Adventure movies were killed off in 1980. It’s a genre that’s a little imprecise to define, but normally involves a quest for an object and plenty of old-school derring-do. You can trace something of the genre’s trajectory through the likes of Errol Flynn’s famous swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Thief of Baghdad (1941) and The African Queen (1951). However, it’s the revival of adventure storytelling with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ Indiana Jones franchise that brought the genre to an unreachable apex. But why has the genre been in slow decline ever since, and is there anything that can be done to give it new life?
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980) set an extraordinary bar for the genre. It’s fundamentally a theme park ride with all the required thrills and twists, but created with such care that it wowed critics across the board. It’s an enthralling mix of action, romance, and drama, and one that’s storyboarded to perfection: there are plenty of scenes so iconic that it feels like the definitive screen adventure The engine driving all of this is its creators’ love for the genre, resulting in a real awareness of its tropes and how to tweak them to their best. But perhaps the most important aspect of their love for adventuring was that they created something with adult sensibilities, rather than just churning out a movie as family-friendly studio fare.
A whole host of imitators have come out in the wake of that film, riffing directly off the work of Lucas and Spielberg. It’s a different situation to the Western, a genre which always brings interesting variations during its infrequent revivals; the adventure movie is always revived with the spectre of Indiana Jones looming large. There are very few follow-ups that come anywhere near their source of inspiration, unsurprisingly, with the most successful being Romancing the Stone (1984). Romancing the Stone dares to spin in its own direction and emphasise the romantic element of the genre, though originality has been cannibalised too— most recently in the form of critically-panned rip-off The Lost City (2022).
The most spiritually comparable successor to Indiana Jones, and the most commercially successful, arrived nearly twenty years later as The Mummy (1999). It’s a big adventure blockbuster that harks back to the early 20th century treasure-hunting of its predecessor. A major draw for the film is that a significant amount of money was poured into making it feel tactile, meaning that there are enormous sets, crowd-filled environments, and a genuine sense of time and place. It really is the last of its kind in that respect, adventures now either being set in the present day or ending up overwhelmed by CGI.
However, even The Mummy’s craftmanship can’t hide the fact that it was just the latest iteration of a worn-out formula. Raiders of the Lost Ark is so enjoyable largely because of its simplicity, whereas The Mummy throws in countless unnecessary characters, a whole host of cursed objects, and countless leaps back and forth between the same locations. The overstuffed narrative and non-linear journey are coupled with meaningless fight scenes, there being so much CGI and quick cross-cutting that nothing has the chance to impress the audience. “Less is more” does not seem to be followed by many successors to Raiders of the Lost Ark’s simple and precise joys.
The history of modern adventure films is full of commercial fare that has totally misunderstood its ancestors, and probably their biggest failure is how 99% of them have been made as family films. It’s true that Indiana Jones is a franchise loved by parents and kids alike, but they are not child-oriented family fare. The films have plenty of winks to sex, comedic timing on par with any great screen slapstick, and action both physical and gleefully gory. Adventure films at their best are essentially comic books come to life with the all-encompassing entertainment implied by that, rather than lighthearted fare with adventure-themed aesthetics.
One of the particularly unenjoyable tropes of the “family-friendly” adventure is how it often entails the whole family being brought along for the ride. Again, it’s something that was first seeded in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), with Indy (Harrison Ford) ending up going on an adventure with his dad. This was genuinely entertaining: a tough adventurer clashing with his stuffy but wise father, the latter audience-pleasingly played by action hero Sean Connery. Series like National Treasure are ugly, uninspired works that bring the family along from the start, taking away any sense of edge and basically turning into sterile, uncool, moralising stories. Children typically like the idea of independence from the family, and tying adventurers to the nuclear family is bound to make most kids cringe.
Perhaps one of the big problems with adventure films is the fact that their appeal has pushed them into the hands of the studios, and they aren’t necessarily driven by creative concerns. Jungle Cruise (2021) is one of the most recent major adventure films, and this Disney behemoth highlights the worst tendencies of studios’ attempts to tackle the genre. Antiheroes are fundamentally pure, the quips are dry and never risqué, and events are unbelievably cartoonish rather than thrillingly so. Jungle Cruise even leeches from a modern-day imitator of Indiana Jones, having unmenacing undead CGI creatures lifted straight from the passable Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). It’s like watching a copy of a copy of a copy, the original charm becoming harder and harder to see.
Of course, no genre of entertainment is perfect, and there is definitely some modernisation that needs to be done with tales around treasure-thieving white people. The character of Indiana Jones is often criticised by viewers as being basically a grave robber, taking things from their rightful places and stuffing them in Western museums. The Tomb Raider films hit the mark a bit better though, with the characters’ motivations often questioned and there being a surprising amount of teamwork. Modernisation is definitely something that can be achieved and can continue to happen, if adventure films are produced by people who want to make interesting stories rather than just profit from nostalgia.
There is hope for change, even if the environment looks broadly bleak. Indiana Jones’s upcoming fifth film is the sequel to much-derided fourth instalment; Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), which was overwhelmed by poor CGI, moved along by a weak script, and divorced from the wry grittiness that launched the series. This follow-up is being helmed by James Mangold, a writer and director known for giving superhero films fresh life with Logan (2017) – a more adult take that stripped away the overwhelming, impersonal scale its brethren often have. Perhaps he’ll manage to make another series seem fresh once again, and give filmmakers and studios the inspiration they need to break out of a way too familiar pattern.
But what if Mangold releases a big-budget turkey? As seems to be common nowadays, perhaps television might provide the invigoration that viewers are looking for. Star Wars is very much a stablemate to the likes of The Mummy and Indiana Jones in its epic journeys, memorable villains, and swashbuckling combat. This, too, became a little dry until The Mandalorian, which seems to have made something formulaic seem original, and perhaps even drew in people who wouldn’t normally be enthused by space-based fare. Television provides the opportunity to expand stories beyond the confines of a three-act structure and two-hour entertainment. Regardless of how things pan out, film fans will likely still find gems to entertain them or middling watches to suit their tastes, but it’s hard not to imagine that real change will likely happen beyond the big screen.
Header Image Courtesy of Disney / Lucasfilm