demographical audiences could identify. But they missed the mark with Shia LaBeouf, who enters the film like Brando and leaves with the indication that the torch may be passed to him for a new slew of INDY films with his character at the forefront. But, at the last second, with LaBeouf about to claim his rightful heir to the INDY throne, Ford grabs the proverbial hat as if to say, “Not as long as I’m alive, kid,” without using any dialogue. What exactly that indicates about the future of INDY is anyone’s guess, though one should not be surprised to learn of a fifth installment in the very near future. If Lucas has his way, his franchises might continue forever, but wouldn’t we all be more pleased if he concocted a new one?

Movie Essay
Written by Scott Essman
Originally Posted 5.26.2008