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Indiana Jones and The Final Frontier

There aren’t too many reasons to go to a movie theater anymore. At least not for me. Around here, it costs my wife and I something like twenty-five bucks just to get into the theater, and that’s a lot of money. That’s quite a lot of groceries, for people in our pay range. And it’s a shame, because going to films was our hobby for so long, until my son was born. Then, it just became impractical. (And then, we discovered that actually, having a comfortable couch, a big LCD TV, a Playstation 3 with a Blu-Ray player, meant that we had no reason to fork out the money. The experience was close enough at home. And at home, we had cats. Movie theaters cannot compete with a fuzzy purring bundle putting your leg to sleep.)

There are some films, though, that we still rearrange busy schedules and find a babysitter and shell out the money to go sit in a sticky theater for. Partially because, sometimes, you’re not just going for the film, you’re going for the experience.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was one of these. I had always wished to see an Indiana Jones film in theaters (and had been too young or too out of the country for any of the others). And I was excited by the trailers, and so we went.

I had already dampened my expectations a little bit. I was becoming aware of the sacred-cow nature of these types of movies (as I talked about in my Star Wars articles) and was trying to consciously remember to take this film for what it gave me, and not for whatever massive expectations my brain had built for it. I grew up watching Indiana Jones, alongside my Star Trek and Star Wars, my Babylon 5, my Back to the Future.

I went. I sat. I watched. I came out puzzled, happy, sad, mournful.

It took me several days to sort through things, as my poor wife can attest. When I figure things out, I do it out loud. The poor woman had to put up with too many dissertations about Indiana Jones.

I knew why I was happy. I was happy because actually, it was a fun movie, and I enjoyed it. It’s not my favorite, that one being The Last Crusade, but it’s not my least favorite either, that one still being The Temple of Doom. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Raiders of the Lost Ark swap places on my list. They did interesting, and different things.

But I was puzzled about why I was also mournful coming away from it. What had left me feeling sad and like I’d lost something? What was it about the movie that hurt a little?

I thought, and I figured it out. And it was…”time.”

Indiana Jones was always meant to take after the old Republic serials, where you’d go and see a chapter a week. Indy was a serial adventure hero, along the lines of Doc Savage, or Tarzan. It was a modern homage on that, just like Star Wars was a modern space-opera serial. And one quality of those types of works, and Indiana Jones, was always a certain amount of timelessness. That is to say, the heroes are a bit eternal, always fighting evil, in that time period, against those bad guys. That’s what they’re about, and it’s what Indiana Jones was too.

Even though, yes, both Harrison Ford and Indiana Jones are getting older as the original trilogy of movies goes forward…the timeless quality remains. The Nazis are the bad guys in two of the films, but World War II is not really an issue, just a background matter. They are big fun movies. Indy does age, in the third one, and deals with his father…but he’s still just Indiana Jones, and the world is still the same as in the first film, and the adventure is always there. He is always cracking his whip and firing his pistol and wearing a fedora. The Nazis are always shaking their fists. Timeless.

Enter the fourth movie.

In the fourth movie, World War II has happened, and we learn that Indy served, has a military rank, and is now older. We also see him lose his professorship. His father is dead. Marcus Brody is dead. Indiana is older, and tired. Age. It’s a wonderful storyline theme.

The moment that really hurt, though, that left me with a sense of loss…was just after he steps out of the refrigerator that he’s been thrown across the landscape in, and he steps up on the hill. And we see the classic Indiana Jones shape, with hat on his head, and in a single slow moment, we watch the mushroom cloud build in front of him.

In a single moment, it burned away the serials, the timeless quality, the rollicking quality. And we no longer have eternal Indiana Jones fighting bad guys and putting artifacts in a museum. We have a beleaguered Jones around whom, the world has moved on, and gotten darker. There is no place for a man like Indiana Jones anymore.

