Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Are "Let the Right One In" and "Let Me In" metaphors for puberty?

Why are we so obsessed with vampires?

While Bram Stoker got the ball rolling on the whole vampire phenomenon back in 1897 by creating the (both figuratively and literally) immortal Count Dracula, vampires have seen a resurgence in our culture in the past two decades. One can lay blame at Anne Rice, whose novel Interview with the Vampire and the subsequent 1994 movie adaptation starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, helped pave the way for looking at vampires in a modern context. Or maybe it’s a resurgence of Bram Stoker’s original masterpiece, as evidenced by the success of the 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gary Oldman in the title role. The resurgence of the original Victorian nature of the novel has inspired other 19th century interpretations of the vampire mythology, most notably Seth Greene-Smith’s novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Or maybe we can blame those pesky teenagers for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Vampire Diaries, and yes, Twilight. Or maybe we can blame horny adults for True Blood.

Because if anyone should be blamed for imagery like this...

The fact of the matter is all of these interpretations are successful because vampires speak to our most human fears and our most exotic (or erotic) fantasies. They’re immortal. They feed by killing. They share a relationship with the occult, the supernatural, and rebel against social norms, the church, and societal doctrine. But, perhaps most importantly, the idea of the vampire has always been associated with sex and sexuality, whether it’s Count Dracula seducing Lucy and her subsequent transformation into a less-pure, more sexual attractive being, the homoerotic tension between Lestat and Louis in Interview with the Vampire, or, yes, even Bella and Edward in Twilight. Note that vampires are also obsessed with fluid exchange for purposes of fulfilment and reproduction, but that fluid is blood.

With that said, let’s talk about two of my favorite vampire adaptations of the past few years (and possibly ever). Let the Right One In is a 2008 Swedish vampire thriller directed by Tomas Alfredson, written by John Ajvide Lindqvist and based on his novel of the same name. The story follows Oskar, played by Kare Hedebrant, who is a bullied 12-year-old boy who develops a relationship with a strange little girl name Eli, played by Lina Leandersson. What Oskar begins to discover is that Eli is a vampire, and she is aided by an adult caretaker (whose origins and relationship with Eli are left unknown) who drains blood from murder victims in other for Eli to feed. Eli and Oskar develop a relationship, but several close calls cause Eli to try to escape. Meanwhile, Oskar’s bullies have decided to gang up on him in retaliation for a time when he fought back against them, and attempt to drown him in a pool. Eli saves Oskar, and the film ends with Oskar on a train, escorting Eli, who is hidden in a box.

A haunting poster for a haunting movie...

The film was remade for an American audience in the form of Let Me In, released in 2010, written and directed by Matt Reeves. This time, Chloe Grace Moretz plays the little-girl vampire character, renamed Abby in this adaptation, while Kodi Smit-McPhee plays her human friend, renamed Owen. In terms of plot and structure, both films are pretty much the same, with Let Me In having minor deviations from the plot of its Swedish predecessor. For example of these is that the adult caretaker character, played in the American version by Richard Jenkins, is definitively set up as being another boy who developed a relationship with the immortal Abby when he was little, and subsequently grew up to be her guardian.

Innocence dies. Abby doesn't, and neither does America's taste for remakes of foreign horror movies!

Like other vampire media, there is an underlining sexuality to these two films. However, it is made troubling by the fact that the characters (as well as the actors that portray them) are so young. Therefore, rather than being a metaphor for sex or sexuality, I believe the character’s relationships, actions, and Eli/Abby’s vampiric qualities serve as a metaphor for puberty. Both Oskar/Owen and Eli/Abby are 12 in both adaptations, and are pubescent. Like other vampire media, sex and sexuality seems to be an underlining theme of both Let the Right One In and Let Me In, but rather than being focused on the act of sex, several scenes, lines of dialogue, and images in both respective adaptations promote the idea of an emerging sexuality for both characters, as well as Eli/Abby’s bodily changes when her vampire nature is revealed help to invoke a sense of growth, change, and metamorphosis.

Physical changes:
“You smell funny.”- Oskar, Let the Right One In 
“You smell kinda funny.”- Owen, Let Me In 
“Do I smell better now?”- Eli/Abby, Let the Right One In/ Let Me In
There’s a scene in both interpretations where Oskar/Owen tells Eli/Abby that she smells “funny,” and when they meet again, Eli/Abby asks if she smells better now. The IMDb FAQ section for Let the Right One In says the following:

“At the time Oskar asks her this, she was starving because the dog/people had scared Hakan [the caretaker] away from blood he was collecting for her. A bit later, after she has eaten, she asks Oskar if she still smells strange, and he says no. The book offers two other suggestions that would explain Eli's smell: she gives out corpse-like odor as she gets hungrier and her body decays…”
 However, in regards to reading the films as metaphors for puberty, one could interpret the scene to be about the development of body odor that occurs during puberty.

Go easy on her, dude! She's a vampire, after all!

As I will discuss later, particularly in the American version, Abby goes through a series of monstrous physical transformations beyond her smell when she gets a sense for blood. These could also be indicative of pubescent transformations, but I will discuss where Abby’s monstrous nature comes into play later.

Blood and the female form:

Unlike the protagonists of other vampire stories, Let the Right One In/ Let Me in are unique in that the protagonist vampire character is a female. Moreover, Eli/Abby’s age becomes important when attempting to understand the sexual dynamics of the story.

The definitive moment for female puberty is a girl’s first menstruation. Obviously, it involves blood. The purpose of Eli’s interaction with blood, including a scene where she bleeds through multiple orifices all over her body when Oskar refuses to invite her in, take on a much more different meaning if one associates Eli/Abby’s interaction with blood as a metaphor for menstruation, puberty, and the dynamics of transformation.

It probably doesn't help that Eli/Abby frequently looks like Carrie after the prom...

What I think is so interesting about the relationship this film has to the concept of blood is that all the vampire characters are female. In both versions, Eli/Abby bites a local woman in the area, but the woman survives her vampire attack. Because of this, she too becomes a vampire. She is eventually killed by the sunlight in her hospital rooms, as vampires are not to be exposed to natural sunlight.

The fact that all the vampire characters in both adaptations are female make me think that the author and screenwriters wanted to tie the concept of blood with the female form and bodily functions. This contrasts with most other vampire stories, because the vampire characters are usually male, probably because of the enduring popularity of the archetypal vampire, Count Dracula. By tying the concept of blood to something feminine, the story makes a greater effort to appear to be a metaphor for puberty, and puts the focus on Eli/Abby and her struggles.

Male strength and the coming-of-age confrontation:

Oskar’s major arc in the movie is about a conflict with bullies. While the Swedish version shows the mental toll the bullying is taking on Oskar, the bullies don’t do much besides call Oskar a pig and occasionally throw him against lockers. 

