Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Adventure Is Not All It's Cracked Up To Be With The Indiana Jones Trilogy!

The Good: Fun adventures, Generally good acting, DVD Bonus disc, Bits of character, Concept
The Bad: "Message" on theologies/mythologies, Role of women, Radically inconsistent film quality, Incomplete
The Basics: An ultimately average adventure series comes to DVD in a boxed set with great bonus features, but not enough to sell one on the set.

Several years ago, when I was in college, the Star Wars Trilogy (it was just a trilogy back then) was being rereleased in the theaters and I was writing a slew of reviews and articles for the campus newspaper, The Pipe Dream, about Star Wars, the films and the phenomenon. I was especially proud of an article I wrote focusing on the lack of women in the Star Wars Trilogy and the poor use of the few who were there. It was a nice, quiet article that basically insinuated that George Lucas didn't know what to do with women in the films and that was a huge black mark against the Trilogy. Recently, I sat down with the Indiana Jones Trilogy boxed set DVD and after Raiders Of The Lost Ark I would not have thought to make the same argument against Lucas.

Sadly, he reverts to terrible form in the treatment of women in the writing and execution of Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. In those films, the most prominent women are, in turn, a shrieking nag and a traitor. That's two against Lucas on the women front for the Indiana Jones Trilogy.

Now on DVD, actually one of the best selling DVD boxed sets of all time, the Indiana Jones Trilogy is a decent four-disc set that features all three films and a disc of bonus materials. There are no commentaries on the individual films, but the bonus features are quite extensive, almost making up for the in-film information.

For those who have never heard of the Indiana Jones Trilogy, the series focuses on adventures of an archaeologist who recovers antiquities in the hopes of having them displayed in museums where all of society may benefit from them. Set in the years leading up to World War II, Indiana Jones finds himself frequently plagued by the Nazis and he works as an American abroad to find items that will keep them from falling into the hands of those who would use them for nefarious purposes.

In Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is in a race to beat the Nazis and rival archaeologist Belloq to the Ark of the Covenant, the resting place of the stone tablets Moses brought down from the mountain with the ten commandments on them. In Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, which is set at least a year before Raiders, Indiana Jones finds himself trapped in a haunted castle wresting sacred stones from a blood-cult. And in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade Indiana tries to keep the Nazis from finding the holy grail while rescuing his scholar father from them.

Indiana Jones is half-scholar, half adventurer, a James Bond for the world of antiquities and the supernatural instead of world politics. He is resourceful, handy with a pistol or a bullwhip and quick with the wit, if not great with the ladies. He's a dashing guy who cleans up well, but who otherwise trots around steamy jungles almost ruthlessly willing to pursue artifacts and keep them from those who would abuse them.

Indiana Jones is played consistently throughout the series by Harrison Ford, who brings charisma and a great physical sense to the role. Indiana is the classic hero in many ways and Ford infuses personality, zest and a great sense of movement to the character. For example, in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, after Indiana has taken a serious beating from a load of villains, he collapses into bed with the heroine of the film, Marion. Ford's portrayal of exhaustion and wounded is masterful such that it is exhausting to watch him. Indiana Jones was easily one of his most distinctive roles. The problem is, his performance in the latter two movies does little but repeat the performance. Ford becomes a study in recreating a character and making him feel ageless as opposed to infusing him with any different traits. So, unlike, say, Michael Keaton in Batman Returns where Keaton tried to infuse more of a quirky, recluse mannerism into Bruce Wayne, Ford is a study in exactly recreating the same sense of character possessed by Indiana in the first film.

The supporting actors in the Trilogy are decent, from John Rhys-Davies (in 1 & 3) to Denholm Elliot, the supporting players are well chosen to have some presence but never overwhelm the lead. The closest to give Ford a run for his money on screen presence is Sean Connery, who appears in the third installment of the Trilogy.

And in these ways, the Trilogy is fun and works well. They are good stories, generally well acted.

The problem is, they are terribly repetitive almost to the point of being formulaic. All three begin with the end of a prior adventure that Indiana Jones is in the process of completing. This is nice because it allows the viewer a sense that there is a life that is going on and we, the viewer, are catching it mid-stride, that adventures are something Jones takes for granted and are ongoing rather than an anomaly in his life. But the repetition makes the films weaker when watched all together.

Then there's the swarm. Every film in the Trilogy has a chamber infested with something, be it snakes, bugs or rats, there's always a scene where Indiana Jones must climb his way through a sea of something living and generally unpleasant. By the time Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade comes around, the viewer almost hopes that it will buck the trend, but there it is, a roomful of rats. Sigh.

And when sitting down to view the Indiana Jones Trilogy on DVD in one sitting recently, something occurred to me. In Indiana's original characterization, he is a firm disbeliever in superstition and fate and the like. This is all well and good, save that each film uses a supernatural element to resolve something important or twist the plot. I can even live with that on some level until . . .

The Indiana Jones trilogy has a not-so-subtle Judeo-Christian bent to it that is disturbing for its implications. How does that come in? In Raiders, the Ark is pretty much all powerful and in Last Crusade, the Grail is pretty much all powerful, both of these being Judeo-Christian artifacts. But in Temple Of Doom, the stones are not all powerful, protecting neither the cult leaders, nor Indy, nor themselves. But worse than that, the non-Christians (or non-Judeo-Christians) are characterized as bloodthirsty (literally blood-drinking!) voodoo maniacs who will eat anything and treat life as indiscriminately worthless. In other words, there's the savages and the Judeo-Christians. That bugged me when I sat and watched them all together.

So, there's that and the treatment of women going against them. There's the repetitive plots and the real lack of character development (though there are some nice scenes in the first and third that make Indiana Jones a very different action hero, like quiet moments working through issues with his dad in the third) and the poor use of humor as the trilogy goes on. The films go from having a wry sense of ironic humor (Indiana Jones shooting a master swordsman in Raiders is still classic!) to utter farce (the legions of warriors at the climax of the second film that cannot hit anything with their arrows).

The end result is a body that is troubling in its inconsistency, united only by the steady hand of director Steven Spielberg. Spielberg does a decent job with the direction, but he overloads the trilogy with a (memorable) score by John Williams that often telegraphs the action and sense of emotion in a way not supported by what's on screen (i.e. things are frequently not as exciting as the music tells us it is).

The bonus DVD almost makes up for the poor quality of the second film and the repetitive nature of the third. Loaded with bonus featurettes about the making of each film, deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes footage, the bonus disc is a treasure trove for those who are fans of the series. But for those who find the source material degenerating into average territory, the bonus disc does little to explain why the franchise fought to churn out works as opposed to maintaining itself at a higher standard.

Finally, this boxed set is now obsolete. With the release of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, Lucasfilm will no doubt try to milk fans for more money with another boxed set. And with The Young Indiana Jones Adventures also out on DVD, there is possibly going to be even a massive boxed set eventually. Ultimately, all that leads me to the "not recommend." If Raiders Of The Lost Ark becomes available on DVD separately, it would be worth the money. But the trilogy, quadrillogy now, is too inconsistent for this boxed set to be considered a true value, even for fans of action-adventure films.

For more extensive reviews of the component films, please check out my reviews of:
Indiana Jones And The Raiders Of The Lost Ark
Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom
Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade


For other film reviews, please visit my index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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