Over the past decade-plus, I’ve heard plenty of people say that Lucas and Spielberg have ruined their childhoods, between the “Star Wars” Special Editions, the changes made to “E.T.,” and now this fourth Indiana Jones film. Personally, I can only say that Lucas and Spielberg can do nothing retroactively deleterious to my childhood that other factors didn’t already inflict. Also, film geeks need to calm down.
Yes, Lucas strayed from the path after making “The Empire Strikes Back” and never got back on track. Yes, Spielberg has had a spotty track record over the past several years. And, yes, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is either proof that Lucas holds some kind of magical sway over his friend, or that both of them have finally jumped off a creative cliff together.
My love for the “Star Wars” story world mitigates my feelings about the last four movies, so I can still watch them and enjoy returning to that place once more, even as I cringe at the bad storytelling decisions. Indiana Jones’ universe, however, doesn’t hold quite the same sway over me. I came out of a theatrical screening of “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” telling others that it was a fun time, but the more I thought about its story problems, the more that sheen wore off. It seems like Lucas, Spielberg, and Harrison Ford knew they’d never agree on a script before Ford became too decrepit to play Indy, so they said “F**k it” and went with what they had.
The sad thing is, I don’t know why they didn’t continue to develop Frank Darabont’s draft, which shares much in common with Koepp’s script but offers a better take on the entire story. Find a copy of Darabont’s screenplay on the Internet and do some compare and contrast with me. Let’s see: an exposition scene with Indy and Mutt in a diner, during which the visual interest consists of some razzle-dazzle with a comb and a glass of Coke; or an exposition scene with Indy and Marion, during which something intriguing happens in the background, an incident that not only ends the scene with a punctuation mark but also reminds us of the stakes involved.
Or how about the opening? In Darabont’s version, a pair of hot rods zip down a desert road to the strains of “Rock Around the Clock,” blowing off an old man’s hat. Cut to Indy, who bends down to pick up his iconic fedora and mutters “Damn kids.” It’s a funny moment that also serves to underscore the theme of the story: you’re never too old to go on adventures anymore. Instead, Spielberg and Lucas went with a few gophers and pointless interaction between the hot rodders and some Russian soldiers.
Since the rule of three is popular in movie storytelling, I’ll offer one more example: the rocket sled. In Darabont’s version, Indy uses it as a last-ditch attempt to escape. Koepp has Indy accidentally activate it while fighting one of the Russians. The former is an example of Indy’s ability to survive by constantly formulating plans on the fly, while the latter is an example of lazy storytelling in which a deus ex machina is required to save the hero.
True, both scripts use the lame lead-lined refrigerator stunt, and Darabont has Indy pull off a maneuver on the wing of a plane that stretches the bounds of Indy world physics (which, of course, are more malleable than real world physics). He also brings in too many characters to track during the final act. There’s enough good stuff in there, however, that it could have formed the solid foundation of a much better movie, if only Lucas and Spielberg had retained the story beats that worked. (I realize other writers turned in drafts, but Darabont’s is the only one I’ve read; I’ll certainly change my opinion if I come across a better script.)
I’m sure you’ve seen the film, so I won’t bother reciting the plot. If you haven’t seen it, rent it and see what the fuss is all about. Unlike, say, “Batman & Robin,” you won’t feel like two hours of your life were stolen from you. You’ll just feel like maybe you should get one of those hours back as a credit toward future movie-watching. If nothing else, “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is a fun roller-coaster ride. I’m just disappointed it wasn’t more than that.
So what about this two-disc set? Spielberg has continued his tradition of not recording commentary tracks, but disc one includes featurettes on Indiana Jones’ legacy and the pre-production work that went into this film. The former only serves to remind us how high the bar was set by the original film. Unsurprisingly, the many uncredited screenwriters who took a crack at this story are unmentioned, making it sound like Lucas and Spielberg hashed out an idea, gave Jeff Nathanson a swing at it, and then brought in David Koepp to bat clean-up.
The centerpiece of disc two is an 80-minute production diary that does a very nice job of mixing behind-the-scenes footage, on-set commentary, and sit-down interviews. It charts the movie’s progress from day one of filming to the end; since everyone involved was a seasoned professional, there’s no “Project Greenlight”-type drama, but it’s still an engaging look at the making of the film. If I was really snarky, I might say that it’s more entertaining than the movie.
Complementing the production diary are six featurettes that contain another hour of details: the make-up applied to the Akator natives; the real-world mythology of the crystal skulls; ILM’s work on the visual effects; the movie’s well-known and not-so-well-known props; and the post-production process. Finally, you can watch pre-visualization sequences for the Area 51, jungle chase, and ant attack scenes, view all three trailers, and flip through galleries of artwork, shots of Stan Winston’s studio, production photos, cast and crew portraits, and behind-the-scenes images. Xbox 360 owners can slip the disc into their systems for a LEGO Indiana Jones game demo; I’ve played the computer version and highly recommend it.
You may be wondering: Why did I bother to review this DVD if I wasn’t thrilled with the film? So I could bring resolution to my feelings about present-day Lucas and Spielberg, two guys who had a major impact on my childhood and on my creative writing. They’re not who they once were (and neither am I), but nothing they do today can tarnish those magical movie memories from the 70s and 80s. Well, other than turning the Indiana Jones series into The Adventures of Mutt Williams. I shudder at the thought.