Raiders of the LOST Ark

"Lost" is friggin' awesome.  Indiana Jones is really friggin' awesome.  And other writers have pointed out the similarities between the two.  But this week, I realized that "Lost" has somehow succeeded where Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull did not: the "Lost" writers managed to integrate science-fiction, time travel, ancient artifacts, and swashbuckling adventure where Hollywood's most beloved duo, Spielberg and Lucas, failed.  So in the words of Tim Gunn (to totally mix my television metaphors), how did "Lost" make it work?
Did you guys notice the total musical throwback to John Williams in last night's episode of Lost? Check it: 

February 27 episode of Lost, "The Lighthouse:"

The Map Room scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark:

Following the failure of Crystal Skull, I maintained that the best Indy movies, Raiders and The Last Crusade, had an important thing in common: they were both rooted in stuff we knew, ie, Judeo-Christian mythology.  The Ark and the Grail were treasures that moviegoers were familiar with, the Sankara stones (Temple of Doom) and the crystal skulls (...Crystal Skull) were not.  I thought the problem was that we as an audience could inherently understand the value of the cup of Christ, but didn't care about a rock in some small Indian town in the same way.  The supernatural rules of those things were known and presumed: everyone knows you couldn't touch the Ark the Covenant, but no one knows what happened when you put a quartz skull in the bottom of a spaceship, à la Crystal Skull.  Temple of Doom was less successful by this theory, too, but was redeemed by the fact that it was a prequel, by having a young 1980s Indy, and by the subsequent success of Last Crusade.

But my theory doesn't hold up when you  consider the totally satisfying action-adventure concept of "Lost."  It may work to explain the Indy quadrilogy (tetralogy?), but the triumph of "Lost" explodes my idea that an adventure needs to be rooted in familiar (or even real) mythology to to be successful.  Instead, the explanation for Skull's failure might be closer to something my friend Dave Quay wrote to me.  He said, regarding Indy, that "what we have are four movies out of what should have been six -- we skipped over two in the 90s."  Because Temple and Last Crusade are increasingly sensational and less realistic than Raiders, he explained, it made sense the films would move in the direction of Skull -- they just moved too fast.  The 20 year passage of time (in the movies and in real life) couldn't adequately fill in the blanks between the last two films.

So maybe "Lost" benefits for the simple reason that a series has more leeway to be unexplainable.  It can leave more loose ends and take more logical leaps than a film can (how many of those loose ends will be tied by the end of the series remains to be seen...shortly).  "Lost," like Raiders, started out waaaay more realistically than it has ended. (Did anyone else think it was going to just be a scripted "Survivor" when you saw the first previews?)  It has only been over many, many episodes that Dharma and Faraday and shifting universes have become a part of the "Lost" world.  One-upping its crazy cliffhangers with even crazier ones has become what we love about "Lost," but it wouldn't have worked if it had been less gradual.  So, maybe  Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull is what "Lost" would have been if the characters had time-traveled in the first season: canceled.
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February 24, 2010 at 6:49 PM delete

Interesting. My problem with Crystal Skull is that Spielberg and Lucas (and, hell, Ford) became fans of the character instead of artists: they created the best possible (but still lame) internet fan fic. Basically, "Hey, lets put all the old characters we liked into a new genre without really supporting it with a good script or new character development". I’m surprised Short Round didn’t show up.
I really don't like Dave's "missed the character development in the 90's" theory, because Skull didn't fail because of inexplicable character action, it failed because of poorly executed character action. Indeed, the movie keeps trying to cram Indiana Jones' Indiana Jones-ness in our face, without fleshing out the parts between. We get hat, whip, knowledge of ancient history, a love-hate relationship with a woman, and a scene where he gets to hate snakes. That's about it. The theory also fails because I think you can easily skip both Raiders and Temple and be extremely fond of Last Crusade. Why? Because it’s a good movie with strong characters and familiar themes. Also, the first three films are, for the most part, capable of standing alone as complete films. Skull (again, as a fan fic) requires that you've seen at least Raiders and Crusade to care AT ALL about what's happening to these characters.
About Lost. Indiana Jones is, yes, rooted in the familiar. It's based on familiar mythology, created as an homage to 30's adventure serials. It satisfies our desire for familiar symbology. Lost, I think, sits opposite Indiana Jones. Lost's popularity depends ON its inexplicability, not in spite of it as you stated. It doesn’t need leeway to be obtuse, it revels in it. You come back to the show, not to be given the warmth of the familiar, but the excitement of the unknown. The show therefore leaves loose ends because tying them up would be infinitely less satisfying than leaving us in wonderment (which makes me think that the end of the series can't be anything but a letdown).
In terms of symbolic consumption, Indy is a home cooked meal from your mother; Lost is cocaine.
As well, Lost is much more about its characters than the Indiana Jones movies, simply because there's more time for us to get to know them, and they don’t depend on type. Indy had to depend on American heroic tropes and iconography to get us to like him for 10 hours (add another 14 if you count the TV show). Lost will end up with ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTEEN hours of character development and interaction. That’s a lot of time to get to know somebody, even a nobody that happened to be sitting in the wrong (or the right) plane.
In sum, Lost succeeds because it knows how to keep us coming back: good writing, fidelity to character, and making us care about the world they exist in, so much so that inexplicable circumstances can be forgiven as part of that universe.
Skull, on the other hand, made no effort to make us care about most of the new characters besides Shia LeBoeuf (did you care when Ray Winstone died? I didn’t), used the old characters in silly ways, attempted to make a true sequel where all the previous films had been self-sustaining episodes, and made no effort to try and bring us into the world of the film other than the fact that Indiana Jones is involved. Skull was a cardboard cutout of an Indiana Jones film, and ultimately, it gave us dumb answers to questions that nobody really cared to ask.
To be fair to the creators, we WANTED it to be like the old ones. But the quality of film is far off of what Spielberg (and even Lucas) is currently capable of. Even as a dealer in narcotic substances, Lost is reliable.
With Skull, we thought we were getting that home cooked meal. What we got was Cheez Whiz and bacon vodka.

February 24, 2010 at 10:16 PM delete

Symbology? I'm sure the word you were looking for was "symbolism." What is the ssss-himbolism there?

February 25, 2010 at 3:11 PM delete

If the Presidency of George W. Bush has done anything, it's given us the right to make up words to make our dumb point. That's downright heartwarmical:)


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