I know I’m covering some familiar territory here, but I cannot have a blog-a-thon about tension without listing the lessons learned from the ridiculous lack of tension in Indy 4. These lessons are just ringing in my ears. Let’s consider again the ways Indy 4 failed in the arena of tension before we look at successes.
SO, EVERYONE WANTS THE SAME DAMN THING?
You may recall how, after having gone over those 3 waterfalls, Indy tells the gang that he has to return the skull. Why? “Because it told me to.” Excuse me, can I ask a question? How can there be any tension leading up to the Third Act when Indy has the McGuffin in his possession and he’s doing what the Russians want him to do (without forcing him to do it) and he’s also doing what the skull wants him to do? Where’s the tension in that? If anything, the Russians should’ve obtained the skull in the chase sequence, captured Indy and the gang, and they all marched up to the chamber together. This, by the way, is exactly what happened in Darabont’s draft. Not only that, before going into the chamber, Darabont gave us a scene filled with tension of the gang tied to lots of TNT and a 3-minute fuse. You also had Oxley growing more terrified as they arrive at the grand plaza of The Great Stone Temple of the Gods. And then Porfi walks down the steps holding the machete and severed head. THAT is how it’s done.
THERE’S NO TENSION WITH A WEAK ANTAGONIST
A baddie has to be BAD in order to be feared. Irina Spalko was the worst and weakest of the villains in the entire Indy franchise. She wasn’t even as ruthless as Julian Glover. Screenwriter David Koepp cock-blocked every opportunity to make her a great villain. First, he should've established early just how BAD she really is. The worst thing she ever did was whip out her sword. I would’ve been happier if, instead of Mac betraying Indy in the warehouse, Spalko kills Mac to prove that she meant business. The fact that Spalko couldn't communicate with the skull was another misstep, in my opinion. Her mental connection to the skull would've raised the stakes and turned her into a more dangerous antagonist. Also, why make Spalko a psychic if A) she can’t even read Indy’s mind and B) nothing else develops from it? Her psychic abilities, I guess, was her motivation to obtain the skull’s power of mind, but she was so weak as a villain that I never felt she deserved what she got in the end. (I get the sense that they made her a soft villain so they wouldn’t offend today’s Russians, but to make her weak would be even more offensive, would it not? Besides, there is nothing worse in an Indy film than an under-motivated protagonist and a soft villain.)
CGI KILLS TENSION
You may say, “well, we don’t write ‘use CGI for this’ in our scripts.” No, but you know damn good and well when you are constructing action scenes that it’s likely they’ll be using CGI for a sequence that’s about, say, “big damn ants.” There’s no other way to film a sequence like that. And there’s a distinction between computerized ants that we all know is fake, and a real stunt involving a real human being that’s really skirting underneath a big truck, as we saw in Raiders. Or a real girl tied to the real hood of a car that’s really speeding down a road, as in Tarantino’s Death Proof. So the choice of what kind of action sequence you’re going to have is important when it comes to creating tension. You'll never feel that same kind of tension with CGI ants.
SANITIZED VIOLENCE KILLS TENSION
Mentioning (briefly) the gore in an action sequence add tension because it reminds the reader how much danger the protag is in. There was NO blood in Indy 4. Anywhere. Just a bit in the Soviet soldier's mouth before he toppled into the ants. That was it. Hardly any bullet holes in the dead Indians and no blood after the soldiers got gunned down in the beginning. This was the most cartoonish, fake, sanitized Indiana Jones film ever made and one that should’ve been PG instead of PG-13. Darabont never sanitized the violence in his script nor did the previous films sanitize the violence to this degree.
SETTING UP THE SCENE
Especially in an Indiana Jones film, you make the whole experience and joy of discovery less special (or not special at all) if it’s a tomb that Indy doesn’t discover for the first time and if it’s an artifact that Indy isn’t the first to find. In Crystal Skull, the tomb in which Indy finds the skull has already been raided, the artifact was found, taken, and put back for Indy to find later. Are you kidding me? The entire key to Indy finding his artifact is that he succeeds where many other archeologists before him have failed. In Darabont’s Indy 4 script, we had the wall of El Presidente’s, which contained photos of all the people who tried to find the City of Gods and never returned. (And I love that moment where Marion looks at the wall and through gritted teeth and a forced smile, she says to El Presidente, “Lovely tradition. Lovely.”) Consider how well Kasdan conveyed how dangerous this new world of Indiana Jones is in the opening scene of Raiders:
* You had the near betrayal against Indy when he put the map together and had to use his whip on the man that pulled out the gun.
* You had the fresh poison darts of the Hovitos.
* You had his entourage not going any further when they reached the stone sculpture of a Chachapoyan demon.
* You had the tarantulas.
* You had the dead competitor in the Chamber of Light.
* You had the pit.
* You had the dart floor in the Foyer of the Sanctuary.
There’s a process involved in carefully pointing out the danger before the big pay off of the giant boulder and Indy rushing back and dodging all of the various booby traps of the Temple on his way out.