Friday, October 03, 2008

Tension – Indiana Jones

Hey guys,

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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.



Sabina E. said...

Indy Jones 4 fucking BLEW. George Lucas and Speilberg really ruined my fond childhood memories of the 80s.

Ugh. For that, I'll never forgive George Lucas for that.

Burbanked said...

Ah, MM...
Excellent article, but each time I think I've moved onto "acceptance," you drag me back to anger or depression over this. Tell me: will the pain ever completely go away?

What a frigging waste (not you; Lucas and Spielberg and Ford and Darabont and aaaarrrrrggggh.)

Carl S said...

I agree about the stunts and action scenes. A REAL stuntperson adds so much to the tension of the moment as compared to a horde of CGI monsters (as much fun as they are to watch, say in "Starship Troopers")

Kurt Raether said...

Another good post. I should have entered the blog-a-thon - a movie I finally saw recently, Van Sant's Elephant, had CRAZY tension. Just slow, flowing walks around the school, and then a brief glimpse of the gunmen walking toward the school, and then back to the day-in-the-life sort of scenes, which have a completely different feel when you're waiting for the first shot to go off.

Anonymous said...

"Indy 4" seems to be the new trendy movie to trash. And while I don't think it's a perfect film, I also don't think it deserves a lot of the grief it gets. A lot of the points listed above don't hold water for me. For example...

"Everyone wants the same damn thing". The film clearly sets up that "whoever returns the skull to Akator will gain access to its powers". So obviously, yeah, everybody wants to be the one to do that. It's a race to be first, and in ANY race, everybody wants the same damn thing. That doesn't mean there's no tension.

"CGI Kills Tension". It's trendy to bash CGI as well, but the use of CGI has nothing to do with whether a scene is tense or not. Jurassic Park's T-Rex attack scene uses heavy CGI, and it's a phenomenally tense scene. Heck, the original King Kong had jerky stop motion monsters all over it and it's got real tension throughout. I like the ant scene in Crystal Skull. The ants are convincingly done, and it's a cool twist on the Indy tradition of "creepy crawlies".

"Sanitized Violence". The cultural zeitgeist regarding cinematic violence has changed a lot since Raiders came out. I'm convinced that if Raiders was made exactly the same today it'd be rated R. You've got a guy getting shot point blank in the forehead, another guy with spikes jammed through his head and body, a guy getting hacked up by a propellor, lots of melting bodies, etc. You can't get away with that in family entertainment today. Even "Dark Knight", as intense and gritty as popular entertainment gets today, didn't have that much gore. Spielberg and Lucas aren't about to take Indy into R-rated territory. They merely modified the standards to follow the culture.

I do agree with a couple of the points. Spalko probably could have been made more evil, although I liked her enough as she was. And yeah, it'd be nice to see Indy discover something that hadn't already been discovered. But I don't think Koepp deserves to be strung up.

And let's get over the notion that Darabont's script would have saved everything, shall we? The first 45 minutes of his script was a James Bond movie from the 60's, not an Indy movie. (Exactly what does preventing the sale of nuclear weapons have to do with Indiana Jones?) Opening an Indiana Jones movie with our hero having coffee and light conversation in a restaurant? I don't think so. And Indy falling down drunk, stealing artifacts from his own museum because he feels sorry for himself? You don't treat an iconic character that way.

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