Indiana Jones and the Danger of the Doomed Reboot

It appears that Disney wants Chris Pratt to play a rebooted Indiana Jones. We think they might have a tougher time than with Star Wars...

In the latest bit of gossip on rebooting beloved franchises from the 1980s, Disney is finally answering the Indiana Jones question that has been up in the air since the 2012 acquisition of Lucasfilm—the studio will seek a “revival” of the good Dr. Jones’ exploits with Chris Pratt in the iconic fedora.

Now granted, it’s hardly set in stone as there’s no official confirmation from the House of Mouse about the report, but Deadline is a source that’s unlikely to spin fabricated innuendo. Disney certainly has plenty of reason to continue jumping on the Chris Pratt bandwagon after his breakout year in 2014 with both the delightful The Lego Movie and the groovy Marvel/Disney blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy. In other words, if it sounds like a massive boulder rolling in your general vicinity, chances are you should begin running…in the opposite direction.

And I can’t help but feel like this impending Indiana Jones reboot is exactly that: a two-ton slab of granite hurdling toward pop culture’s unsuspecting head. Some may call it the echoes of nostalgia, but damn it, I won’t say anything before this Pandora’s Box (or is that an Ark of the Covenant?) gets opened.

Obviously, the prospect of a fifth Indiana Jones movie has been a touch-and-go affair in the seven years since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull landed with a thud. As late as 2011, Harrison Ford was ready to go again even with his 70th birthday on the horizon, stating that his only reservation was that “I ain’t going to Mars.” An obvious critique of the sci-fi detour that the fourth Indiana Jones adventure made.

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He was not alone in the sentiment. Steven Spielberg admitted that same year that he publicly had issues with the “inter-dimensional” beings of Crystal Skull (though he maintained deserved pride for bringing Marion Ravenwood back to the series). But he “deferred” to George Lucas for the stories, and stated that he was indeed ready for a fifth adventure with a story concept already picked out—he merely was waiting for Lucas to commit to it.

Yet, as has become movie history, that was never meant to be. After the Lucasfilm purchase by Disney, Ford still remained cautiously hopeful for a fifth Indy, even stirring the media pot for it in August 2013, but it all seemed over when Lucas announced his retirement from big movies. Right before the Lucasfilm sale, producer Frank Marshall (who incidentally is married to the current head of Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy) had already predicted we’d seen the last of the George Lucas Indiana Jones films.

Nevertheless, if anyone thought Disney was working distribution rights out for future Indiana Jones movies solely for Paramount Pictures’ benefit, then I have a golden chalice you might want to sip from. Marshall saw Crystal Skull as his and Lucas’ last Indiana Jones picture, but for Disney and Lucasfilm, the road appears as open as the one Star Wars is paving at light-speed.

But they have chosen poorly.

More than any other property Disney has acquired, Indiana Jones remains irrevocably linked to the time it was created in and the masterminds behind the first film. Like Star Wars, Indy is the product of George Lucas’ nostalgia for a certain movie serial and pulp magazine aesthetic from his youth, but it was also much more linked to that initial inspiration in a symbiotic ouroboros than his space opera.

Famously, Steven Spielberg didn’t come aboard to what metamorphosed into Raiders of the Lost Ark until after Eon Productions made it clear that he would never direct a James Bond picture. Spielberg viewed Indiana Jones as his chance to prove he could do a serialized superhero for adults, but unlike the Bond series, he rooted the character in a rich, precise cinematic language. While the director, Lucas, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan unapologetically pulled inspiration from those beloved Depression and World War II era serials, as well as Uncle Scrooge comics (the idea for Raiders’ boulder came to Spielberg from recalling the Scrooge story, “The Seven Cities of Cibola”), and pulp magazine illustrations like Thrilling Wonder Stories, the filmmakers also drank deeply from the cinematic greats of that era.

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Lucas may have initially viewed Indiana Jones (originally named “Indiana Smith”) as a direct correlation in personality to James Bond, but Spielberg and Kasdan filled in the grit and “Greatest Generation” sheen to the character by borrowing from some of their favorite movies, such as when Jones’ vainglorious love for treasure and drink was inspired by The Treasure of Sierra Madre’s prickly Fred C. Dobbs. Similarly, what is the beloved red-line across-the-map travel but a nod to 1940s editing short-hand for tight schedules, tighter budgets, and interchangeable back lots? Spielberg was as interested in paying homage to Michael Curtiz and John Huston as he was the serials of yesteryear.

These various influences helped build a film that had something to prove and demanded filmgoers’ awe. Every frame of Raiders of the Lost Ark sizzles with a determination to be the best three-ring-circus ever put to celluloid. In a game of inches, death-defying escapes from South American tribes and booby traps turns into ideological wars and speeding car chases with Nazis. Literal cliffhanging escapes from cobra-infested tombs crescendo into a brush with the Wrath of God. It is a possessed film where each shot has a giddy energy intensified by its practical analogue effects, as opposed to being dated by them like so much of the digital CGI that has replaced this brand of old school showmanship.

Raiders is a delirious ride that even had Oscar applauding with a Best Picture nomination. Spielberg and company couldn’t quite recreate it—but they came very close with 1989’s wildly entertaining Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Recapturing that sense of fire and infectious love for the classics is a tall order, and that was before I even mentioned the iconography of Harrison Ford in the role of Indy.

