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Indiana Jones in Development Hell

indiana jones crystal skull

[I take for granted you have already seen Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  If not, be warned, dear reader. There be spoilers here.]

You may have heard of this character. His name is Indiana Jones. There was a movie about him this summer, called Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Yeah, maybe this blog is getting too obscure in its references.

I liked the movie, but there were mixed reviews and a lot of people didn’t think it was as good as the previous three. In particular, there was a lot of talk about multiple scripts and a long development process. It makes sense: 20 years after The Last Crusade, there must have been tons of ideas for Indiana’s next adventure. I discovered that there was a complete script, written in 2003 by Frank Darabont, which became the rough draft for Crystal Skull.  Darabont and Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford were ready to shoot the film, but George Lucas decided he could do better. Five years later, Crystal Skull was released. 

Having read the Darabont script and seen the finished movie, I’d like to compare the two. What were the major changes? Which characters had bigger parts, smaller parts, or were completely new? I will also attempt to answer the most burning question of all: which is better?

First, a bit of background.  In 2001 or 2002 Steven Spielberg hired Frank Darabont to write the script, which came to be called Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods.  Darabont said in interviews that he spent a year writing and rewriting under close supervision by Spielberg. After they had a script they were both happy with, he took it to George Lucas, who grimaced and threw it in the garbage. Lucas then hired David Koepp, another screenwriter, to rewrite. Koepp’s version, renamed Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, is what we see today. Was the rewrite necessary?

Frank Darabont made his name on such well-regarded Stephen King adaptations as The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. (His most recent movie was another King adaptation, The Mist. It was not a huge hit in theaters but I really enjoyed it. Be sure to watch the black & white version if you rent it. )His projects tend to be studies on human emotion. In that way, he can take a premise that might seem pure fantasy and make it easily relatable.

David Koepp has written some pretty big blockbusters. JurassicPark, Mission: Impossible, Panic Room, Spider-Man, War of the Worlds all make for an impressive resume. He is capable of writing tense action scenes while maintaining steady control over the plot. That is, he doesn’t just write a series of explosions. He seems to be the go-to guy for crowd pleasing summer movies. A much more obvious choice for Indy than Darabont, although do we really want obvious for the first new Indiana Jones movie in 20 years?
What surprised me the most about the script was how close it was to the finished movie. Overall, script and movie run parallel to each other.  The adventure is still about a mysterious Crystal Skull, a buried spaceship in Peru, and Indy’s relationship with Marion Ravenwood. The action set pieces are comparable. There is still a chase through the old warehouse (although no alien body in the script), Indy survives a nuclear blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator, there is a chase scene at the university (although in the script there is a shady character with a scar on his face, and no motorcycles). The big ants are in the script as well as the movie. The climactic scene with the alien saucer rises from the Peruvian jungle was in the script, although the aliens in the movie are more mysterious. In the script they offer a wish to the men who return the skull, but the wish turns into a curse as the men die (presumably from information overload). In both script and movie, it ends with Indy’s marriage to Marion.

The big differences mostly have to do with the cast.  The script has no Dr.  Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) character.  It’s full of men instead. Indiana has no son and his father is still alive. Marion is married to a Hungarian archaeologist named Baron Peter Belasko, who turns out to be a Russian spy by the end of the story.  Indy’s “friend” Yuri (who is a Russian spy in both script and movie) has a much bigger role in the script. He survives almost to the end of that one. In the script there is also a Peruvian dictator/military leader, a much different Oxley (more animalistic), and an international expedition led by Belasko.

The touch that bothered me the most about the film is nowhere to be found in the script. The prairie dog, that hopelessly bad computer rendering that opens the film, is apparently George Lucas’ idea of a great opening shot. Darabont didn’t include it.
There aren’t as many corny references to Indy’s old age. I think, we see Harrison Ford, we already get how old he’s gotten. We don’t need to see him tripping or falling or whatever to show that he is an older man that he used to be. Let Indy age a little more gracefully. Going along with that, there is a very funny moment in the script when Indy is in the university library. His collected treasures are on display, under glass cases. He spontaneously decides he’s going to steal back the idol that nearly caused him to get crushed by a rock in LostArk. He tries the exact same trick – substituting a bag of sand for the idol, because it is sitting on a pressure-controlled alarm – and it fails spectacularly. Only this time, instead of a rolling boulder, Indy is faced with a sleepy night watchman who advises him to go home and get some sleep. That scene, I think, deals with Indy’s age without saying so in as many words.
City of the Gods opens with Indy and Yuri on an archaeological dig. I really liked that – it showed how Indy was getting along as he became more professor and less adventurer. Of course, things quickly move toward action, but it’s nice to see Indy at work before we see him dragged into his old ways one more time.
There is a more coherent subplot regarding Indy’s suspicion as a traitor. Not only do we see agents at the beginning of the movie, he is actually followed into Peru, and at the end we see him receiving a Medal of Honor by Eisenhower. It’s nice to see Indy get some recognition, especially after such ludicrous (to the audience’s eyes) charges have been made against him.
The snake joke is better. In the jungle of Peru, Indy literally gets swallowed by a gigantic snake. In the script, ALL the animals near the lost city have become huge. We see huge hummingbirds, dragonflies, the ants, and this snake. When the snake first rears its ugly head, Indy acts nonchalant. He claims to have overcome his fear. The snake then swallows him and he cuts himself out with a knife. Later that night, Indy’s about to lie down when he spots the tiniest snake imaginable. He screams like a little girl.

