It’s Not the Years, Honey. It’s the Mileage

With apologies to Dylan Thomas and Michael Caine: Sometimes you really do just need to go gently into that good night.

Disney announced this week that it has officially started production on a fifth Indiana Jones film, directed yet again by Steven Spielberg and starring yet again (almost unbelievably) Harrison Ford, who by now could probably pass for an ancient relic himself. Indeed, the internet is already working overtime on irreverent titles for this ecstatically unnecessary movie (“Indiana Jones and the Lost AARP”).

The problem is not, of course, Harrison Ford’s age. Ford has more talent and charisma onscreen right now than many actors would accumulate if given an extra decade in their 30s. No, the problem is not in the gray hairs, but in the gray matter. The idea of another Indiana Jones film is not one that offers expectations of delight, merely of nostalgia. This was proved definitively by jaw-droppingly awful Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a movie so deeply flawed in basic concept that Disney felt obliged to mention in this week’s announcement that its writer, George Lucas, will have nothing to do with #5.

But removing Disney’s second largest shareholder from the project isn’t really a solution. Indeed, it was probably already inevitable that the new film will be better than Crystal Skull. Even so, it will still be a mistake.

For a little while now I’ve been critical of Hollywood’s creative stagnation. The sequel, the reboot, and the franchise dominate the box office every year, and the result is an industry that simply doesn’t seem able to produce new worlds, new stories, new characters. Audiences want to see what they’ve already seen 2 or 3 times, 20 or 30 years ago. If familiarity had been this profitable back when George Lucas was trying to get the original Star Wars financed, it’s almost certain the world would never have seen his movie.

That kind of critique makes lots of sense to me, but it doesn’t make much sense to a lot of my friends. When I posted some tomato-throwing thoughts about the Indy film on Facebook, I predicted, accurately, that certain folks would dismiss me as a snob and a crank. It seems that most people understand the idea that reboots and sequels really are an enormous proportion of the film industry right now; they’re just OK with that. I don’t know how to convince people to not be ok with that without sounding somewhat condescending, and risking what would ultimately be a lecture of “culturedness.” A lot of my friends simply have no category for a reasonable person who would think there was some sort of objective problem with more Star Wars, more Marvel, and more Indiana Jones.

The reality is that this kind of thinking requires a sort of inherent distance from entertainment. It requires seeing films as more than diversion but less than cultic ciphers of fandom. And I think, for a lot of my friends and a lot of Americans, the space between those two extremes just doesn’t exist. Movies are either meaningless or they are spiritual experiences. Star Wars is either a silly, inconsequential (if entertaining) celluloid or a deeply emotional piece of personal psyche that triggers a sense of identity and ownership. You either don’t care or wear the t-shirt.

This is what A.O. Scott meant when he talked about the “ascendency of the fan.” Fandom creates a “Critics Not Allowed” space. You can talk about a film’s flaws with audiences, and they will either agree or disagree. But try discussing those blemishes with a fan, and you’ll be labeled either ignorant or, worse, an enemy from a rival franchise.

There’s nothing wrong with some healthy doses of fan culture, but when it controls the market with the kind of ruthless monopoly that we’re seeing right now, you end up with things like Kingdom of Crystal Skull and Fuller House. You also end up, incidentally, with presidential candidates who can’t articulate coherent policy but win primaries by promising to, well, win. Once the fan experience is created, it is invulnerable, even to the most offensive sound bytes and the most poorly written screenplays. Fans aren’t objective; they wouldn’t be fans if they were.

So yes, I think 5 Indiana Jones films and 9 Star Wars movies and roughly 18492785 manifestations of Marvel characters are overall a disappointing thing for our culture. Ben-Hur doesn’t need to be remade, it just needs to be rewatched. A compulsive need to watch classic stories with contemporary upgrades is nothing more than what Lewis called “chronological snobbery.”

It’s not the years, honey. It’s the mileage.

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