And pick his nose, apparently...?

The bullies in the American version are quite vicious, and curse at Owen and give him excruciating wedgies. However, both versions do have a scene where Oskar/Owen is whipped and suffers a cut to his face, which he later tries to hide the cause of from his mother by lying.

Oskar/ Owen decides to start lifting weights, and it is here that we see the puberty-arc extended to his situation. Pubescent boys define themselves in part by perceived masculinity. As their bodies grow and become more toned, things like athletics and exercise begin to become a focus. Not only that, a lot of young men define a major milestone in their life as being their first fight. Oskar has his confrontation with the bullies, which results in him hitting one of them on the ear with a pole.

Rather than the bodily changes that affect Eli/Abby, Oskar/Owen’s arc is about social changes that happen with male growth during adolescence. He wants to be strong, he wants to be able to fight back against the bullies. In stark contrast to Eli/Abby’s arc, Oskar/Owen’s arc deals more with societal pressure and a masculine desire to be physically strong.

Sexual identity:
“I’m not a girl.”- Eli/Abby, Let the Right One In and Let Me In 
“You’re not a girl? What are you?” “I’m nothing.”- From Let Me In
                A concept that is stressed in the Swedish version, but not as much in the American version, is the concept that Eli struggles with her sexual identity. She repeatedly tells Oskar that she is not a girl, and Oskar is confused as to what that means. In a moment that is not carried over to the American remake, Oskar glances at a nude Eli to discover that she lacks any sort of genitalia. While this is supposed to be a nod to the original novel (where Eli is actually a castrated boy), the fact that this isn’t explored means that in addition to her supernatural nature, Eli is also supposed to be sexless. It could be interpreted that this is supposed to represent unsure feelings of her own sexuality, as non-normative sexualities such as homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, etc. usually emerge or become known to an individual during puberty.  

Emerging sexuality:
“You’re not wearing anything.”- Oskar
“Sorry. Is that gross?”- Eli
“No.”- Oskar
-From Let the Right One In

Both films deal with the characters’ emerging sexualities. In the scene referenced above, for instance, what is surprising is that these characters are not so far removed from juvenile understandings of love and sexuality. The characters are around the age that “cooties” would be a popular term, and Eli even asks Oskar if it is gross that she’s lying in bed naked. The fact that Oskar responds “No” represents that he is maturing and coming to grips with a more adult, more mature understanding of the opposite sex and of the nature of sexuality.

The equivalent scene of the Oskar-glancing-at-Eli-nude in the American version doesn’t show us what Owen sees, just an expression of awe as he watches (what the audience should infer is) Abby’s nude body. Unlike the Swedish version, the American version doesn’t use this scene to make Abby more monstrous or sexually androgynous, but rather to show Owen’s reaction to her. Abby is never seen, but we see Owen, and the audience understands that he is looking at her differently than he was before.

Finally, in both versions, Eli/Abby and Oskar/Owen engage in what as usually seen as the beginning of a young person’s romantic and sexual existence: a first kiss. In both versions, they are initiated by Eli/Abby, and in both versions it is right after she has killed to feast on blood, so she still has blood on her lips. One could see this as the girl leading the boy into temptation, which leads to an end of his childlike innocence. This is not unlike the biblical creation story about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis.

Apple, anyone...?

Conclusion: Why do we think there is something monstrous about female puberty?

One of my favorite movies is the 1973 horror classic, The Exorcist. It is a scary, riveting, engaging film that asks questions about the nature of evil, the perceived powerless of man in comparison to the supernatural, whether that be God or the Devil, and corruption of innocence. Like Eli/Abby, the main character of The Exorcist is a 12-year old girl named Regan MacNeil, played by Linda Blair. Regan is a sweet little girl who is doted upon by her mother, and engages with an imaginary friend named Captain Howdy. However, this all changes when Regan becomes possessed, and suddenly she has a deeper voice, she shouts obscenities, and has supernatural powers. This is reminiscent of Abby’s transformation in Let Me In in particular. Just like in the case of Let the Right One In and Let Me In, one can ask: Is The Exorcist also a metaphor for puberty?

The case is a little harder to draw with The Exorcist. It is very much a horror movie, with some of the most iconic images in horror cinema. It is not a coming-of-age story the way Let the Right One In and Let Me In are, because there are no other young characters besides Regan. By all evidence, The Exorcist seems more about the adults in the story as the struggle with Regan’s transformation. Also, the film makes no attempt to disguise the fact that Regan is not herself and is, in fact, truly possessed by something evil and something beyond her control. Eli/Abby’s behavior in the two movies is supposed to be her usual behavior. She is acting like herself throughout the movie.

God help us if this is Regan's normal behavior...

Whether it is Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, or more contemporary depictions like the 2004 film Mean Girls, our culture likes to associate the adolescent ages in a young woman’s life with the “monstrous feminine.” Whether it’s Mary Tilford or Regina George, our culture has depicted teenage girls as plotting, scheming, cruel, unemotional, and occasionally sociopathic. Teenage boys, on the other hand get Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, or, more contemporary film characters like Ferris Bueller. Male teenage characters are shown as rebellious, sure of their status and place in the world, and skeptical and cynical of the adult world around them.

Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop, look around, wear a red hunting hat, go to New York, talk to a prostitute, get weirded out by spending the night at your teacher's house, and take your sister to the Central Park Zoo, you could miss it. 

Obviously, these are broad generalizations, and do not in any way refer to all works in all media. But I use these examples to prove a point: that culture, whether it be for the sake of fantasy and horror (like The Exorcist) or for the sake of comedy (like Mean Girls) or serious drama (like The Children’s Hour), increasingly depicts female puberty in monstrous ways. In the realm of fantasy and horror, this takes on the form young female characters who are possessed and become something unhuman. In other examples more firmly set in the real world, this takes on depicting young pubescent girls as cruel.

Stop trying to make the monstrous feminine happen! It's not going to happen!

Let the Right One In and Let Me In ground the fantasy/horror idea of the “monstrous feminine” into the context of puberty. The American version even shows Abby becoming a more monstrous entity, something more akin to Regan in The Exorcist, when she gets the need to feast on blood. Her voice becomes deeper, her pupils become big and brighter, and she growls like a wild animal. Because of this, and because of other issues in both adaptations of the story, the way these films present gender roles should be seen as rather problematic. Eli/Abby is shown to be the monstrous girl with issues of blood (as a metaphor for menstruation and female puberty in general), questioning of her own sexuality identity, and physical changes. Not a lot is addressed about Oskar/Owen’s sexuality beyond the context of his relationship with Eli/Abby, and not a lot of symbolism or imagery is used to show what he is going through in his puberty, like there is about Eli/Abby. Ultimately, Eli/Abby falls more into the Regina George or Regan MacNeil category of “young, monstrous feminine” while Oskar/Owen is defined only through his social relations, both with Eli/Abby and with the bullies. The girl character’s struggle is with her physical body, the demands and issues it creates, while the boy characters only struggles with love and confrontation with other boys. That is a very problematic gender convention.