The rest of the movie, once we retreated out of the modern-world and into the race-chase-fight-love scenes of the rest of the film, is just fine. I enjoyed it quite a lot. But that early stuff, combined with the very ending, they are not only out of place in an Indiana Jones film, but they bring the character down, in a way. They make him human. He was always flawed and clumsy and beat up and barely staying alive by the skin of his teeth…but he was always Indy. Now, he’s old.

It was something which George Lucas (whom people who did not like the fourth movie blame for it, and I don’t know why: David Koepp wrote the film, Stephen Speilberg directed the film, Michael Kahn edited the film…Lucas had little to do with it) said in an interview which helped clarify the matter for me: he wanted to movie Indiana Jones out of the realm of pulp serials and into the 1950’s era of B-movies and science fiction films.

That was the problem. The thing is, as I’ve said, Indiana Jones is of his time, and like Jeffty in Harlan Ellison’s story, must always remain in his time (or the tragedy is the same as that which befalls Jeffty…oh, go read the story “Jeffty is Five” already, sheesh, it’s a classic).

When you move into the 1950’s era, you move into the atomic age, and the world of science fiction. You move, specifically, into the world of Star Trek.

Star Trek is quintessential science fiction, and it follows from Indiana Jones in a lot of ways, in a literary sense. They are both, in many ways, going out into the unknown and facing things which they cannot comprehend or always handle. Indiana Jones goes into the trackless deserts and thick, dangerous jungles. The Enterprise sails into deep space, and nebula, and goes to strange planets.

Indiana Jones cannot exist in the science fiction world of the fifties and sixties, because that’s when Star Trek becomes the appropriate material for the time, you see?

Another interesting point, on the original age topic is that it’s also something that comes up frequently throughout the Star Trek stories too. Particularly the movies. I notice it, because it’s actually one of my favorite themes. I dunno why, entirely…but all my favorite Star Trek films deal with that.

Star Trek V, VI, and IV all deal with it. Captain Kirk and his crew are no longer exploring all reaches of the galaxy, because there are plenty of ships and younger people to do it. The galaxy, and technology, and Starfleet, and politics have all moved on.The Undiscovered Country is my favorite Star Trek film, and the theme is most strongly on display in that one. The whole galaxy is changing, and more than ever, Kirk and Spock and the others feel old. They are relics of a bygone age.

So, what I continue to ponder is…why does the theme work so perfectly in Star Trek? And yet come across merely as painful in Indiana Jones? (after the fourth Indiana Jones film, when the world had moved on around our relic archeologist-adventurer…you suddenly can see the hippie age, you can see Indy growing old and outdated, you can see that eventually, Indiana Jones, who is a man, will become infirm and die. It doesn’t cross your mind, in the first three.) Why does the theme of growing old and useless work so well when applied to Captain Kirk? Or to Captain Picard, for that matter, in Nemesis?

And I’m afraid, here at the end of the article, I don’t have any answer for that quite yet. I’m still puzzling it out. I’ve figured out the Indiana Jones aspect of things, and now I wonder about the opposite side of the same issue, in Star Trek.

My theory, at the moment, is this: people like Indiana Jones are not people at all, but images and archetypes. He is the quintessential hero. He is iconic, and does not age, and the world does not change much around him. Whereas in Star Trek, at least in theory, these are all individuals. They are people. They can age, grieve, die. Indiana Jones, rather like James Bond (in theory) does not age, or change. The difference is, we can replace James Bond with a new actor and change the time period.

But with Indiana Jones, he is forever Harrison Ford, and he is forever fighting Nazis in or around the 1930’s, in unexplored wildernesses.

He is, therefore, both of his time, and timeless.

About Peter Damien (33 Articles)
Peter Damien is a busy writer who lives in Minnesota because he just really likes frigid temperatures and mosquitoes. He lives in the crawl-spaces between heaps of books and can be seen scurrying out at dusk to search for food and ALL the TEA. His wife and two boys haven't figured out how to get him out of the house, so they put up with him. He as astonishing hair.

