No more heroes: Why no one else can make films like Steven Spielberg

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Thirty years ago, Raiders of the Lost Ark marked a high point in a golden age of blockbusters. With Spielberg's heirs now making summer movies of their own, Tim Walker wonders if we'll ever see Indy and his kind again

If George Lucas had had his way, Indiana Smith would have sported a moustache. Until three weeks before principal photography began on Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas, its producer, still hoped to cast Tom Selleck as the bull-whipping archaeologist. The hirsute Selleck, however, was contractually bound to his hit television series, Magnum PI. Eventually, the film's director, Steven Spielberg, persuaded Lucas to let him cast Harrison Ford instead. Oh, and to change the character's name – to Indiana Jones.

If Ford hadn't been suffering from dysentery, then Raiders would have lost one of the best of its many brilliant jokes: during a chase through an Egyptian bazaar, Indy is confronted by a flamboyant, scimitar-wielding assassin. Sick, and reluctant to film the scripted fight scene, Ford supposedly turned to Spielberg and said: "Let's just shoot the fucker." So Indy pulled out his pistol and blew the swordsman away.

And if every other studio in Hollywood hadn't first rejected Raiders for being too expensive and ambitious, then Paramount would probably not have relented and funded the movie, giving the picture its enticing opening shot – the Paramount logo fades to a distinctive Peruvian mountain; into the frame strides a silhouetted figure wearing a fedora; etc... – and forcing its creators to work to a brisk schedule, with a tight budget and no time for unnecessary retakes.

Raiders celebrated its 30th birthday this summer, and it seems almost unbelievable now that this near-perfect adventure movie (near-perfect? No, just perfect), should have been the product of a series of happy accidents, financial limitations and creative short-cuts. According to Spielberg himself, "The line in Raiders that most typifies the production of that movie was when Harrison says, 'I'm making this up as I go along'."

The film was a rare and precious collaboration between the two great popular filmmakers of their era, perhaps of any era. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and remains one of the top 20 grossing hits of all time. Moreover, it was made at the peak of a golden age of classic family blockbusters, from Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, to Back to the Future (produced by Spielberg) in 1985.

Audiences still hold those films in disproportionate affection: in Los Angeles on Monday night, fans gathered for a sell-out 30th anniversary screening of Raiders, just days since countless proud Star Wars nerds – including British filmmaker Simon Pegg – had taken to Twitter to rail against Lucas's latest alterations to a new Blu-Ray version of Return of the Jedi. (You want the details? Google them. I can hardly bear to type the words.) Last week, the web exploded with news that Nike plans finally to produce a limited-edition pair of trainers like those worn by Marty McFly in Back to the Future II.

Meanwhile, the children who sat awed in cinemas three decades ago are now making blockbuster movies themselves. As a boy, the precocious J J Abrams was hired to restore some of Spielberg's teenage Kodak Super 8mm films; this year Abrams paid tribute to that time with his own nostalgic sci-fi blockbuster, Super 8, which Spielberg produced. Pegg recently wrote and starred in Paul, a pastiche of (among other things) Spielberg's sci-fi classics Close Encounters and ET. Both Paul and Super 8 climaxed with explicit, and almost identical, homages to their hero.

Joe Johnston, who started out filming special-effects shots for Star Wars, this year directed Captain America, which borrows not a few familiar Indy tropes. And yet it feels, doesn't it, as if nothing in today's summer release schedule can quite match the brilliance of those early blockbusters. The characters were more vivid, the storytelling so much smarter. Are we watching Indiana Jones, Marty McFly and Han Solo through rose-tinted 2D spectacles? Or has Hollywood genuinely failed to find their like again?

Spielberg was a singular talent, whose personal successes altered the entire business. Summer was thought of as a fallow season for Hollywood until Jaws chewed up the 1975 box office, creating the blockbuster market that we live with today. Geoff Boucher is the man behind Hero Complex, the Los Angeles Times's renowned "fanboy" movie blog, which hosted this week's 30th anniversary screening of Raiders. "If you really love the big summer adventure movies," he says, "then the run of films released between 1977 and 1985 is just staggering. Those were the first generation of blockbusters, and maybe it's a sector that could only have so many years of real creative invigoration. They went down a list: 'we can do a World War Two movie, a space movie, a time-travel movie...', but there aren't a whole lot of genres to go through before things start to feel derivative."

"It seems as if summer blockbusters have got worse," agrees Tom Shone, the author of Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer. "You compare the artistry and craftsmanship of a movie like Close Encounters to the machine-tooled franchise films that get churned out now, and it seems a galaxy away. But even back then there were only a couple of guys capable of making those movies: Spielberg and Lucas. The competition for Raiders in 1981 was cheesy things like The Cannonball Run and For Your Eyes Only. Before Spielberg, blockbusters came once in a generation. Then there were one or possibly two a year after Jaws and Star Wars. Now, they're every week, banked up behind each other like aircraft waiting to land. So there are many more bad movies made. But the regularity of the really good movies is the same: about once every year."