But achieving the creative success of any of the original three Indiana Jones films is inconsequential when compared to obtaining an inflated equivalent of their box office prowess. And this is where an Indiana Jones reboot, with or without Chris Pratt, faces a real biblical struggle: exhuming one of Hollywood’s most sacred cows.

All of the aforementioned intertextual romance the Raiders filmmakers had for their inspirations was not obscure in 1981; it was celebrated. As the perpetual need to evaluate “my generation” continued for Baby Boomers into the ‘80s, we saw a similar continued reevaluation of their parents’ era(s), replacing distrust with idolatry. While Tom Brokaw didn’t coin the term “the Greatest Generation” until 1998, already a romantic nostalgia for those who went off to World War II and survived the Depression had seeped into the culture, especially as a backdrop for the important films of the previous decade, such as The Godfather, The Sting, or even Roman Polanski’s noir renaissance, Chinatown. By the time the 1980s were booming, neo noir was so ubiquitous in the media landscape that it was informing both children’s films with their ‘40s iconography, such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and forward-gazing science fiction, like the equally retro looking Blade Runner.

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This nostalgia for a bygone era, or at least the moviemaking tricks that entertained it and became the cinematic comfort food for its children, was omnipresent when Indiana Jones punched out Nazis in projected shadow silhouette, or battled Thuggee fiends more bravely than Gunga Din.

In 2015, we are much further removed from that Greatest Generation nostalgia than ever before. While critics and moviegoing parents of the ‘80s could smile at the prospect of slashing dastardly Nazis with a whip, or catching Spielberg’s homage to the pulp magazine Boys’ Life like Roger Ebert did in his Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade review, at most the nostalgia for many modern younger viewers rests squarely in watching Harrison Ford on VHS or (gasp) DVD alone. For some that may be enough, but unlike Star Wars, continuing the story is a far less timely affair. And that still doesn’t even take Harrison Ford into account.

What Ford brought to the character of Indiana Jones cannot be understated in its immensity. He always knew to play this rip-roaring hero with a wink and a smile, but his deadpan could only go so far. As if he stepped off the set of a War era propaganda film, Ford quite clearly felt like he was a part of this period piece. He didn’t play a 1930s contemporary, he played the kind of hero that children of the 1930s paid to see. The similarities between Ford’s world-weary edge and the grouchy cynicism of Humphrey Bogart in the aforementioned The Treasure of Sierra Madre was not lost on Spielberg or audiences. Indeed, Ford made a long career by playing up a similar sense of misanthropic wit and intellectual disdain as the biggest movie star of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Hell, it’s the very reason Sydney Pollack (unwisely) remade Sabrina with Ford in the Bogie role—if only he could have found a modern day Audrey Hepburn.

That tangible quality of a knowingly bemused hero with a sardonic, but entirely alpha, disposition was invaluable in 1981’s Raiders, because it had already become uncommon in contemporary Hollywood. Today, for all intents and purposes, it’s extinct. Chris Pratt has an enormously entertaining star appeal that makes him perfect for spearheading a third Jurassic Park sequel, or for channeling a different kind of nostalgia that man-children now possess for the late ’70s and early ’80s in Guardians of the Galaxy. But Indy is an entirely separate Spielberg aesthetic that values a quality Pratt and most other modern Hollywood leading men haven’t showcased. Dr. Jones is a rough-and-tumble brawler who still pulls off a modest tweed bow tie and a tan suit during school hours. This is in no way a criticism of Pratt, who brings his own wild energy, but the appeal of Indy feels so exclusively related to Ford that he seems irreplaceable in the role; and I imagine audiences will agree.

While Disney/Lucasfilm avoided this exact landmine when they brought back Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill for The Force Awakens, a new Indiana Jones movie is an infinitely tougher sell. The character both on and off the screen may be borne from Sean Connery’s James Bond, but Dr. Jones is not a persona from a series of novels, nor is he a timeless archetype to be reimagined every decade. He is very much a product of the Second World War era that was created by Harrison Ford just as much as by Spielberg, Lucas, and Kasdan, and for 35 years, Ford has singularly defined the character on the big screen.

Cubby Broccoli was barely able to replace Connery in the role of James Bond after seven years (1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service underperformed and Roger Moore wasn’t widely embraced in the role until 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me). Ford has been Indy for far longer, and modern audiences can show just as much resistance towards recasting. Don’t believe me? Just ask Sony how warmly Andrew Garfield has been received as Spider-Man…

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Den of Geek’s editor Mike Cecchini posited an interesting counterpoint to this entire feature, suggesting that the cast of the original Star Trek series (including William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley) were just as crucial at breathing life and iconography into their characters, and they have been (fiscally speaking) successfully replaced with the recent J.J. Abrams Star Trek films.

It is a fair point, but I would suggest that the Star Trek brand had already been devalued into a commodity by half-a-dozen spin-off TV series, movies not featuring the original cast, video game world-building, and an endless array of franchising—not dissimilar to what Star Wars is about to experience when its brand supersizing commences later this year. However, unlike those brands, Indy still remains hallowed ground for most filmgoers, Crystal Skull disappointment not withstanding. For three decades, it began and ended with Spielberg, Ford, and Lucas coming from a specific perspective.

If studio suits are determined to open this sacred artifact, what they find inside come opening weekend may not be safe for human eyes.

You and I are just passing through history–but we can still discuss it if you follow me @DCrowsNest.