Because of this, I can’t definitively say these two movies are metaphors for puberty. I will say instead that I believe they are metaphors for the way Western society views puberty. To the untrained viewer, one who is not studied on the way pubescent young people are portrayed in media, or even has studied vampire mythology to see how tied it is to sex and sexuality, I can understand why these movies would be viewed as metaphors for puberty. But like Lucy’s transformation in the original novel Dracula from the pure, chaste girl into the beautiful, lust-worthy monster after her vampiric transformation, the idea of the vampiric is tied with these idea of maturity, emerging sexuality, and metamorphosis. Both Let the Right One In and Let Me In play with these conventions. Had the characters been that much older, I feel like a lot of the meaning of the story would be lost. But it is crucial to the understanding of both of these films that the characters are so young, because it would have been just another sappy, melodramatic vampire-meets-human romance if had they been high schoolers instead. 

Looking at you, Stephanie Meyer. 

Their youth informs the story, informs where they are in their lives and how love, transformation, and questioning of your surroundings and your identity are crucial to their development. Unfortunately, a lot of media still would love to portray young women as “monstrous feminine”, but Eli/Abby’s strength as a character is that she is able to overcome that, as well as inform several metaphors and symbols about the general themes of both films. If one looks at both films, one can infer that both are surprisingly critical of gendered generalizations of how young people should act (like that it's Eli/Abby who saves Oskar/Owen, not the other way around), and has no shame in depicting the two lead characters as intellectually deep, sexual, flawed, and curious young people. The fact of the matter is, despite being a vampire, Eli/Abby is probably more real than a lot of other young female characters in film and television, and both films seems to be dealing with that in their own respective ways for their own respective countries of origin. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The American-ness of Star Trek vs. the British-ness of Doctor Who, Part 1- Introduction

The American-ness of Star Trek vs. the British-ness of Doctor Who
Part 1: Introduction- Why Star Trek and Doctor Who are more similar than people give them credit for

Why is everyone focused on Star Trek versus Star Wars? It is one of the most enduring debates in popular culture. Documentaries have been made on the subject, and the argument even has its own Wikipedia article (which you can check out at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_Star_Trek_and_Star_Wars).

As far as I can tell, they are two very different franchises. First of all, Star Wars is much more in the Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon template of space opera. In addition, calling Star Wars science-fiction doesn’t seem entirely accurate. It is much more science fantasy, with some elements, most notably the Force, being something far more associated with fantasy than what the science fiction genre is typically known for. Star Trek, on the other hand, was inspired by Westerns and naval-adventure novels (like the Horatio Hornblower series). There is some solid science in the science-fiction of Star Trek, with great time being devoted to how warp speed, the energy sources of spaceships, and other aspects of the Star Trek universe work. Little to no explanation is given in Star Wars about the science of how things in that universe function. Vehicles in that franchise serve two purposes: to get to point A to point B, and occasionally participate in space battles.

Moreover, Star Wars was conceived as a motion picture trilogy (which was then expanded when those pesky prequels came to fruition). Star Wars had very little exposure on television, with the exception of the Clone Wars series and the often-maligned Star Wars Holiday Special.

Yeah. The one where they all sang...

Star Trek, on the other hand, was originally a television series that ran for 3 seasons in the late 1960s. After a decade-long hiatus which included an animated series and a failed attempt to get a retooled version of the show back on the air, Star Trek returned as a film entitled Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Ultimately, there were 6 films starring the original case of the TV series, ending at 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. After the success of the film series, Star Trek returned to television in 1987 in the form of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a sequel to the original series set 70 years after the original series. The Next Generation ran for 7 seasons, and its characters and setting were used for four theatrically released movies, starting with 1994’s Star Trek: Generations and ending with 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis. The Next Generation was followed by three further TV spinoffs: Deep Space Nine (which ran for 7 seasons from 1993-1999), Voyager (which ran for 7 seasons from 1995-2001), and Enterprise (which ran for 4 seasons from 2001-2005). After a lull in the franchise, it returned in grand fashion as a summer blockbuster reboot directed by J.J. Abrams in 2009, with a sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, following in the summer of 2013, and more films promised to be on the way.

Hopefully, they'll come up with something better than ripping off the most iconic and best of the movies...

Why do I find it necessary to recount the entire history of one of the most storied sci-fi franchises in American science fiction, you ask? To make a point. If you asked me (and if you’re reading this, you might as well have), a far more appropriate debate is between Star Trek and the long-running British television program Doctor Who, currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. In terms of comparative longevity, influence, popularity, number of incarnations, media adaptations, and origins on television as opposed to film, Star Trek and Doctor Who share a lot more in common than Star Wars and Star Trek do.

Doctor Who is focused on a Time Lord from planet Gallifrey who travels the universe (usually with a human companion or two) and can go anywhere in space and time with the help of his magical box, the T.A.R.D.I.S., which takes the form of an old blue British police box. The show ran continuously from 1963 to 1989, featuring 7 different incarnations of the Doctor character. A 1996 made-for-TV movie was meant to jumpstart the franchise, but it did not meet the outstanding success necessary to continue the franchise. Then, in 2005, the show returned. Like Star Trek, Doctor Who has also produced many spinoffs, most famously Torchwood, but also The Sarah Jane Adventures and K-9.

You can't see this and NOT start whistling the theme song...

Doctor Who and Star Trek probably share a lot more in common than Star Trek and Star Wars do.

                -Both franchises are about the same age. (Doctor Who debuted on the BBC in 1963, while Star Trek debuted on NBC in 1966.) Memory Alpha, the Star Trek Wiki, lists that there have been 728 TV episodes and movies from all incarnations of the franchise. 798 Doctor Who episodes have aired since 1963, so the shows have roughly the same amount of content in addition to being around the same age.

                -Both franchises, during their most famous and iconic incarnations, are best known for being cult TV shows. In contrast, the first Star Wars film became the highest grossing film of all time at the time of its release, and its massive mainstream appeal is very different than both Doctor Who and Star Trek, both of which, at times, struggled to stay afloat in the ratings and stay relevant in the popular culture.