Since Tim Burton's Batman in 1989, audiences have notoriously been fed a diet of superheroes, sequels, remakes and adaptations of classic television shows, games or theme-park rides. "Batman was when the studios figured out how to manufacture Spielberg-like success," Shone explains. "Now they'd rather do anything but invest in an original idea for a movie. Their business model is pre-saleability: anything that can achieve brand recognition before you go into the cinema. When the second wave of blockbusters arrived, there were some legendary flops like Waterworld and Last Action Hero. But now they've learned how to eliminate certain strata of failure; how to make money back for any movie that we don't actively dislike."

A similar lament can be found in The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex, the new book by film critic Mark Kermode, who explains that even films perceived culturally as failures, such as Pearl Harbor or Spider-Man 3, make their money back easily at the box office and beyond. And meanwhile, claims Kermode, "We've all learned to tolerate a level of overpaid, institutionalised corporate dreadfulness that no one actually likes but everyone meekly accepts because we've all been told that blockbuster movies have to be stupid to survive."

Indiana Jones, an original character inspired by Lucas's love of old television adventure serials, appealed to each of the industry's target demographics; Raiders and its sequels were genuine family films. The only studio committed to consistently cracking that nut nowadays is Pixar. But if all blockbusters are going to make money, regardless of their quality, then why don't more of them look more like Raiders? "Raiders ages well," says Boucher. "People are always pleasantly surprised when a movie successfully mixes action and comedy. It's mature, with believable adult relationships. The time period gives it a rollicking sensibility. And whatever they paid [composer] John Williams, it wasn't enough."

Like J J Abrams, Damon Lindelof was one of the co-creators of the television sci-fi drama Lost. In a love letter to Raiders published this month on Hero Complex, he identifies one of the crucial elements of its appeal. Yes, the script is a masterclass in narrative economy; yes, it features an abnormally well-developed and feisty female lead; yes, the final image of the film – that crate disappearing into that vast warehouse – is indelible. But most importantly, "Indiana Jones is a nerd... an academic who's motivated purely by his desire to find and retrieve really cool stuff so he can put it in a museum where other nerds can appreciate it. Also, he wears glasses and gets nervous when hot female students write the words 'Love You' on their eyelids... He's actually scared of stuff. It's quite rare for the hero of a movie to be scared of anything."



As Shone explains, "Those early Spielberg movies were underdog stories. The heroes of Jaws were cowards and landlubbers. But now a lot of movies are made by the bully in the sandpit. The Transformers movies are full of goliaths beating the crap out of other goliaths. They're bullies' movies. And that says something about how the film industry has changed."

Most of today's better blockbusters lack the lightness that characterised Raiders and its contemporaries; the very best big movies of 2010 and 2011 were, by common consensus, Inception and Rise of the Planet of the Apes – both of them dark, pessimistic and adult. Of course, they weren't the only big summer releases of recent years to be worth the cost of admission. The superhero genre may be predictable, but it manages its share of deserved critical successes: Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Captain America. Avatar and the first Pirates of the Caribbean were a cut above what tends to pass for entertainment in Hollywood nowadays. Until Cars 2, Pixar's reputation was unimpeachable. The recent blockbuster that most successfully recaptured that Raiders mix of action, comedy and adventure was Abrams' re-boot of the Star Trek franchise – featuring, among others, Simon Pegg.

But it seems unlikely that any of these will still have a hold over our imaginations, three decades hence, as strong as Star Wars or Back to the Future or Indiana Jones. During the 1980s, three teenagers from Mississippi spent seven years remaking Raiders in its entirety on VHS; Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation earned them the priceless praise of Spielberg himself, and the story of its production is set to be made into yet another movie. Are there young boys somewhere in the world right now, reshooting Pirates of the Caribbean? Somehow, I doubt it.

And what of the two men who first discussed The Adventures of Indiana Smith while building sandcastles in Hawaii in 1977? Lucas is obviously busy adding unwanted extras to the original Star Wars trilogy. Spielberg has two promising films coming out within weeks of each other this winter: The Adventures of Tintin, a motion-capture adventure based on Hergé's classic graphic novels; and War Horse, an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's devastating First World War tale. Hopefully they'll help to dispel the whiff of his previous directorial effort.

"The key to Raiders was economy," says Shone. "At one point they were going to film with a biplane, but Lucas snapped one set of wings off the model and said 'OK, we'll do it for this much money'. Those constrictions really benefited the film. If Spielberg and Lucas collaborated now, you can only imagine the amount of latitude they would have." Actually, we needn't imagine; we have the proof: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Unlike its predecessors, it's probably best forgotten.

Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home