Indiana Jones was, is and forever shall be the most famous archaeologist in the world. He may not be a superhero, but much like Bruce Wayne masquerades as Batman, mild-mannered lecturer and professor Indiana Jones has a secret second life, where he swings across ravines with a whip, and fights supernatural creatures and the Nazis at the same time.
The flip side of this is that Indiana Jones is a 1980s icon. He made fedoras cool, and nobody ever looked as good on horseback, but he belongs to the era just as much as Marty McFly and The Breakfast Club. By the 1990s, standard action films had given way to science-fiction blockbusters like Terminator 2, and Jones was out of fashion. Look at the landscape of cinema today, and it’s all about superhero films. What’s ‘in’ when it comes to cinema has fundamentally changed since Harrison Ford’s most famous character was in his prime. With the recent news that the fifth installment of Indiana Jones has been pushed back to 2021, is it too late for the old man to dust off the hat and fight the food fight once again?
The lure of nostalgia
There is, of course, past evidence that the franchise is capable of luring people based purely on nostalgia. The fourth (and most recent) Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, was released in 2008. That was almost twenty years after The Last Crusade, and yet is currently the highest-grossing of all four movies. Despite that, the plot involving an aging Indiana Jones and, controversially, aliens, received decidedly mixed reviews from the audience even if it did please critics. Some felt like it was stretching the goodwill of the franchise too far.
It’s also not as if the world of Indiana Jones has disappeared from modern culture. A series of video games based on the character has extended well into the 21st century. There isn’t an official slot game based on the movies, but if you take a trip to UK Slot Games, you’ll find a slot called ‘John Hunter and the Secrets of Da Vinci’s Treasure,’ which seems to borrow extensively from the themes of the films. Even the font used for the slot’s title will be familiar to anybody who’s seen the movies.
Going a step further, visitors to Disney’s Hollywood Studios can still see the ‘Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular,’ where stunt performers re-enact action sequences from the films on a daily basis. All the evidence is there to suggest that the public are still happy to spend money on Indiana Jones. But spending money on nostalgia is very different from spending money on a new creation.
The old-age adventurer
If the proposed fifth Indiana Jones movie was a prequel, a reboot, or another method for casting a younger man in the role of Indiana Jones, it would be a very different proposition. It would run the risk of alienating some of the fan base, but it would also solve a very obvious limitation that the new movie faces.
Harrison Ford has been confirmed as starring in the fifth film. It hasn’t yet started filming. By the time it’s released in 2021, Ford will be 79 years old. He’s in fantastic shape for a man of his age, and when he made his comeback to the Star Wars franchise he was every bit the Han Solo we remembered from the 1970s and 80s, but Han Solo and Indiana Jones are different characters. Han Solo was an all-action man, but he either fired a gun or sat behind the controls of a spaceship. Indiana Jones runs, jumps and fights. Ford was stretching credibility with some of the action sequences he pulled off in his 60s during Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Approaching 80, the idea of him doing extended fight scenes or stunts is inconceivable.
Some of the difficulties that come with Ford’s advancing years were alleviated by the introduction of Shia LaBeouf as Mutt Williams, son of Indiana Jones, in the previous film. LaBeouf is understood not to be participating in this new film, and there’s been no suggestion of a re-cast. Producers could again take the option of creating another character out of thin air to take on the physical risk elements of the story, but it would feel like watering down the established mythology of the films. People watch Indiana Jones films to see Indiana Jones; they’re less likely to be interested in seeing an unknown character take center stage.
Indefinite development hell
The other issue lingering over the production of the film is that it hasn’t yet started shooting, and the script isn’t even finalised yet. When the movie was first announced in 2016, it was given a projected release date of 2019. That slipped back to 2020 and has now slipped back by a further year. Until a finished script has been produced and the movie enters physical production, it could yet slip back again. Shooting a major film isn’t a quick process; the days in which a big film could be shot and released inside the same year are long gone. If the script isn’t finished until late 2019, we might not see the film until 2022, fourteen years after the previous installment, and with Ford at 80.
The longer this delay continues, the less likely the film is to be able to cater to the expectations of this audience. Everybody loves Indiana Jones, but they love it as they remember it. Like a band who goes on for an album too long or a boxer who keeps fighting way past their prime, eventually, the spectacle becomes a sad one. Further performances soil memories that already exist more than they add to the legacy. Making a terrible fifth Indiana Jones movie would do more than just disappoint the fans, it would devalue the entire franchise. When it comes to the question of ‘how late is too late’ for a new film, the answer may well turn out to be ‘now.’