                -Both have had multiple TV incarnations. There have been 5 (6 if one includes the animated series) incarnations of Star Trek on TV, each featuring a different captain and crew. Doctor Who has had 11 different incarnations, with a new actor, Peter Capaldi, set to take over the role as the 12th Doctor sometime in late 2013. These incarnations have been played by a diverse group of actors in terms of age (William Harnell, the 1st Doctor, started playing the role when he was 55, whereas Peter Davison, the 5th Doctor, started playing the role when he was 28), longevity in the role of the Doctor (Tom Baker, the 4th Doctor, famously played the role for 7 years, while Christopher Eccleston, the 9th Doctor, only played it for a season), and background (Sylvester McCoy, the 7th Doctor, was a comedian, while David Tennant, the 10th Doctor, is a trained Shakespearean actor). 
Lots of different actors. Lots of different ages. Lots of different backgrounds.

This is not unlike the 5 Star Trek captains, who include a young man (James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner, and later by Chris Pine), an older man (Jean-Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart), an African-American man (Benjamin Sisko, played by Avery Brooks), a woman (Kathryn Janeway, played by Kate Mulgrew), and a middle-aged man (Jonathan Archer, played by Scott Bakula.) Like the 11 actors who have portrayed the Doctor, Shatner, Stewart, Brooks, Mulgrew, and Bakula come from different background. (Shatner, Brooks, and Mulgrew all came from supporting tenures on TV. Bakula was the lead actor on 1990s cult show Quantum Leap, and Stewart, like David Tennant, is a trained Shakespearean actor.)

Reunited and it feels so good...

                -Both of them have massive presence in non-TV media, including movies, novels, radio dramas, video games, etc. There have been 12 Star Trek movies at this point (6 featuring the case of the original series, 4 featuring the cast of The Next Generation, and 2 in the new “rebooted” franchise.) There were 2 obscure Dr. Who (with Doctor abbreviated to differentiate it from its TV counterpart) films in the 1960s starring Peter Cushing (coincidentally, Cushing is probably most famous for playing Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars). Rumors persist of current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat attempting to bring the Doctor back to the big screen. In addition, each franchise has countless novels, several video games, and other media. (Doctor Who in particular has a massive collection of radio dramas and plays to its name.)

-Both of them have smaller budgets that tend to focus on smaller stories. In the early years of both franchises, the lack of big budgets and the deficits in special effects led to a lot of elements, including set designs, character design, props, etc. being considered “campy.” A lot of the strength of early episodes actually involves how well the shows were able to overcome these limitations to craft intriguing storylines.
Beaming was actually invented as a concept for the show so the show didn't have to waste valuable money on showing the ship landing every episode.

                Finally, probably the most lasting comparison between these two respective franchises is the impact they have had on the popular cultures of their respective countries, the United States and the United Kingdom. Both Doctor Who and Star Trek have had a tremendous impact on popular culture. They’ve been the subject of parodies (like the film Galaxy Quest in the case of Star Trek, or the Inspector Spacetime segments on the TV show Community in the case of Doctor Who). Millions of dollars of merchandise have been sold for both franchises.

Moreover, they had an incalculable effect on the science-fiction genre, particularly on television and film. Star Trek’s “space western” formula paved the way for other media like the TV series Firefly and its follow-up film Serenity. The idea of space as a frontier that needed exploration set the stage for Farscape, Babylon 5, and Battlestar Galactica. Finally, it proved that a science fiction universe could be ever-expanding and complicated, which set the stage for iconic space operas like Star Wars, Avatar, Aliens, etc. Star Trek remains a symbol of the American space-age, and along with the concurrent TV series Lost in Space, opened the science fiction genre to a new generation of Americans.

                I don’t believe there are as many sci-fi tropes associated with Doctor Who, however, I do believe that what media the show did end up influencing shows more of a relation to it than works derivative of Star Trek do. The most prominent example I can think of is Douglas Adams’ novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and all of its sequels and adaptations. In fact, one of the novels in the series was based on a failed pitch for a Doctor Who storyline. Like Doctor Who, Hitchhiker’s Guide features a massive universe where characters travel through space, to planets both bizarre and surprisingly Earth-like/ normal. Both franchises retain a dry British wit about them, and are focused on the craziness of the universe more so than Star Trek, which seems to be focused on the order that the Federation brings instead. In fact, one could draw a surprising amount of parallels between the Doctor and Ford Prefect, one of the main characters of the Hitchhiker’s Guide series. Both are extraterrestrials that look human, have an intricate knowledge of the universe beyond Earth, and both have a tendency to befriend and take on as a companion simple British folk, whether they be Arthur Dent or any one of the Doctor’s numerous companions.
Doct... Doctor...?

                However, more than just comparisons and influence, I believe both shows reinforce the values of their respective countries. With 50 years of content to look back on and examine, one can associate various issues and similarities between the two franchises from the perspective of how these two different cultures dealt with the same storylines and problems. Because of the numerous similarities and parallels between the two series, there can be comparisons made as to how each respective nation and culture dealt with a certain issue. In Star Trek, the post-World War II vision of the future is one of optimism, diversity, constant teamwork, and one that doesn’t fully see an end to conflict, but is bright nonetheless. Doctor Who deals with one man as he examines the best and the worst of human history, as well as an equally complicated future. Both of these indicate cultural trends in both nations, and helps to shine a light on how both cultures crafted their science-fiction epics, as well as why each nation decided to emphasize the values they did.

This is merely part 1 of what I hope will be a 4-part series. I hope you will join me for the next three installments. (I may or may not write a conclusion as well, depending on what sort of feedback I get, and whether or not I feel like I’ve written everything I want to say.)

Here are the names and topics of the next three installments:

Part 2: Shoot ‘em Up vs. Keep Calm and Carry On- The American Maverick and British Reservedness

Part 3: Space, The Final Frontier vs. Wibbly Wobbly Timey-Wimey Stuff- American Optimism and British Caution

Part 4: “Of All the Souls I Have Encountered In My Travels” vs. “Hello, I’m the Doctor”- American Diversity and Teamwork and British Identity and Individualism


In the meantime, live long and prosper. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Cinematic and narrative duality in Marc Webb's (500) Days of Summer


(500) Days of Summer, directed by Marc Webb, is one of my favorite films of the past couple of years. Released in 2009, and written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the film tells the story of a relationship. This is a story of “boy meets girl,” but this is not a “love story”, as the narrator informs the audience at the beginning of the film. The main narrative plot of the film follows Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he meets, courts, falls in love, and eventually has his heart broken by Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Summer is the epitome of the “manic pixie dream girl,” as many critics and observers have pointed out. She loves to play games where she screams obscenities in the park, or pretend that the displays at Ikea are her house. However, despite Summer’s eccentricities, this film is about Tom. It’s his perspective we see this relationship in, as well as the famous “expectations vs. reality” scene, and it is him that the film follows right through the end and the promise of a new beginning with a girl named Autumn. This is very much Tom’s story.

Or is it?
Two people, with a void between them.