15 Comments on Indiana Jones and The Final Frontier

  1. I like the Jeffty is Five==Indiana Jones comparison.


    To put it in terms of RPGs, Indiana Jones belongs to RPGs of the Pulp vein, such as Adventure! or Spirit of the Century.  He seems to crumble into something smaller when he is outside of those veins, as he was here. 

    This movie worked best when it remembered what it was, rather than trying to transform into something else. 

  2. But with Indiana Jones, he is forever Harrison Ford

    Perhaps, for now. But just as characters such as James T. Kirk are rebooted and protrayed by newer, younger actors, so too will Indiana Jones ride again someday with a new face beneath that iconic fedora.

  3. Pete Tzinski // April 6, 2009 at 1:00 pm //

    I agree with the possibility, Scott. James Bond and Superman are two examples of multiple actors successfully protraying the role. And it did cross my mind, the Captain Kirk reboot. but I’m still waiting for the new Star Trek film to make my decision on whether not it’s WORKED, whether or not you CAN replace William Shatner with this younger guy. (I’ll be happy if you can, mind you, because it means more Star Trek goodness for me).

    But yeah, given time, there could be another Indy. And we’ve certainly had plenty of Indy-varients. Like the rather enjoyable character of Ricochete O’Connell, in “The Mummy” movies, for example.

  4. Greg L. // April 6, 2009 at 2:57 pm //

    Good, thoughtful piece. Plenty to mull over.

    My initial comment: I disagree on the quantum(?) leap from Indy to Trek. I think there is plenty of room between the two to cushion the blow of such an abrupt transition. Crystal Skull, does, I think, move Indy comfortably into the realm of such films as Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Mole People, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The Thing from Another World, The Day the Earth Stood Still and countless others of that general period. Trek and other more relatively contemporary sci-fi was yet another iteration of/reaction to THAT body of work. Indy grows older with the genre. I think it worked pretty well. It tracked with my personal journey through the genre. Yes, it was perhaps more bittersweet than the succession of Trek films, but mostly because Crystal Skull is more than likely the final Indy film. For good or ill, Trek continues on….

    P.S. (I hate to say it, because saying it may make it so, but some day, someone will come along and “re-image” Indy for a new generation, too.)

  5. Bill S. // April 6, 2009 at 3:22 pm //

    I really enjoyed growing old with Indiana Jones. I found the aging elements of Crystal Skull funny and endearing–and, he STILL won out in the end. I enjoyed the same elements of the Star Trek film series. The most blatant examples were in the final original cast outing, The Undiscovered Country. Little jabs here and there about age. Seeing Kirk and Scotty put on some pounds and show visible signs of age. But they STILL won out in the end. I view Crystal Skull as a nostalgic opportunity to visit an old friend. And it was a hoot, on equal ground with the others. FYI, George Lucas had EVERYthing to do with this film. Like all the others, he wrote the originalo story, upon which others wrote screenplays. Indiana Jones was HIS creation, not Spielberg’s. There were plenty of interviews during the long preproduction and right before the movie came out where Lucas said that for a fourth Indy film to be made, he, Spielberg and Ford all had to agree on the story, or else it wouldn’t happen. Lucas came up with the story (originally called Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars), and Spielberg and Ford strongly resisted. For YEARS. Lucas stuck to his guns and said a fourth movie would HAVE to involve “aliens” and “UFOs” and such, or there would be no film. Lucas gave them a draft one day that finally met with their approval, and Ford and Spielberg signed on. It made total sense to move Indy into the ’50s since so much time had passed (and since that’s where he’d actually be). And instead of the Nazis we now have the Commies. Again, a perfect transition. Indiana Jones is a hero of the mid-twentieth century, and that is where he’ll remain. It will always only be Ford who is Indy (even if they reimagine it one day, which I don’t think they’ll do; it would be like remaking Bogart). And one of my favorite genre images is of Indiana Jones’ classic silhouette in front of the mushroom cloud. I was in awe.

