In the summer of 2008, America was hyped for the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: the first Indiana Jones film in 19 years (which turned out to be one of the most disappointing films of all time). But even so, I hopped aboard the hype train with the rest of the country. Having never seen any Indiana Jones films, my family and I made a summer of watching them as they were released on DVD for the first time. But in addition to the media hype was Lego Indiana Jones: both a series of new sets released by Lego and an exciting video game based on them.
As I said before, nothing brings me back to my childhood more so than those sets and that video game. And while Indy’s fourth big-screen adventure was a whopping disaster, I’ve recently discovered that this zenith of my young days was actually a very important part of my life. As I was playing the game with my friends, making brickfilms on Friday nights, and being enthralled by the masterpiece adventure films, my love of filmmaking was budding. Though I was young, I already had found a favorite director in Steven Spielberg, and would subsequently delve into his other work.
Recently I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time in a long time, and I realized something else about the fedora-wearing hero’s silver screen escapades that transcended good memories. As the credits rolled along with John Williams’ triumphant march, the tried-and-true phrase, spoken by millions of grandfathers, popped into my head: “they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore.” I’m not trying to sound like an anorak, but I believe that what I thought rings true in today’s films: blockbusters just aren’t what they used to be.
But starting in about 1999, this principle started becoming less and less true. Sure, from then on, it was still evident with some titles such as the Lord of the Rings films, The Dark Knight, Avatar, and Toy Story 3, but for the most part, the two terms have come to mean drastically different things. No critic would ever call The Phantom Menace, Mission: Impossible II, Shrek 2, the later Pirates of the Caribbean films, or Frozen masterpieces of modern filmmaking. In fact, most would say that some of them are actually pretty terrible films! It’s inarguably true that since the turn of the millennium, what makes movies successful is no longer what makes them good.
Here’s what I’m trying to say: today’s Hollywood hits aren’t bad . . . they’re just not good enough. And while people are still pumping out plenty of big-screen art . . . it’s just not what people want to see. In the past, Steven Spielberg (and countless other directors) showed us with Raiders (and countless other films) that this happy medium does exist. The problem is that it’s just simply fading away.
It all started with Jaws and Star Wars. These were the films that put Spielberg and Lucas (respectively) on the map as the “blockbuster boys.” During the premiere of the latter film, the two directors were on vacation in Hawaii, where they birthed the idea of an adventurous hero named Indiana Jones, while building a sandcastle. Why I am I writing about this instead of getting into a breakdown of the film? It’s because this conception scene is one of the most important parts of the film and is part of how new blockbusters differ. Hopefully the story illustrates the point I’m trying to make: that Raiders’ genesis was as organic as Indy keeping his hat on. For movies to have a story and concept that’s attractive and that works, they have to begin in this way: with an idea (be it new or from other source material) that the director and writer(s) see through.
Recently, studios have begun to scrap this natural flow and return to the “assembly line” style of production that was the norm during the Classical Hollywood Cinema age. During this age, films’ origins began with studio executives, deciding what they wanted to produce. From there, they passed the idea on to a writer (who did nothing but write script after script), who passed it on to a director, who passed it on to an editor. During this old-age process, each worker in this flow never saw the film past their involvement, and when they were finished, they’d move directly on to another project that the studio would assign them. Once the idea of the “auteur theory” surfaced, this process was abandoned for a more natural flow, which began with a natural root like the one for Raiders, or with a director finding existing source material (a book or a script) that they want to produce. From there, the director (and sometimes the writer too) sees the film through its entire process: writing/story editing, casting, shooting, and post-production.
This "auteur" process seems to have worked for the past fifty years, but lately, studios seem to be returning to the CHC model. The biggest culprit is Disney. Their biggest films in the past five years were Frozen and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Both of these movies clearly went through a CHC procedure: they began with executives coming up with what would make the most money: for Frozen, it would be double the princesses; for Force Awakens, it would be a “bigger and badder” version of the original Star Wars film in superhero style. From there, they decided on who they thought would be a good writer and a good director and oversaw the “creative process” with heavy formulation. The result of these operations paid off: both Frozen and Force Awakens were the highest-grossing films in their respective years. But they were certainly not tours de force.
In order for films to achieve the “happy medium” between successful and artistic, they have to apply the auteur model, not the CHC one. Sure, films from the 1930s and 40s succeeded with that model, but those days are over, and we live in a different world now.
First of all, the concept behind the film is gloriously simple: a passionate archaeologist goes on a quest to find a great piece of history, while also getting it away from the hands of the bad guys. This setup is something that all audiences can easily grasp, and at the same time, it’s something that Lucas and Spielberg can run with and make as complex as they want: that’s what makes it so brilliant.
On top of that, they add strong characters. We have Indy: the tough yet romantic hero who’s got the brains of an archaeologist and the skills of an adventurer. We’ve got René Belloq: the greedy, hatable villain (backed by the perfect villain army: the Nazis). And we’ve got Marion: Indy’s rough-and-tumble sidekick, who’s anything but a damsel in distress. Fill in the blanks with more characters who are just as strong, cast them actors who were born for the roles, and you’ve got another kicking element.
But the element that makes Raiders, along with all of Spielberg’s work, so strong is its style. Spielberg presents audience-friendly entertainment in a sophisticated, artistic style. Because Spielberg applies this manner of presentation, which is usually reserved for high art, to the already-attractive, easily-understood script, he’s able to achieve the perfect ratio of audience appeal to artistic brilliance.
Of course, there are other, more palpable factors at work in Raiders. Spielberg (along with the best directors ever) realized that fifty percent of a movie’s greatness comes from actors’ performances. Therefore, Raiders is overflowing with dramatic greatness that, frankly, it wouldn’t have succeeded without. It also has a striking soundtrack by John Williams (which no Spielberg film feels complete without) that’s just as recognizable as the film’s title hero.