Indiana Jones is the last pulp avatar standing. The two-fisted tomb robber/archaeologist/Nazi puncher has survived through four decades and will see in his fifth, appropriately, at the head of his fifth movie.
Of course the first question everyone asked when this was announced was “WHY?!”
But I’d argue the more interesting question is “How?”
Ford will be 76 by the time the next movie is released. He’s clearly in excellent physical shape and The Force Awakens showed just how good he is when he engages with the material…but there’s a credibility issue that the movies themselves have set up. Much of Crystal Skull was about Indy realizing he’d lost a step; that this was not as easy as it used to be. And let’s face it, things have never exactly been easy for Doctor Jones. So Ford playing his age isn’t an issue, but Indy playing his age may have to be.
Then there’s the fact that Crystal Skull gave the pulp hero the one thing he’s always successfully avoided: change. Finally married to Marion Ravenwood and with a grown son, Indy’s life changes dramatically and there’s a clear sense of him accepting that. The movie may end with him not quite being done with adventuring—but it also ends with him finally, definitively, not alone. That has to be addressed in the fifth movie and addressed in a manner other than “oh Marion died and Mutt’s at school.” If ever a pair of characters have earned a disreputable old age it’s the Ravenwood-Joneses.
So those are the issues going in: Indy’s age and Indy’s changed life.
Then there are the aliens. Or, more specifically, what they represent.
You can, and God knows people will, debate the relative merits of Crystal Skull until the heat death of the universe. But the one truly interesting thing it does is change the fictional frame of reference Indy operates in. The Nazis are gone, the war is over, Communism is on the rise—and with it, science and the insatiable hunger for strategic innovation. Everything in the movie, from the infamous nuclear detonation to the UFO in the finale is built around the idea of a scientist finally being forced to accept that the frontiers of science have been expanded. Indy is a passive force in Crystal Skull and that’s a problem, but the reason why he’s passive is a massive asset. The world’s changed and he’s watching it change around him. The man of action he’s been is becoming the academic he’s always run from: watching, learning. Understanding.
But let’s face it, a movie which was just two hours of Indy going “Hmmm” and thinking a lot would entertain very few people. I’d be one of them, but still.
So, you have a hero who’s slowing down, has a family and is starting to realize the events that define him are ones that are finally in his past. That’s really interesting ground to cover, especially given the change in pulp fiction that occurred in the 1950s. More importantly, the change in how pulp fiction reacted to its artefacts of power.
At the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Military Intelligence assure Indy that they have top men working on the ark. In reality they’re doing the most sensible thing possible; locking the thing away and hoping everyone forgets about it. Both Raiders and Last Crusade are about attempts to weaponize the past. Crystal Skull is about that weaponization succeeding. The fifth movie needs to expand that concept and run Indy’s fundamentally decent world view up against the complex moral ambiguities of the Cold War.
Because while Spalko’s plan didn’t work—and was one of Crystal Skull’s problems—it happened and that can’t be ignored. Her attempted direct engagement with and attempt to industrialize the unknown is the root of pulp tropes that still exist today. The Roswell crash, the reverse engineering of alien technology, the attempts to turn psychic powers into quantifiable strategic assets, the Montauk Experiments, Zero Point Energy, the truth behind Area 51. All of these things blossom and grow into the pre-millennial tension that gave us The X-Files. Better still they, along with Edward Snowden, Anonymous, and Wikileaks sow the seeds of the modern, hyper-aware conspiracy thriller.
This is the broader universe that Indy, by simple dint of survival, finds himself in. It’s also thematically near identical to the moral dilemma explored (and shot at, and exploded) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. There you had a man out of time faced with an amoral choice by the country he’d given his life, in every way, to defend. The end result remains one of the most satisfying and well produced Marvel movies to date.
It’s also, I’d argue, a blueprint for how a fifth Indy movie could and should be done. Have the villains as not simply Communists or foreign spies but the auspices of the US military industrial complex and government: terrified of global nuclear annihilation, convinced of the superiority of the other side, absolutely prepared to end the world even as their hand trembles on its way to the button. The villainy not just a product of evil but of fear.
Now, drop a veteran with a clear set of morals, an academic world view and a family to think of into the middle of that.
That’s incredibly compelling, rich thematic ground and I desperately hope the movie goes for it. There’s an opportunity to not only honour the character and explore a new side of him but to do something extraordinary: use an established and beloved character to throw new light onto a complex, terrifying period in history. After all, Indy’s always been a character defined by his need to discover the truth. What better place for a man like that than a time when truth was mutable and in scant supply?
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.