I think something that only becomes apparent about (500) Days of Summer one repeat viewings is how much it is about duality. Like the concept of a romantic couple itself, the film is focused on this idea of two. There are many prominent examples of there being two choices, two frames of mind, two perspectives, etc. Like the relationship, this isn’t a story about one person, it is the story about two.
                “You’re not the only one who gets a say in this! I do too! And I say we’re a couple, God dammit!”- Tom
In both the general story of the film and the way it is edited and shot, there is noticeable duality to the film, emphasizing the before and after of Tom and Summer’s relationship, their differing opinions on love, and Tom’s fantasy of summer being “the One” contrasted with the reality of their situation.

Two frames, one still: the cinematic nature of emphasizing duality in relationships

The opening credits to the film take place after the audience has been introduced to both the major characters, and have been told by a narrator that this a “boy meets girl” story. While the credits are taking place, the film shows two images on each side of the screen: one of childhood home movies of Tom, the other of childhood home movies of Summer. While this technique is used later in the film (most notably to show Summer and Tom both having restless nights after a heated argument), it is best utilized during the opening credits because it truly emphasizes what I think is one of the main points of the film: relationships happen between two people, and because of that, it means accepting a person’s past, emotional baggage, eccentricities, etc. Seeing the different early lives of these two characters who we already know are going to meet and fall in love helps the idea sink in that the very nature of romantic relationships and attachment is about duality.

These are two fully realized human beings who had entire lives before one another, and are hardly fated to be with one another. 

There is another sequence that focuses on utilizing two perspectives at once to show the different paths the characters have gone down. Tom is shown alone on a bus ride on one side of the screen, while Summer gets married (to a man that isn’t Tom) on the other.

When Summer and Tom share a kiss on the bed in Ikea, each of them takes up half the screen. They are together when they kiss, but then are separated as the kiss ends and Summer informs Tom she isn’t “looking for anything serious.” This is cinematic image that helps reinforce the concept that two become one briefly, only to become separate again, which could be a metaphor for the entire structure of the film itself.
              

The idea of two separate images running on each half of the screen also comes up in the famous “expectation vs. reality” scene which I will talk about later.

                Befores and afters: Mirror scenes

The film actually begins at the end of the movie. The first shot is of Tom and Summer on day 488 of Tom’s 500 days of Summer. This mirroring of various events in the movie that takes place further emphasizes the overall dual nature of the film. Most importantly the duality of Tom while he is in a relationship with Summer and Tom after the relationship has ended. Their breakup is actually one of the earliest scenes seen in the film, and does well to emphasize this topsy-turvy nature. The end is at the beginning, but both initially seem separate from one another. The beginning of the relationship seems different from the end because the audience has not discovered how one led to the other. Then, the audience sees day 1 of their relationship immediately after the break-up scene. Once again, this emphasizes the separateness of the beginning and end of their relationship. 
               
The character of Tom has two moments where he talk about Summer, while the same montage containing images of Summer plays. However, one scene takes place before their breakup, and the other one takes place after it. These scenes are mostly identicals. Tom is even talking about the same features on Summer, just in different contexts. Because the only difference is in what Tom is saying, and this serves as a mirror that emphasize the duality of how Tom feels about Summer during their relationship and after their breakup.

Before breakup:
I love her smile. I love her hair. I love her knees. I love this heart-shaped birthmark she has on her neck. I love the way sometimes she licks her lips before she talks. I love the sound of her laugh. I love the way she looks when she’s sleeping.
After breakup: 
I hate her crooked teeth. I hate her 1960s haircut. I hate her knobby knees. I hate her cockroach-shaped splotch on her neck. I hate the way she smacks her lips before she talks. I hate the way she sounds when she laughs.
Same images. Different contexts

A great cinematic example of this separation occurs when Tom has completed his fantasy dance sequence to “You Make My Dreams”, he enters the elevator. When the elevator opens again, the film has flashed forward in time to after the break-up, and Tom looks disheveled and haggard. 

Contrasted with how he was when entered the elevator...

There are also dueling scenes of Summer growing disinterested in activities she and Tom used to engage in, most notably pretending they live in the display house at the Ikea. The scene opens with Tom trying to engage Summer in playing the fantasy game, only to have her walk away. The film follows that with an immediate cuts to the original situation that inspired him to act like that.

In addition, Tom and Summer’s first conversation on a bench in a public park overlooking Los Angeles mirrors the conversation they have on the same bench at the end of the film (and the one that is seen briefly as the opening shot of the film).

Both endings and beginnings take place on this bench.

Love vs. disbelief in love
This is a story of boy meets girl. The boy, Tom Hansen of Margate, New Jersey, grew up believing that he'd never truly be happy until the day he met the one. This belief stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie The Graduate. The girl, Summer Finn of Shinnecock, Michigan, did not share this belief.
This mostly relates to the narrative, but there is a separation and duality between how Tom and Summer view the nature of love, respectively.
Summer: I just don’t feel comfortable being anyone’s girlfriend. I don’t actually feel comfortable being anyone’s anything… I like being on my own. Relationships are messy, and people’s feelings get hurt… 
Tom: What happens if you fall in love? 
Summer: Well, you don't believe that, do you? 
Tom: It's love. It's not Santa Claus. 
Summer: What does that word even mean? I’ve been in relationships, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it.
A barrier exists between Tom and Summer that will come to define the rest of their relationship. Tom believes in love, Summer doesn’t. Their conversation actually ends not with a compromise on the nature of love, but with Summer stating “agree to disagree”, meaning that there will continue with these dual perspectives rather than compromise. What is separate will remain separate for the time being, and for the rest of the film.

In a cinematic perspective, there are a lot of cuts between Summer and Tom, emphasizing that these are two different people who view the issue of love different. There is a lot of shot-reverse-shot. However, most of the time when the other one is talking, it’s over the shoulder of the person they’re talking to. Here, the duality of their two opinions begin to merge as one is always in the shot as the other one is talking. Because of this, it could be argued that is supposed to symbolize the opinions of the other never being truly separate for their mutual feelings for each other.

Tom is always in the shot as Summer explains her feelings about the nature of love. 

Expectation (fantasy) vs. reality

“There’s no such thing as love, it’s fantasy.”- Summer

Ultimately, in both the story and cinematic analysis, I feel as if the most important thing is the duality that exists between fantasy and reality. It is this message that it is important because the film seems to be saying that the fantasy that Summer represents for Tom is better than the reality of realizing they are incompatible.

