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Indiana Jones and the perils of sequelizing Steven Spielberg

A few weeks ago, Disney offered the first real look at Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, then premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, now in theaters everywhere. It was a single minute pulled out of the movie’s centerpiece action sequence: a rough-and-tumble chase through the streets of Tangier, with a wearied Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) shooting some fatherly disapproval at his devil-may-care goddaughter, Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), while the two careen down crowded avenues in separate tuk-tuks, gun-toting villains in hot pursuit.

By virtue of speed and jocular energy, this bit of vehicular chaos was probably the most sensible choice for a sneak peek from Dial. And yet the clip was greeted by plenty on social media with an almost audible sigh, as film lovers pointed to it as proof that sturdy studio craftsmanship and an appreciation for spatial orientation in action scenes were dying virtues.

INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY Clip - "Rickshaw Chase Scene" (NEW 2023)

In truth, there’s nothing so ghastly about the scene, either in miniature or in full. James Mangold, the director of Dial of Destiny, never lets it slip into visual incoherence the way plenty of modern action sequences do, and there’s an agreeable puckishness to how the camera races around tight bends alongside the characters. Frankly, it’s probably the closest this musty sequel comes to recapturing the magic of a vintage Indy adventure.

The problem isn’t so much what the scene is as what it isn’t. Watching it, you can’t help but compare it to its superficial inspiration: the moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy runs down the truck on horseback. Four decades later, that mad gallop is still a platonic ideal of how to block and film a chase. Every shot captures the action it depicts from the right distance and angle. Each one leads fluidly into the next, cleanly guiding our perspective across multiple planes of activity. “I’m making this up as I go,” Indy says before taking off, but the beauty of the sequence that follows is the illusion of spontaneity it achieves through careful planning. It’s a veritable Rube Goldberg device of suspense and excitement, cause and effect.

Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Truck Chase (1981) [HD]

Mangold never had a chance. He’s competing, after all, with our memories of what the most famous Hollywood filmmaker of all time did with the same material. The Dial of Destiny is the first Indiana Jones movie directed by someone other than Steven Spielberg. That puts Mangold in the company of such second-fiddle hires as Jeannot Szwarc, Joe Johnston, and Colin Trevorrow—directors lured by their lust for gold or power into the daunting task of making a sequel to a Spielberg movie.

For all he’s associated with the blockbuster machine, for all his early hits are blamed for turning the studio system into a cotton candy factory, Spielberg has only directed a few franchise movies — and always in series’ he launched himself. His understudies can take some solace knowing that he’s never topped his own originals either: The three Indy sequels he made before Mangold took over are no patch on Raiders, and his Lost World didn’t quite reach the first Jurassic Park‘s heights. All the same, there’s a noticeable dip in elemental power the moment Spielberg steps away and some enterprising disciple steps up.

Has any series experienced a greater chasm between its highs and lows than Jaws? The sequels to Spielberg’s ultimate beach-blanket rampage are like a case study in immediate and drastically diminishing returns. They’re all abysmal in their own ways — Szwarc’s Jaws 2 a lousy teen slasher movie gone to sea, Joe Alves’ Jaws 3 a scare-free SeaWorld field trip with astonishingly cruddy 3D rear projection, and Joseph Sargent’s notorious Jaws: The Revenge an exercise in psychodramatic tedium punctuated by shark roars. Only Spielberg, perhaps, could have made something decent from their scripts.

Jaws (1975) - Chrissie's Last Swim Scene (1/10) | Movieclips

The attack scenes in Jaws are marvels of ruthless minimalism, showing us only what we need to see for our blood to run as cold as the ocean. Just look at Chrissie’s date with destiny in the opening minutes, which builds the horror through implication and associative action: An ominous POV, the dum-dum throb and sting of that John Williams score, and the believable scream-queen thrashing terror of Susan Backlinie implant the image of the mighty beast in our brain. Compare that to the chaotic blurs of undersea violence that disgrace the Jaws sequels; Chrissie had it good compared to how gruesomely they mangle the fundamentals of Spielberg’s craft.

It’s no one’s fault that Jaws basically exhausted the possibility of hiding the finned leviathan from audiences. Once they got a glimpse of that animatronic shark, whose blessed malfunctions forced Spielberg to build suspense sequences around its absence, there was no returning to suggestion. All the same, the sequels really hammer home how quickly a fake monster starts looking fake when the camera is always in its rubber face. Every appearance by an uncooperative, synthetic maneater gives you a new appreciation for how skillfully, and how selectively, Spielberg utilized the shark. It was his restraint that pumped life into a lifeless effect.

JURASSIC PARK Clip - T-Rex Attack (1993) Steven Spielberg

A related issue plagues most of the Jurassic Park sequels. Except that instead of relying too heavily on a practical monster, they lean too hard on the digital variety. Spielberg’s first Park might still be the essential special effects movie, because, like the park itself, it collided two eras: The director mixed the pinnacle of animatronics with the latest advances in CGI, creating continuity between them through careful shot selection. The T.Rex attack on the jeeps in the original combines the storyboard logic of the Raiders truck race — every image precisely chosen — with the peerless implication tactics of Jaws, like that cup of quivering water presaging the dinosaur’s approach.

The other trips to the Park — even, to some extent, The Lost World — substitute teasing glimpses of the main attractions for nonstop, ultimately numbing dino coverage. It’s no accident that the best scare in Jurassic Park III, directed by Raiders and Star Wars effects artist Joe Johnston, is the slow emergence of the Pterodactyl from the fog — a Spielbergian delayed reveal that depends heavily on linking the POV of the audience to that of the petrified characters. Likewise, Colin Trevorrow gets a little anticipatory dread out of hiding the designer hybrid species from us for a while in Jurassic World; it’s a strategy he’d largely abandon over the course of that film and the later, atrocious Jurassic Park: Dominion, both of which blow their load with too many repetitive wide shots of CGI beasts whaling on each other.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom | T. Rex vs. Helicopter vs. Mosasaurus

Of all the directors who have walked in Spielberg’s T. Rex-sized footsteps, only the Spanish filmmaker J. A. Bayona seems to have learned the right lessons. His Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom is pretty ruinously moronic in the script department, but it provides Bayona multiple opportunities to ratchet up fear through composition and shadow and clever staging. His niftiest trick is using strobe-like flashes of light to blip his scaly predators in and out of sight, as in the shivery-good, Jaws-y opening scene and a later one that puts a carnivore in a narrow passageway, like the alien of Alien. It’s Spielberg-adjacent but not plagiaristic, the ideal approach to sequelizing a master.

Directorially speaking, Dial of Destiny is no disaster. Mangold is a reliable enough journeyman. The problems are more related to Dial‘s stodgy, overly reverent script; it’s an Indiana Jones movie too divorced from the actual fun of Indiana Jones. But then, the film also clarifies how much that fun was baked into Spielberg’s controlled but playful direction, the way he elevated pulp conventions to art through the ecstatic clarity of his visual storytelling, pulling the audience through a picture from image to image. That vision is as important to Indy’s enduring popularity as the hat, the whip, all of it.

Be it shark, dinosaur, or Harrison Ford’s grimacing mug on the poster, Spielberg himself is the franchise. Over the course of his career, plenty of filmmakers have followed his lead — look, for the most recent and rewarding example, to the Spielbergian thrills of Jordan Peele’s UFO thriller Nope. Peele, of course, had the good sense not to directly take the reins from the godfather of the summer movie. He built his own sandbox. He did not try to make an actual sequel to Jaws or Close Encounters. That’s always been an act too tough to follow.

For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.

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A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
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