Indiana Jones and losing your audience

I got to thinking about “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” recently, because I do things like that. I think there’s an interesting lesson here in how to lose an audience, if you think you’re doing okay. The fourth Indiana Jones movies was panned by critics and fanboys alike, even though lots of people in charge of spending lots of money thought they were sitting on another golden installment of the beloved franchise? Why didn’t it work?

Oh, and there are—obviously—spoilers here for the movie. I shouldn’t have to say this, because if you know who I am and you’re reading this blog, you’ve either seen KotCS or you made a very deliberate decision not to. Either way, you’ve been warned anyway. For the record, I liked the movie, probably because I saw past what most people complain about and accepted it for what they were trying to do. But let’s look at three key elements of the film, why they should have worked, and why audiences didn’t buy them.


Stunt: Nuking the fridge

Why it should have worked: Because audiences in this franchise have bought it before. Not this particular stunt, but consider this. If you love the original movies and thought KotCS was a travesty, that means you already accepted Indy, a civilian lounge singer and a ten year old boy jumping out of a crashing plane without parachutes, landing on the top of a mountain in a rubber inflatable raft, slaloming down the mountain without injury, going off a cliff, falling again, this time into white water river rapids, riding through those all without drowning or Indy losing his hat, before washing up on the riverbank just as the waters calm to find an Indian shaman who would like to speak to them about some missing magic rocks. You bought that, but Indy riding out a nuclear test in a solid steel, lead-lined box is too much to believe?

Why audiences didn’t buy it: Because it was a nuke. Those of us who grew up in the Cold War, or even had parents who grew up in the Cold War, have come to associate nukes with instant vaporized death. Even though we know this was a test, and therefore probably not at full weaponized strength, even though we’ve seen pictures of the rubble at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, proving that there is rubble, ie. stuff that didn’t get vaporized, after a nuclear blast, even though we know the fridge was lead lined and Indy could have escaped with only mild radiation exposure—which we saw him get treated for—it’s still a friggin’ nuke.

Lesson learned: Just because something in your story is possible, that doesn’t mean it’s plausible.


Stunt: Aliens

Why it should have worked: KotCS is set in the early 1950s, when Roswell and UFO hysteria was just starting to build in a big way, so aliens and alien artifacts were completely appropriate weirdness for Indiana Jones to find his way into. The artifacts in question were in South America, where legends and speculation about “ancient astronauts” who helped the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas build their civilizations go back decades, well into Indy’s time.

And frankly, you had no problem believing Mola Ram could reach into that guy’s heart, show it to him, and the guy continue living until he burned up. You had no problem with the Lost Ark of the Covenant melting all those Nazis. And you had no problem with Indiana Jones not only finding the Holy Grail—an achievement missed by both crusading knights and Monty Python, unless you believe the French—but also using it to heal a mortal wound to Sean Connery.

Why audiences didn’t buy it: Because even though aliens were appropriate to the time and place of the story, they weren’t appropriate to the character. We have no problems dealing with Indiana Jones fighting off spooky magic and religious stuff, but we associate aliens with science fiction and high technology. Some characters can get away with genre bending, but the more established you become in something, the more rigid the walls around your characters. If Tom Clancy wrote a novel where his high tech military folks encountered Lovecraftian Elder Gods, it would fail just as big.

Lesson learned: Know your genre and where the boundaries are. This was a big one for me, as one of the biggest changes I’m making to the Between Heaven and Hell books this time around is establishing right up in Revelation that the immortals are immortal because of the nanotechnology in their blood, along with a few adaptations to their DNA. In short, I’m establishing the story as science fiction right up front, so when we end up in space fighting dinosaurs by book four, it’s not as much of a leap.

Stunt: Old Indy

Why it should have worked: Well, we were okay with an older Sean Connery in Last Crusade, right? This was supposed to be a passing of the torch from Indy to his son, played by Shia Lebouf, considered by many to the the next generation Harrison Ford anyway.

Why audiences didn’t buy it: In Last Crusade, Connery did comparatively little actual fighting. We knew he was capable of it, at least those of us who remember his James Bond, but Henry Jones acted more as an advisor and sounding board for his son. But this didn’t work in KotCS. Instead of an older Indiana Jones guiding and grooming young Mutt as his successor, Indy kept doing what Indy does. And that’s take a beating, which means for much of the movie, we got treated to the uncomfortable experience of watching a man in his 60s get beat up.

In MMO terms, Indiana Jones is a tank. His purpose is to take damage, not deal it. Think about it. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, for all of Indy’s bravery and copious damage absorption, what did he really accomplish? He failed at every single point of the story, and the only difference he ultimately made was that the Ark ended up buried in some government warehouse rather than buried in the desert sands. He didn’t really stop the Nazi’s at all. They stopped themselves by opening the Ark prematurely.

And so in KotCS, when Indy continues to fail with style rather than letting Mutt take the brunt of it and teach him the family business, the audience had the same “who are you trying to kid” reaction that we get when we see a gray haired quarterback take the field rather than know when to hang it up. Yeah, you know who I’m talking about.

Lesson learned: Think not about your characters, but how they’ll be perceived. Suspension of disbelief is a fragile thing, and once your audience has a “oh, for cryin’ out loud” moment, it’s very hard to get them back. Think about your story before hand and make sure you’re coaxing the audience into playing along, rather than dictating to them how it’s gonna be.