Earlier in the film, as the narrator introduces the characters, it is said that Tom got his belief in love in part from “a total misreading of the movie The Graduate.” The Graduate in this context is supposed to represent fantasy. Later in the movie, Summer and Tom go see The Graduate. It is Summer who has a very visceral reaction to the film, and this triggers their break-up. It could be argued that this represents a transfer of the concepts of fantasy and reality. Tom, who had been living in a fantasy world, comes to realize the problems of reality, while Summer could realize from her viewing of The Graduate that there is no way for reality to emulate the fantasy of what she just saw.

The film has a number of fantasy sequences. Most notable (and my personal favorite) is the now-iconic sequence set to the Hall and Oates’ song “You Make My Dreams”. Tom wakes up after a night of initial sex with Summer to check himself out in the mirror, only to discover the reflection looking back at him is that of Harrison Ford as Han Solo at the end of Star Wars

Oh yeah!

The dance sequence itself involves perfect strangers dancing and celebrating Tom’s accomplishment of bedding Summer. A marching band appears, as does an animated blue bird. There is no doubt that this is fantasy, and that it is supposed to represent Tom projecting his happiness by believing that the world celebrates his victory with him. On a cinematic level, the fact that most of the people in the dance are wearing blue emphasizes the dream-like nature of the sequence.

Notice all the blue?

Another fantasy sequence involves a time when Tom and Summer go to the movies, and Tom apparently envisions himself in the film-within-a-film. The sequence seems to have been inspired by the films of Jean-Luc Goddard and Ingmar Bergman, among others. This seems to serve a narrative purpose in that Tom is placing the “fantasy” of his and Summer’s relationship into the context of the “real” movie. The real world is starting to interfere with the fantasy of Tom’s construct of his relationship with Summer. This scene in which the character watches a movie is not unlike The Graduate scene.

However, in another impressive sequence, the film shows us a scene in which Tom goes to a party at Summer’s house he was invited to from the perspectives of “Expectation” and “Reality.” Like the opening credits of the film, the two perspectives are on either side of the screen. While the “Expectation” side shows how Tom wishes the events of the evening would go down (Summer greets him with a kiss, they talk all night, and they appear to get back together), the “Reality” side shows a disinterested Summer engaging with other party guests. The film then merges completely with the “Reality” side to show that Summer has gotten engaged. This merges the cinematic quality of the halved screen with the concept that the reality of situation has killed the fantasy. 


There is also an early sequence that seems to blind the two concepts of fantasy and reality together. There is a reporting by the narrator, who should be taken to be omniscient, as to Summer’s history. This includes information about her height, weight, and shoe size. However, then there are diversions about her past, such as the fact that her high school yearbook quote led to a rise in sales of a Belle and Sebastian album in Michigan that “puzzled industry analysts.” Another diversion is when Summer’s job at a local ice cream shop led to, as the audience is told, “a 212% increase in revenue.” Finally, the audience is told Summer averages 18.4 double-takes from men a day. Whether or not these facts and anecdotes are true doesn’t matter, but helps paint Summer as something grounded in the real (the narrator keeps stating how “average” she truly is) but yet able to take on larger-than-life characteristics, which parallels how Tom eventually comes to see her.

Conclusion: Two people, one story

Not every couple can be Romeo and Juliet...
Summer: You’re happy? 
Tom: You’re not? 
Summer: All we do is argue. 
Tom: That is bullshit! 
Summer: This can’t come as a total surprise to you. I mean we've been like Sid and Nancy for months now. 
Tom: Summer, Sid stabbed Nancy, seven times with a kitchen knife, I mean we have some disagreements but I hardly think I'm Sid Vicious. 
Summer: No, I'm Sid. 
Tom: Oh, so I'm Nancy... 
Summer: Let's just eat and we'll talk about it later. Mmm, that is good, I'm really glad we did this. I love these pancakes... what?
[Tom gets up and walks away from the table] 
Summer: Tom, don't go! You're still my best friend!

Ultimately, what makes (500) Days of Summer unique in comparison to other romantic comedies is that it very much emphasizes the duality that is the essence of falling in, falling out and being in love. It does this in both terms of the narrative structure of the film (the hopping back in forth in time emphasizing separation, the differing views on love, the ideas of fantasy vs. reality, etc. ) and the cinematic way it was filmed. (The framing of shots, the editing, halving the screen and having each side devoted to an individual character, etc.) This is not a film that shies away from the hard parts of falling and being in love. Our society always emphasizes “two becoming one” in terms of romantic relationships, particularly of marriage. What (500) Days of Summer teaches, and emphasizes through its witty screenplay and cunning visuals, is that train of thought seems to compromise the individual identity of someone within a relationship. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Why 2012 was such a divisive year for movies

For the most part in 2012, the only big blockbusters that were both loved by critics and audiences alike were The Avengers, Django Unchained, and Skyfall. The reaction to the year's two most anticipated movies, The Dark Knight Rises (which, c'mon, EVERYONE thought would beat The Avengers at the box office) and The Hobbit have been more thoroughly mixed. Other movies that have divided movie fans critics include Cloud Atlas, Les Miserables, Looper, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Prometheus, Argo, Killing Them Softly, Seven Psychopaths, The Master, This is 40 and The Amazing Spider-Man.

I don't know if this divisiveness is unique to 2012, however. You still find people firmly in both the love and hate camps for Titanic, for example. But, it does seem like 2012 had a bigger influx of divisive movies. I think this shift is about a couple of things. First, the rise in social media makes everyone a critic via Facebook, Twitter, etc. So when the critics dislike something but your Facebook Feed says otherwise, it shows that this is something there isn't a lot of unanimous consensus on between critics and general audiences. Take Les Miserables for example. Most of the reviews on Facebook are widely enthusiastic, whereas a lot of the critics trashed the hell out of it, calling it over-the-top, corny, etc. Les Miserables seems like a movie the public has embraced, which contradicts what a lot of critics are saying about it, which means there is this illusion of more divisiveness than there really is.

But honestly, I think our movie critics have gone full film-snob, despite what Rotten Tomatoes tells you. Even when you read their POSITIVE reviews of blockbusters, it's like they like it begrudgingly, and it seems like they go out of their way to choose the most obscure movies on their end-of-the-year lists. Despite The Hobbit, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises, etc. having "fresh" ratings on RT, the critics who don't like these movies are more vocal, so that also help to present this idea of more a divide.

I think critics have always been film snobs to a certain extent, but that's not a bad thing. But I think dismissing truly artful movies simply because they're big or "fun" does everyone a disservice. I also think that there's a jealousy factor, like critics are mad that something like Beasts of the Southern Wild (which is good in its own right) couldn't catch on with mainstream audiences, but something like Les Miserables does. (I hate to keep bringing up Les Miserables, but it's a movie whose critical thrashing I literally cannot comprehend.) Critics don't always get it right, but it just seems like their critiques are less fair observations about what didn't work and more like grudge matches against Hollywood and its establishment, which is isolating mainstream moviegoers. When there is something that is a fun, entertaining movie but also well-made, well-directed, acted, written, etc. like The Avengers, the film critics kind shrug it off like a teenager. "I like it... I guess." They're are entitled to their views as much as anyone, but while the average movie goer will remember fun experiences, it is like modern movie critics dismiss "fun" as a criteria for judging movies all together. Yes, film is art, but film can also be fun, and more and more frequently it seems critics are realizing one or the other, but not both...

