They say it’s the toughest hurdle for a writer to overcome. Plot and characterization can draw on a dozen different elements, and subtext and themes usually arrive organically through the organization and creation process. But coming up with a title? Yeesh, that’s the benchmark between scribbler and scribe, talent and tool. If you’re looking for proof of such a literary reality, gaze no further than the last 10 years in George Lucas’ production career.
With the recent announcement of the new Indiana Jones IV movie moniker (more on that in a moment), Luke’s legitimate deadbeat dad is three for four in lousy cinematic handles. And if you thought nothing could compete with the serials gone South smell of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones, wait until you feast your ill-prepared peepers on this newest nonsensical name. Unless it gets tweaked somewhere between the publicity and the close of production, the man in charge has hobbled pal Stephen Spielberg with the following lamentable label:
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Huh? What’s that again? Since when did this series suddenly see a new age Master of the Universe make-over? What, pray tell, does such a 1930’s name tell us about what to expect come May 2008? With Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, and Last Crusade, we at least had some idea of what was ahead – in each case, an ark, a temple, and a quest of some sort. And since each of the previous installments dealt with life or death, good vs. evil struggles, the mental movie began playing before a single section of celluloid was unspooled.
But what, exactly, is a Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? At first glance it appears almost like gibberish, as if a videogame designer on a five Red Bull buzz simply typed random power words onto his laptop. Upon closer examination, part of the title entity could be a reference to the pre-Columbian myth surrounding the supposed mystical powers of 13 such carefully carved pieces of quartz. Though many of these relics are now considered to be the work of modern artisans, a legitimate claim of age suggests an ancient, spiritual spook show. Knowing Lucas, it could also be a throwback to the old comic strip hero The Phantom. Crystal skulls were used quite frequently in the masked hero’s adventures.
So while the spy geek savants over at AICN and IGN decipher and dig into all manner of legal and questionable evidentiary sources in the neverending race for high tech scoops (they’ll figure this fiasco of a name out soon enough), it’s appropriate to pause and consider the overall state of the crappy movie title. There have been a rash of them lately - The Squid and the Whale, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. To be fair, it’s not that these monikers are meaningless. Some are taken from novels and other preexisting sources, while others reference important elements inherent to the storyline. But in many cases, simply stating the obvious doesn’t always provide the necessary understanding or knowledge – not even if you call yourself Scary Movie.
In truth, the worst film monikers are those that come as a direct result of a filmmaker’s unflappable belief in their own ideas. Others derive from studios unsure how to market the original onerous name. Then there are the cases where a foreign film arrives on these shores newly christened, all in an effort to get Westerners interested in what another part of the world has to say. When you add it all together, it’s plain that more goes into a truly terrible label than the “off the top of my head” conceits the concept suggests. Certainly arrogance, incompetence, and overreaching all play a part. But some things can’t be rationalized. After all, is there really a reasonable excuse for calling anything The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies? Didn’t think so. .
Which leads us back to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The rumor mill reports that LucasFilms actually submitted six potential titles to the MPAA and for potential copyright. For the record, they were:
Indiana Jones and the City of Gods
Indiana Jones and the Destroyer of Worlds
Indiana Jones and the Fourth Corner of the Earth
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Indiana Jones and the Lost City of Gold
Indiana Jones and the Quest for the Covenant
Apparently, old Georgie couldn’t decide which to choose, and threw a dart at his list. Seems his aim was pretty bad. Aside from Fourth Corner of the Earth (which really is no better than the final selection) the other four possibilities actually sound like realistic Raiders sequels. It’s not a clearly definable line – one man’s Destroyer of Worlds is another’s Quest for the Covenant - and let’s not forget that Lucas loves to create chaos where there’s calm. Before the DVD release of the original Indy trilogy, he insisted that the first film change its name to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark to add “continuity” to the releases. Ugh.
And yet, this doesn’t really address the dilemma of a movie hampered by a horrible title. It’s hard to say if a lame name – or even more perplexing, a vague or uninteresting one – really affects awareness. Studios will state, unequivocally that branding is important to the successful selling of a film. But would The Wind that Shakes the Barley or The Shawshank Redemption play better to a mainstream audience if they were retitled The Anti-British Rebellion or Escape from Shawshank Prison, respectively? For that matter, could an obvious step outside the bonds of retail reason like Lust, Caution (Ang Lee’s latest, a WWII erotic espionage thriller) actual overcome both a bizarre moniker and an NC-17 rating to be anything other than an out of the way arthouse critical darling?
It will only get worse in the coming weeks. From the bland and uninspired Michael Clayton (which is really about more than the character forming the film’s identity) to Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (which is a lot like naming something after the classic HR Pufnstuf rhyme “Oranges, Poranges”) the art of summing up a film in a single, significant phrase is clearly a skill many inside the industry no longer possess. Unless it sings of the bleeding obvious, anything illustrative yet esoteric is truly beyond their grasp. It’s the main reason why every facet of a franchise and almost every segment of a series is stuck with a numerical nomenclature – Roman or regular.
All of which makes Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that much more depressing. It comes from a pair of talents that took American Graffiti and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and turned them into words that actually resonated with some kind of pre-release intrigue. True, both films found the majority of their classicism after they hit theaters – and the same could be said for any of the titles discussed here. But as the proposed Phantom Creeps components of the Star War prequels indicated, sometimes, a dumb name begets an even stupider movie. With its already potent feeling of “been there/done that”, and the ageism issues with the lead, here’s hoping the famed action hero archeologist’s trip to the land of glass heads it’s not a disaster in the making. While the pedigree suggests otherwise, the title tells a different story.