I Hate Indiana Jones: Day 13

Day 13: Indiana Jones and the All-Star Cast

All-star casts offer both strengths and weaknesses to a film. The various actors' appropriateness and ability for the part they've been cast in aside, the general idea behind the all-star cast is that each celebrity brings their own fanbase to the theatre, multiplying a film's appeal with each additional name added to the roster of star. The drawback to this is that by casting celebrities all the key (and most of the secondary) parts, the entire concept of suspension of disbelief is mostly thrown out of the window. If the audience is constantly perched at the edge of their seat, waiting to see which part a given celebrity will play, they're not thinking about the plot. If they're constantly thinking to themselves "Hey, isn't that ******", and elbowing their neighbor to register the recognition, they're not being carried away by the story.

The first three Indiana Jones films are about as far from being all-star productions as major North American studio releases can get. Obviously the biggest star in any of them is Harrison Ford, although I'd make the argument that Harrison Ford wasn't a huge celebrity until Raiders of the Lost Ark - yes, he'd previously played Han Solo, and the two characters were very similar, but it's my theory that the North American moviegoing public so closely identifies him with those parts that they don't even think of Harrison Ford as an actor, when they go to see a film because he's in it, they're more going to see the new movie that Indiana Jones/Han Solo is in. That's all beside the point, of course.

Other than Harrison Ford , the most famous actors in Raiders were Karen Allen (of Animal House and Cruising fame), and John Rhys-Davies (who had recently starred in the hugely-popular miniseries "Shogun"). After that, the recognizability quoteient drops off precipitously, as the rest of the cast is made up of English character actors and stuntmen.

While it's possible that the cast of the first film was dictated as much by its modest budget as the filmmakers' desire to keep the star-wattage low, the same can't be said of the second two. After Raiders of the Lost Ark became one of the most successful films of all time, as well as a critical darling, the purse-strings were open for the second film were opened, and there's no doubt that the filmmakers could have had anyone they wanted in the film. Despite this, after Harrison Ford the biggest star in the film is Dan Ackroyd, who, between the accent and the way the camera never gets a clear look at his face, is nearly unrecognizable in his twenty second cameo. Just as the first film, shot in England, filled the cast with journeyman British actors, Temple of Doom was filed with Bollywood regulars. With the exception of Pat Roach, of course, who played his part wearing offensive brown-face.

The third film offers the only exceptions to this rule, although they're completely understandable. Given Indiana Jones' position as a cultural icon by the time Last Crusade was released, the actors playing Indiana Jones' father and Young Indiana Jones had to be immediately recognizable and interesting to the audience, since there wasn't going to be time to pause the action and develop the characters. Here, star casting acted as a kind of shorthand, and if it was just a little too cute that Indiana Jones' father was James Bond, hopefully the audience would overlook it since they were so happy to be seeing Sean Connery onscreen. But the star casting didn't extend past the top billed actors. The film featured three new villains, and not a single one of them was a recognizable face unless you watched a lot of British television in the 80s.

This reluctance to cast in accordance with the films' profile and prestige helped their tones immeasurably. While Indiana Jones might be the biggest star in the world, for all the audience can tell, he's surrounded by real people all the time, which helps viewers disappear into the story.

By comparison, Crystal Skull has one of the most prominent All-Star Casts in recent memory. Probably the most extensive one outside of an Ocean's # film. Harrison Ford's celebrity is a given, but now he's surrounded by other, lesser stars. There's his sidekick, Beowulf, his villain, Queen Elizabeth, his son, useless teen from Transformers, and his old college chum, the Elephant Man. It's almost impossible to watch a single scene without being distracted by an actor. If it's not someone out and out famous, then it's the kind of familiar face that actually proves more distracting, because everyone in the audience pauses for a second to try and remember who that guy is. How seriously can I take the scene right after Indiana Jones' ordeal in the Atomic Fridge, when the FBI Agent grilling him is the janitor from Scrubs, and the general who comes to his rescue is the director of NCIS?

This weird semi-star casting even extends all the way down to glorified extras. In an apparent attempt to add realism, the film's generic Russian soldiers are played by actual Russian actors. Which would be great, if having Russian villains hadn't been especially popular over the past 15 years, meaning that anyone in Hollywood who can speak the language while looking the least bit menacing is guaranteed a lot of work. It's a little hard to be interested in why the Commies are so set on breaking into hangar 51 when I keep getting a glimpse of the Wishmaster in the crowd.

So the all-star cast severely harms the film. But while it's doing its damage, does it add any value? Probably not. If there's ever a film that didn't need an all-star cast, it's an Indiana Jones film. The biggest director in the world, one of the biggest stars in the world, returning to his most beloved character (Han Solo having been forever tainted by that time he didn't shoot first) - the new Indiana Jones movie was always going to be a success, whoever was in it. The only thing the all-star cast accomplished was to distract the audience and date the film. Steven Spielberg has gone on record as saying that he wanted the film to look 'like an Indiana Jones movie', so that if you watched them in sequence, you might even think that Crystal Skull was made just a couple of years after Last Crusade (age difference in the script notwithstanding). By filling the movie with actors based on their fame and prominence today, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, he's assured that that will never happen.

1 comment:

Alexander Z. said...

I'd like to point out that while you frequently rail against Spielberg's poor directing decisions (and there are many) I believe there is evidence that Spielberg was trying to make the best out of the steaming pile of crap George Lucas (Story) and David Koepp (screenplay)dropped in his lap. In the features on the DVD in an interview with Steven he states that he never wanted to do "aliens" as he had done 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' and that was his 'alien' movie. But Lucas insisted and bullied other production staff into agreeing, and when Spielberg saw that the plot was set up to be awful he conceded. I think his initial resistance to the terrible influences of Lucas show that He is not entirely to blame for the movies horrible quality.