Forget The Crystal Skull. Star Wars proves that Indiana Jones 5 can work

Look, I get it, okay? I totally understand why you’re not down with the idea of Indiana Jones 5. I had the same response when I first heard the news. That uncomfortable, wearying blend of immediately prepped disappointment and incredulity that anyone could even consider it after last time. The visions of a creaky Harrison Ford stumbling around an obviously indoor CG set while a cast of uncharismatic younger stars take centre stage. Indy struggling to find a convincing role during overblown, blue-screened action scenes.

I don’t need that. Not again. None of us need that again. Not after Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. We’ve had too many of our vital, charismatic heroes turned into lifeless meat puppets over recent years. Don’t even get me started on Arnie.

But despite all of this, I haven’t given up yet. I honestly think there might still be a (last) great Indiana Jones movie to be made. It’s going to have to be made very carefully, of course. Very carefully indeed. But I’m trying not to let Crystal Skull colour my judgement too much. Because actually, I think Crystal Skull could ultimately turn out to be a good thing.

Hear me out on this one. Because the thing is, as bad as the last Indy film was, there’s a recent precedent for this sort of situation working out really well. Specifically, a recent precedent involving another classic, Harrison Ford-starring series coming back from the dead after a terrible previous attempt at a restart.

Yeah, The Force Awakens. The Force Awakens is a bit good, isn’t it?

Okay, Ford didn’t have to carry Episode 7’s entire running time, by any means, but neither did the older, partially-wiser Han Solo embarrass himself. He wasn’t sidelined as a gimmick shout-out. He wasn’t a walking old-guy joke. He wasn’t Harrison Ford cosplaying a character he used to be. He was Han-goddamn-Solo, older, slightly different, but more importantly, exactly the same. The same guy, with the same core personality and same mannerisms, just at a later point in his life. And it was wonderful.

Don’t forget that we’d all seen Kingdom of the Crystal Skull by the time The Force Awakens was even announced. We had all the same fears then as we have now, and for exactly the same reasons. We were all nervous about the idea of old Han. But then this happened, and all of that went away:

There are a lot of reasons that Han works in The Force Awakens. Ford certainly looks like he’s having more fun than he’s had in years, but there’s also the matter of good writing, well-considered, sympathetic interactions between original cast and new, and a story arc for Han that includes an awareness of his age but, crucially, doesn’t pander to it.

And so we have a blueprint for how a new Indiana Jones can work. And it’s a blueprint validated further by the knowledge that Crystal Skull failed by frequently doing the opposite. That 2008 film was a consistently uneasy mix, sometimes trying to treat Indy like he was still 30, sometimes pushing him aside so that Shia TheBeef could pick up the heavy lifting. It was an Indiana Jones film that didn’t seem to know what to do with Indiana Jones, and as such, one that often made him feel either misrepresented or sidelined. And there are few higher crimes against a character like Indy, because whatever the supernatural elements in play, whatever the particular action sequence at hand, great Indiana Jones films have always been about personality and character, first-and-foremost.

Getting back in touch with that would give Indy 5 a real shot, because it would give the film a coherent and plausible way to deal with the physical side of Ford’s age. The thing is, for all of Indy’s reputation as an action hero, the swashbuckling element of the series has always been relatively grounded, shaped much more by witty, character-driven solutions than a strive for spectacle.

Indiana Jones isn’t Neo. He’s the guy who ducked out of a sword fight by shooting a dude and walking away. He’s the guy who escaped a burning, Nazi stronghold by awkwardly shuffling around on a chair, bickering with his dad. He’s the guy who survived a deadly trial-by-God by walking slowly and doing his research. And he’s the guy who averted a messy showdown on an airship by stealing a uniform, pushing an officer out of a window, and brazenly styling it out until take-off. In short, he’s a charismatic academic who knows how to play the hard man when necessary, in lieu of actually being the hard man.

As such, it’s entirely possible for an older Indy to carry a whole film, as long as that film puts his real nature front and centre rather than – like Crystal Skull – mismanaging it with unnecessary diversions and unsuitable set-pieces. Things don’t need to be big in Indiana Jones. The best scenes rarely have been, instead thriving as the product of slapstick ingenuity and humanity.

Of course, just because something can happen, that doesn’t mean that it will. Hollywood history is littered with balls sitting just outside open goals, and there was no reason that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull couldn’t have got all of this stuff right itself. Spielberg directed that one too, and Ford was eight years younger. But there’s another reason to have hope. Aside from having shown us how to revisit an aging hero properly, with respect and coherence, there’s another, possibly very important link between Star Wars and Indy 5 right now. Going off current information, previous series producer and story planner George Lucas doesn’t look to be involved.

His name is nowhere near the announcement, and so it seems that his distance from Lucasfilm following its sale to Disney is being maintained. It’s hardly any secret that Lucas’ absence from the production of Episode 7 made for a night-and-day change in quality from the prequel trilogy. The Force Awakens, much like Indy 5, was a film that knew it had a lot of making up to do, and it achieved that feat by cutting certain problematic ties to the past.

Instead, long-time Spielberg collaborator – and Producer of The Force Awakens – Kathleen Kennedy is taking up the Producer’s chair in her continuing role as new head of the company. A lack of Lucas was no doubt fundamental to Star Wars regaining its heart and soul last year, and – with Spielberg admitting that Crystal Skull’s much-maligned alien mumbo-jumbo happened at George’s demand, against his own better judgement – there’s every chance that Indy 5 will feel a similar benefit.

So let’s hope for the best for now, shall we? Once again, we have a real chance of getting back something important and long-since sullied, and there’s no point wishing it to fail. Not when there’s such a great guiding light to follow this time. Not when we now know that it can work out. Because if we’re lucky, in a couple of years we could have an Indy film that returns to the grounded, human roots of the character. One that gets its sense of scale by playing out against epic odds rather than forcing epic action or ridiculous, cosmic spectacle, and which reminds us that heroism is about more than gymnastics, capes, CG and wire-work. That’s what Indiana Jones was always really about - just like his space-faring twin - and it’s about time we had him back.

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.