When Hollywood discovers a formula for success, it’s not long before opportunistic (and often creatively bankrupt) producers are trying to use that formula themselves. Most of the time, the strategy fails in horrible or hilarious ways. But occasionally, a director will craft a movie with enough originality that it feels at least worthy of comparison to its inspiration, while it also succeeds on its own terms.
We thought it would be fun to explore some of these situations and the Indiana Jones movies seem like a good place to start.
Now, it’s worth noting that just about every one of Hollywood’s greatest movies owes its existence to other stories – books, radio, television, movies – that came before. The Indy movies were an explicit attempt by Lucas and Spielberg to modernize earlier movie serials, influenced by Allan Quartermain novels and films like The Treasure of Sierra Madre and Lawrence of Arabia.
But a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark succeeds on so many levels that it sets the standard for everything that comes after. There will never be a movie described as “Raiders, but even better.” At least not described by anyone who isn’t Uwe Boll or a total lunatic.
In the 38 years since Indiana Jones first smirked his way onto screen, these are five Indy knockoffs that stand up on their own:
5. The Mummy (1999)
By the late 90s, CGI had matured enough that the scale of special effects could be generally measured by the limits of imagination. Stephen Sommers, who Hollywood should remember to employ more often, mixed adventure, mystery, and horror into a period piece with game-changing visuals. The story was a ton of fun, anchored by the Harrison Ford-like charm of Brendan Fraser – a brief A-lister who deserves a stronger legacy.
4. Romancing the Stone (1984)
Before he sent a DeLorean to the past or Forrest Gump on a jog across the America, Robert Zemeckis helmed this gem. Michael Douglas is a shifty treasure hunter, Kathleen Turner is the damsel-in-distress, and Danny DeVito is the comic relief. Douglas’ impious Jack Colton borrows a few traits from Indiana Jones – and this one was clearly trying to cash-in on the Indy craze, considering the release proximity – but the movie does its own thing by shunning religious or supernatural intrigue in favor of some 80s geo-political action in Columbia. A sequel, The Jewel of the Nile, is also pretty good.
3. The Adventures of Tintin – The Secret of the Unicorn
Herge’s Tintin cartoons told the stories of a globetrotting reporter who ends up in all kinds of cultural, political, and historical adventures. So, what better director to bring him to the big screen than Steven Spielberg himself? Three years after Kingdom of the Crystal Skull deflated hopes for the Indy series, Spielberg proved that he still knew how to make a rip-roaring adventure. This movie is one of the reasons I’m excited for Indy 5.
2. The Rocketeer
Consider Joe Johnston’s pedigree. As an art director and effects artist, the first five movies of his career were Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Return of the Jedi, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. He could have just retired a legend, but thank goodness he didn’t because The Rocketeer is a small masterpiece. In the late 1930s, as Indiana Jones is fighting Nazis abroad, Billy Campbell’s Cliff Secord is fighting them on American soil. With technology from Howard Hughes and under the watchful eye of his mentor, played by an always-flustered Alan Arkin, Secord shreds swastikas, fights gangsters, and finds romance – all to a brilliant score from James Horner, who rises confidently to the level of John Williams here. This one should have been a franchise, dammit!
1. National Treasure
With secret societies, hidden passageways, and clues spread throughout sacred texts, National Treasure opened with comparisons to…The DaVinci Code. But the latter was itself an Indiana Jones wannabe in book form (that somehow really stunk in its big screen adaptation, Ron Howard). National Treasure works on nearly every level that the Indiana Jones movies do. The excellent cast, led by a just-zany-enough Nicolas Cage, makes the absurd narrative believable. The script is breathless, brought to life with energy and precision by Jon Turteltaub. From start to finish, it keeps a grin on your face. And, together with its sequel, it frames its hero in the context of a unique American mythology. The fact that this franchise isn’t in its fifth or sixth installment boggles my mind.
Ian told me that I have to write a conclusion for this post, so here it is.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, there is only one Indiana Jones. His name is Harrison Ford. But I use the word knockoff mostly in jest because all of these movies deserve their own place in Hollywood history, even if they owe their existence to the same source. To put it another way, there’s plenty of fortune and glory to go around, kid.
You’ll see this is true in other cases, too. Next up: the best knockoffs of The Notebook. Psych! The best Die Hard knockoffs.