The dialog is just as bad as Crystal Skull, maybe worse.  Every line seems to be ready for the trailer, strangely disconnected from everything around it.

Henry Jones, Sr.  appears twice, briefly.  Once in bathrobe and once at the end, where he sings a warbly song at his son’s wedding. Is this Sean Connery’s triumphant return to the screen? It struck me as a shameless tie-in; not necessary but something Darabont and Spielberg thought the audience would want to see. Also, at the beginning of the script Indy is an old bachelor living with his father. Wow, that’s sad.

The bad guys seem to be interchangeable and have little new to offer.  Without Cate Blanchett, the script feels a little too much like “Indy runs from armed men” over and over. The new characters are all stereotypes with little new to offer.

The ending feels a little too much like the end of the Last Crusade.  Too pat.  Now Indy is immortal AND he has all the knowledge in the universe? Also, the aliens’ trap for the weak-minded treasure hunters is pretty obvious.


Cate Blanchett. There are few finer actors around, of either gender. Cate brings a certain comic weirdness necessary to any Indiana Jones movie. Without her, the bad guys would have been bland and forgettable. She was essential.
indiana jones crystal skull2I also happened to like Shia LaBouf’s character.  I liked his character’s entrance, and I liked the scenes he and Indy shared. Thinking of Indy as a dad gave the movie something new and differentiated it from the others. This was a fine way to show Indy’s age.

The university chase scene was better, even though it made less sense than the script. Why chase on foot when you can use motorcycles?

The ending was slightly better.  I liked that the aliens were not made as definitely evil as they were in the script.  There is more left open in this version. I know: George Lucas and ambiguity appearing in the same sentence?I’m going to chalk that up to the other makers of the movie. Possibly credit goes to David Koepp for not creating another race of evil aliens. Perhaps Spielberg was tired of making alien invasion movies. In any case, the result was more satisfying.
A small touch, but a nice one is that Indy appears “in costume” from the beginning of the film. In the script he doesn’t put on his fedora and jacket until nearly a third of the way in. This is just not acceptable. Indy needs to wear the costume as much as possible.

In Lucas and Koepp’s version, Indy sees an alien body at the beginning of the film. Why, then, does he act surprised when it turns out aliens are involved with the crystal skull?If you’re going to tip your hat like that, don’t try to act like nobody saw it.

Marion is relegated to little more than comic relief. In the script, she at least gets a good entrance. Here, she shows up, banters a bit with Indy, then they fall in love.  How romantic. This sort of plays in to women characters in all of Spielberg’s films: he just doesn’t seem to have much interest in the opposite gender. Maybe if he works with Cate again, that can be remedied.

Dialog remains a chief weakness, just as it was in the script. It isn’t hard to write witty banter. There should be a writer in Hollywood who specializes in it. Spielberg – if you’re reading this – I’m your man.

Overall, I have to give my endorsement to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  While City of the Gods does the action scenes well and has (at times) a more mature tone, Crystal Skull dispenses with another suitor for Marion, a truly forgettable cast of bad guys, and an ending too similar to The Last Crusade for my taste. Also, did I mention Cate Blanchett was in Crystal Skull?

I don’t think it was a matter of Spielberg, Ford, and Lucas finding just the right story to tell.  I think it was a case of egos, and of other projects diverting each of them.  Personally, I think they should have made three more movies in quick succession.  Not a trilogy per se, just three individual adventures, the final one leading to Indy’s retirement as tenured professor.  I like to imagine an epilogue with Indy as a grizzled old man in his 80’s, teaching his final course to freshmen.  He has so many stories to tell, so many that the students will never know to ask about.  He will have become as mysterious and elusive as the objects he once sought from the ends of the Earth. That’s my Indiana: he of the double life, with whip in one hand and dusty book in the other. crystalskull2

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