This is just a theory I have, but I think 2012 will be a year remembered for a lot of good, and a lot of divisive movies, as well as a year where social media began to outrank the role of the critic.

Why "Batman Returns" is an underrated masterpiece

I can't help but feel that the earlier Batman movies are being pushed aside in light of the success of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. 
While the Joel Schumacher films are terrible, I like the first Burton-directed Batman. However, I don't love it. I love the visuals of Gotham City, and the movie actually feels like an old Batman comic come to life. Michael Keaton is a pretty good Batman, though his Bruce Wayne isn't very developed. I don't remember Kim Basinger doing a lot except screaming, which is a shame because she's a great actress. Nicholson, although memorable, kinda hams up his performance a lot. And the Joker's plot to destroy Gotham (hacking into the television, weird balloons with gas, etc.) is all very corny and silly. Also, Prince's "Batdance" song may be one of the worst things ever created by a human.
However, the Burton-Batman movie I absolutely adore is Batman Returns. It's so gothic, so twisted, so absolutely insane that it can't help but be absolutely fascinating. Whether you like it or not, you do have to admit that it seems like a much more personal movie for Burton, that he was working with his own vision of Batman rather than the studio's.
The bat. The cat. The penguin.
Danny Devito is riveting as the Penguin, and he's a much more realized villain than Nicholson's Joker. He has a tragic, almost Shakespearean, past. Also, despite being most well known for comedic work, Devito is creepy as hell, almost to the point of being frightening. (Remember when he bites that guy's nose? I dare you to find a moment as scary as that in The Dark Knight Rises.)
One of the best comic-to-movie translations of a character in comic book movie history

But at the same time, you sympathize with him. I also like that they try to make him more than a stereotypical "I'm going to destroy Gotham and/or take over the world" bad guy. His campaign to be mayor is one of the most interesting diversions for a villain in the history of superhero movies.
The rest of the cast is great. Keaton, I feel, is both a better Batman and Bruce Wayne in this film, especially because he plays Wayne as more vulnerable. Michelle Pfeiffer is completely sexy and engaging as Catwoman.
WOW WOW WEE WAA!
I love her transformation from mild-mannered secretary to Catwoman.
The moment Selina Kyle stuffs her stuffed animals down the garbage disposal is one of the most riveting parts of the movie.
I also liked that she was more of a feminist-superheroine, stopping crimes against women, than a cat burglar. As much as I liked Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises and as much as her performance might be in some ways better than Pfieffer, Michelle Pfieffer's performance is still the first thing I think about when someone so much as mentions Catwoman.
The one weak spot of the cast is Christopher Walken, but c'mon, it's Christopher Walken. It's hard to fault the guy for much of anything, even if his weird delivery of lines ridicules otherwise serious moments. ("Bruce WAYNE, why ARE you DRESSED up as BATMAN?")
The Gotham City of Batman Returns might be better realized than it's predecessor. It isn't just elaborate background like in the first movie, but intimate set pieces that inform a lot about the culture of the city. I even love the small details of the movie, like the fact that such a creepy, gothic movie takes place at Christmas.
They must have taken the whole action-on-Christmas bit from Die Hard.
Even if the Penguin's plan to destroy Gotham with missiles attached to penguins is freaking bizarre, it's so weird that it almost completely works. Almost.
It definitely ranks as both one of my favorite Burton movies and favorite superhero movies of all time. Hell, it might be my second favorite Batman movie after The Dark Knight. (Though The Dark Knight Rises is providing some strong competition.) And I think it's rather sad that such an epic, well-directed, well-acted, intriguing, gothic comic book movie has, I feel, not gotten the appreciation it deserves, even 20 years after it came out. Maybe the attention to Nolan's Batman movies will attract some newer viewers to it, and maybe they can learn the appreciate it the way I have. One can only hope...

The Indiana Jones series should have been more like Bond, or why I think people hated "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"

I love the Indiana Jones series. Raiders of the Lost Ark is easily in my top 10 favorite films ever. It’s hard to think of such a perfect action movie that balances action, adventure, thrills, exotic locations, ancient history, modern history, and a rather deep religious/theological goal. (I still think the fact that the Ark burns the Swastikas off the box containing it is a poignant scene that no one remembers, but say a lot.) While I’m not a huge fan of Temple of Doom, I love Last Crusade. Bringing in Indy’s dad, especially when he’s played by Sean Connery, was a stroke of genius, and helped to add another layer to the Indiana Jones character and mythos.
One awesome trilogy...

I also love the James Bond series. From Dr. No to Skyfall, Bond has been around for 50 years, and as one critic I heard say recently, he’s less of a franchise at this point and more of an institution. And honestly, part of the reason I like the James Bond series is because of quantity. There are a lot of phenomenal James Bond movies. (Most of the Connery ones, Casino Royale and Skyfall.) There are a lot of pretty good James Bond movies. (Some of Brosnan’s ones, some of the Moore ones, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and The Living Daylights.) Then there are the really not-so good Bond movies. (Most of the later Moore outings, License to Kill, and Die Another Day…) But honestly, with 23 movies, a storied past, and 50 years in as a prominent part of our cultural consciousness, the bad ones don’t really seem so bad. The Moore movies, particularly OctopussyMoonraker, and A View to a Kill, are pretty corny, over the top and filled with dumb moments. At times, they’re also kind of boring. But there are plenty of better Bond movies to help fill the void. I’m sorry Die Another Day wasn’t good, care to watch Casino Royale? I’m sorry Quantum of Solace was underwhelming, care to watch Skyfall? The Bond franchise is constantly reinventing itself and creating new and interesting scenarios for Bond. Yes, some of the movies are terrible, but a lot of them are pretty damn good, and that helps to balance out some of the lesser movies in the series.
23 movies and counting...

With that in mind, let’s get to my main point. You see, Indiana Jones was a trilogy until Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out. This isn’t unlike another popular 80s movie franchise that George Lucas helped create, Star Wars. But Star Wars kind of needed to be a trilogy. That series is much more in the tradition of something like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Like those stories, it follows the Joseph Campbell model of the hero’s quest. We follow the same characters as they rise, and eventually conquer, an evil threat. There’s a clear beginning and introduction to the universe and characters (A New Hope), a dark middle chapter (The Empire Strikes Back), and a climactic resolution (Return of the Jedi). Star Wars is like modern myth. The Star Wars universe is big, yes, but its scope is limited, as it should be. The original trilogy and even the prequels, follow certain thematic and character arcs, meaning that these are not stand-alone adventures. They are all connected as part of one larger story. The Palpatine revealed in Episode 1 is the Emperor that Luke confronts in Episode 6, and so on and so forth.
The mythology of Star Wars is well chronicled.