  6. Weyland yutani // April 6, 2009 at 6:27 pm //

    I think that if Crystal Skull was handled properly none of your comments about age would really apply or be considered.   It was a poor film that mishandled the ideas and nature of Indiana Jones.   Blame that on a weak story, situations that were always too easily solved (disrupting the very nature of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones), and a villain with very little bite.

    You have to remember that for every cliffhanging situation provided in Temple of Doom, there were stressful moments of Harrison Ford questioning himself, deciding to do something fairly crazy, and then bracing for the worst.  Ultimately, his decision would be successful, but unwittingly or accidentally put him into a situation that was larger and worse-off than the original situation.  Indiana would then give that exasperated look and figure it out.

    This type of storytelling was dismissed in Crystal Skull.   Instead, Spielberg delivers a magic device that parts the way for ants and bad guys,  situations like a car driven into a tree without a thought, three waterfalls without Indiana doing anything, and little creativity in any resolutions.  As example, a large set-piece is devised with the circular, receding platforms that allow entrance to the temple.   Without much of a build-up or any resolution solving, the disappointing sequence ends with the group falling ten feet into a pool of water.   That isn’t Indiana Jones and this failure has nothing to do with his age. 

    This happens time and time again throughout the film.   It lacks adventure, tension, and release.

    *As a final note, I truly don’t understand the way Temple of Doom is always picked on.   It offers some of the most iconic Indiana Jones moments from any of the films and, as outlined above, stays true to the ideas and character.    Waking up in a plane without a pilot, near-death in a spike crypt, an extended cliffhanger sequence involving a fire pit and “saving the girl,”  the walking bridge where Indy chooses crazy, the whip vs. the gun, etc.    It’s a great installment to the films and deserves far more love.


  7. Weyland: I agree with most of what you’re saying, actually. And you’re right: Indy’s signature thing to do was to gain victory by mostly getting the crap beat out of him, and then running away and doing something nuts. It’s his charm.

    As for the Temple of Doom…I like it. I LIKE all the Indy films. I don’t dislike any of them. I just have different levels of LIKE for each one, you know? And it comes further down. Not for any major reason, I just don’t enjoy it as much as the first and the third. (I need to see the fourth again, to really make up my mind about all of this). Actually, the only thing I really DO dislike about “Temple of Doom” would be the beginning stuff, in that it feels like an attempt to make Indiana Jones more James Bond-like. But even tha’ts a minor complaint. I still enjoy it.

    It will never be my favorite, though: that’s always “The Last Crusade”. My absolute favorite moment in “Last Crusade” is when the smuggler says “You lost today kid, but that doesn’t mean you have to like it,” and pushes the hat down on young Indy’s head…and then OLD Indy raises his head, grins, get punched, as the music swells. That’s just such a beautiful moment. Makes me tingle every time. πŸ˜€

  8. “Perhaps, for now. But just as characters such as James T. Kirk are rebooted and protrayed by newer, younger actors, so too will Indiana Jones ride again someday with a new face beneath that iconic fedora.”

    Well, he already has, in the Young Indiana Jones TV series. I actually wouldn’t mind Sean Patrick Flanery playing Indy again, roughly in the time period of the original movies.

  9. The Young Indy series was a lot of fun (and particularly neat, at the time, was the episode which had OLD Indy in it). I guess I don’t think of that as the same thing as a reboot, in that it wasn’t saying “this guy instead of that,” it was saying “this, in addition to that.” you know?

    I haven’t watched the Young Indy series in ages. I used to catch episodes late at night, when I lived in my first apartment. I should get it on DVD.

  10. I think they would have tied the new movie nicely to the Young Indy series if Indy lost an eye in it.

  11. Weyland yutani // April 6, 2009 at 7:44 pm //

    Pete – That really is a great moment at the start of The Last Crusade, and very eloquently capped by the final scene where Indiana decides to make his own grab for the cup.  When his father tells him to “let it go, Indiana” it’s one of the highlights of the “trilogy.”  It makes for a nice bookend moment. 