It’s this distinction I want to make clear, because I think a lot of people compare Indiana Jones and Star Wars as the “holy trinities,” when only one of them should have been. I’ve always thought Indiana Jones should have been something more like James Bond: a series of stand-alone adventures that, while having some of the same characters, tropes, and motifs, mostly follow the titular hero in a new mission. And yes, I am aware of The Young Indiana Jones TV show, but most people know Indy from the big screen, and Indy needed to be on the big screen more than he was.

You see, it is this idea of Indiana Jones as “The Holy Trinity” that I think made people judge KOTCS too harshly. It’s not a great movie by any stretch, but it’s good. There are movies far more deserving of hate, but Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seems to be one the Internet’s most hated movies ever, as well as one of the most constantly critiqued movies of the past decade. And while I can understand the criticism for something like the Star Wars prequels or anything Michael Bay has ever directed, KOTCS seems like it isn’t as deserving. Maybe its just me from my frame of reference as a Bond fan, where walking into the theater you don’t know if the movie you’re about to see will be stupid or fantastic, but I thought I was going to be happy if all I got was another fun adventure with Indiana Jones. And you know what? I wasn’t, and still to this day am not terribly disappointed by it! Was nuking the fridge dumb? Oh yeah. The gophers and monkeys were also pretty damn stupid. Aliens… eh. (Not as big an issue for me personally as people make it out to be.) But I got an entertaining Indiana Jones movie. I was never really bored watching it. It didn’t have Willie Scott screaming, or Short Round being annoying for two hours (looking at you, Temple of Doom). Was it perfect? Hell no. Was it flawed? Oh yeah. Were parts of it incredibly stupid? You bet. But was I entertained? Yeah…


Underrated...?

You see, I think the built up expectation made people think the movie was going to be worth the wait. That’s why you see the hatred for KOTCS but not to the same extent for movies like Lethal Weapon 4 or Live Free or Die Hard, for example. (Both of those I picked because they were much delayed fourth installments of beloved action series from the 80s, like KOTCS…) But in my opinion, there should have never, and I mean NEVER been a 20-year gap between Last Crusade and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Indiana Jones should have been like James Bond, making more movies that focus on standalone adventures. The “Holy Trinity” are essentially three standalone movies, connected only by the Indiana Jones character. There should have been more of these movies simply because the possibilities of the character, what situations he finds himself, what bad guys he encounters, etc. are limitless.

Now, part of the reason the series was left abandoned was because Spielberg wanted to move on to bigger and better things, and he did for the most part. (Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, etc.) George Lucas also wanted to start working on those pesky prequels. Harrison Ford was the biggest star in the world by the time Last Crusade was released, and was getting a lot offers for a lot of exciting movies like The Fugitive and the Jack Ryan movies he was in. But Lucas/Spielberg should have done what Lucas is doing now with Star Wars: put it in the hands of other capable directors and writers. Spielberg and Lucas could have still produced and served as creative consultants for the series, but essentially give the reins to someone else. The only constant should have been Harrison Ford. Indiana Jones is much less like Batman, Jack Ryan or even James Bond in that he is identified by a single actor. Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones the same way Bruce Willis is John McClane, Clint Eastwood is Dirty Harry (ANOTHER precedent for what the Indy series should have resembled), and Matt Damon is Jason Bourne. You can’t imagine another actor playing that character ever again.

I just imagine Ford and whatever director coming together once every 5-6 years or so and doing another Indiana Jones movie, up until 2008 or around then. (More on that later.) And the good thing is the spin-off canon of novels, comics, video games, etc. had a lot of cool ideas for other Indiana Jones adventures. The Fate of Atlantis, a point and click adventure game, could have been turned into a really cool Indy movie, as is the same case with The Iron Pheonix and The Spear of Destiny comic books. The fun thing about the franchise is that it could have dealt with historical issues as time progressed (The main part of World War II to be sure, but also the beginning of the Cold War.) But it would also have all the standard bits of an Indy movie: Indy girls, exotic locales, important artifacts, references to Indy also being a professor, his fear of snakes, climatic action scenes, etc.
The Indiana Jones movie we deserved...

I could see someone like Frank Darabont, fresh off his success with The Shawshank Redemption, directing an Indy movie in the mid-90s, especially since he helped write some of the episodes of the TV show and a script that eventually became KOTCS, he had connections to the franchise. After that, I see someone like Jan de Bont, hot after Speed and Twister, directing a more action-oriented Indy movie in the late 90s. Finally, someone like Martin Campbell, who directed Goldeneye and Casino Royale, could do another Indy movie in the early-to-mid 2000s. However, these names are just what come to mind given the context of the times. Hindsight tells us we could have stuck in a newbie director that have subsequently proved themselves, like Kathryn Bigelow or Alfonso Cuaron. Think, dear reader, on the aborted possibility of a Christopher Nolan-directed or a Joss Whedon-written Indiana Jones movie.


If he could do justice to The Avengers, I would love to see what he could with Indiana Jones...

Now, let’s get back to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. One of the things I really do like about the movie is that it does seem like a conclusion to the series. You have the introduction, and implied passing on of the legacy to Mutt. You re-introduce Marion Ravenwood, the original Indy girl, and she and Indy finally settle down. Also, Harrison Ford is getting up there in years, and eventually, you would have to stop somewhere. So, in my hypothetical universe, I bring back Spielberg into the director’s seat to make things come full circle, revise the script, but keep a lot of the major plot points and have KOTCS be definitively the last Indiana Jones movie ever. That scene at the end where Mutt almost tries on the hat? Call me crazy, but I think it works remarkably well, and serves as both an end to the Indy character, as well as a wink to the audience about a future full of adventure for Mutt.


Passing the torch...

I never believed Indiana Jones should be just 3 or even just 4 movies. Like James Bond, Dirty Harry, or Star Trek, Indiana Jones should have been put into different, exciting situations, under the watchful eyes of new directors and screenwriters. How awesome would have been to actually SEE Indy fight in World War II and not just reminisce about it with Mac when he’s in his 60s? I understand the franchise was Spielberg and Lucas’ baby, but they should have quit for a while and allowed other directors to take risks with the character the same way Lucas is doing now with Star Wars. This would have allowed the possibility of the series growing over time. One can only dream about the possibility of more Indiana Jones movies at this point, I guess….