    Not to be outdone, it’s hard to beat the bit where Indiana walks over to the edge of the cliff to check out what the others are looking at.   The way that was handled, without showing Indiana’s escape, is a genius Spielberg moment.  THAT Spielberg would have had Indiana punch out the big Commie, knocking him into a nest of something else that had the ants surprisingly scurry in the other direction, taking Indiana from bad, to glad, to far worse than before.  Things like that were a missed opportunity.

    Even the much critisized vine swinging would have worked within the world of Indiana Jones, had Mutt simply failed to complete one swing, and then fallen down into a mudslide that propelled him back into the jeeps at a switchback further down.   That sort of coincidental luck would have made it an inspired Spielberg moment.   Instead, we were left with a shell of what might have been.

    Sorry, I take on a frustration for this that most of the Star Wars fans carry for the prequel films.  πŸ™‚

    Maybe, someday they will reboot back in time with a new Indiana Jones.  I’d have hopes for that.  I’d like to say that they even laid out some interesting ideas for what Indiana Jones might have done in WW2.   Who knows?

  12. Sean Patrick Flanery, who played Young Indy, is around the age Ford was when he did the original Indy trilogy, isn’t he?

  13. Weyland: Yeah, the poignant moments in “Last Crusade” were fantastic. The whole movie is a difference piece than “Temple of Doom” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Each one is a different type of movie. “Last Crusade” is very much a character piece about Indiana. Which is why I like it so much. Full of beautiful moments, and humor. (And I do love the moment when he looks over the edge with everyone else, and then just collapses while his father perkily heads off on the adventure)

    To randomly change gears: There are always modern adventure/archeology films that are declared the “NEW Indiana Jones!” and rarely are (although I think the Mummy movies capture some of the same energy and tone). But I do think that the true modern successor to the feel and delight of Indiana Jones is the video game “Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune” on the Playstation 3. Humor and action and relics and all sorts of fun. A random thought, I know, but it’s just crossed my mind.

    On the topic of “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” yeah, I agree that some of the clockwork scenes of the previous movies vanished. Your examples are good one. I mean, I GET that the Mutt-swinging-from-vines thing was supposed to be a little Tarzan send-up…but it didn’t amount to anything.

    The interesting thing about “Kingdom…” is that SOME of the age elements worked for me. And there is a singular coolness to the fact that Indy is older, and STILL can kick ass harder than young-punk-Mutt can. I mean, that’s nice.

    But I don’t know. Bringing Indy out of his glamorized serial-fiction world and into a world which is more modern just saddened me. riding through town on the back of the motorcycle, I occurred to me that in a decade or so, there’d be hippies and free-love and a weird muddled world, and the idea of Indy THERE, instead of exploring a jungle, was just sad. With the previous three films, I never gave a thought to anything but his timeless-time-period and character. With this one, I could see him growing old through the decades.

    Still, despite any problems I had with the film, I enjoyed it, and Harrison Ford was a lot of fun as Indy, again. And it’s lead to this fascinating conversation, which is a plus. πŸ™‚

    And as for the mention of the Star Wars prequels, well, I’ve talked about those previously around here too. So I guess I’ve covered all the problem-films now? πŸ˜‰



    Sean Patrick Flanery these days. (The shorter one). You know, he WOULD make a good Indy, wouldn’t he?

  15. I like your analysis of why Indiana seems so out of place.

    I DO NOT agree that Skull is even in the league of the other movies…even the questionable Temple of Doom.  And, it is most certainly not in the same league as the Lost Ark.  Skull was terrible from the start.  Part of it being that Indiana loses his mystique in the more modern setting, the ridiculous dialogue, the more comic villians, his psuedo James Dean son (who is so far from cool it’s funny), and the inability of the billionaire directors/producers to be trully interested in a project.  Give Indy to someone who is still hungry and we might see the magic again. 

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