After leaving his mark in the world of horror with 'Jaws' and elevating B-sci-fi to that of drama while pushing visual effects wizardry in 'Close Encounters,' Steven Spielberg forged ahead to breathe new life in yet another movie genre. Partnering with George Lucas as writer and producer, 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' quickly became another monumental achievement in the director's early career, once more influencing a generation of moviegoers and creating a filmmaking trend which can still be seen today. ('National Treasure' or 'Uncharted' anyone?) While cooking up the perfect recipe for the action-adventure film, the first feature in the Indiana Jones saga is really where Spielberg begins to demonstrate a unique style, a distinct tone and spirit that eventually grew into its own definition.
From the opening moments of the Paramount logo seamlessly fading into a wide establishing shot of a South American mountain peak, we become witness to the imaginative creativity of a true virtuoso, a genuine filmmaker in complete control of the camera. With a mysterious and ominous tone working upon our curiosity, thanks in large part to the striking photography of Douglas Slocombe and the arresting music of John Williams, a band of men cautiously walk through a rainforest. Their leader in the fedora hat is only seen from behind or immersed in shadows, giving the impression that he's up to no good, possibly even the movie's villain. It's not until the terrifically edited sequence involving the click of a handgun, the alert tilt of the head, and the crack of the whip that the face of Harrison Ford emerges from behind the shadows, revealing the dubious man is none other than our hero — a flawed but oh-so cool badass.
Spielberg is intentionally toying with viewer expectations while at the same time perfecting the unwritten ten-to-fifteen minute rule, inadvertently creating one of the greatest and most memorable film openings ever. And it really is mesmerizingly perfect. In this sequence, we learn a great deal about Ford's most celebrated character and of the plot's major conflict in the thieving Belloq (Paul Freeman). Although fallible and culpable, which only makes him all the more endearing, Indiana Jones is also intelligent, cunning, and resourceful as he navigates through a temple of booby traps. Then, of course, comes the giant rolling boulder. And finally, the escape to the plane introduces John Williams' iconic musical score.
It's a wonderful, brief prologue that demonstrates what can be accomplished in a short span of time. It also brilliantly hints, or perhaps makes very clear, the filmmakers' aspirations, recalling an era when the film serials were most popular. 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' re-imagines the pulp B-movies of a bygone period, making them something grander and larger than they actually were, paying homage to the genre not only for the sake of nostalgia but to also reintroduce the joy of cinema with a kind of child-like awe. If the film feels episodic, that's partly the point, recreating that same feeling of the cliffhanger and developing our desire to see what will happen next. Going back to that wonderful opening sequence, Lucas and Spielberg also take inspiration from other personal childhood sources, such as Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge comics, namely "The Seven Cities of Cibola" and ""The Prize of Pizarro."
All this in only the first fifteen minutes, plus another five to quickly disclose the central plot device. Using the speculative theory of Hitler's interest in mysticism and the occult, Indy is told the Nazis are searching for the Ark of the Covenant, which could make them invincible. Set in 1936, coincidentally at the height of the Golden Age of Serials like 'Flash Gordon,' 'Dick Tracy,' and 'Buck Rogers,' our hero is up against a formidable enemy, the ultimate representation of evil, and we instantly cheer him on to single-handedly defeat the Third Reich. It also makes for a rather dark story not usually seen in family films, but Spielberg keeps to the same style as the opening sequence, such as the exciting gunfight inside the bar of the tough and feisty Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' has a bleak and sinister feel, but it's also optimistically carefree and riveting, making it a fantastic thrill-ride of action and adventure.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Paramount Home Entertainment brings 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' to Blu-ray as a single edition release with a code for an HD Digital Copy. The Region Free, BD50 disc is housed inside a blue, eco-cutout keepcase with a glossy, reflective and slightly embossed slipcover. At startup, viewers are taken directly to an animated menu screen with full-motion clips and John Williams's iconic music.
Indy's first adventure swings to Blu-ray with the same 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1) that shows every bit its age but still looks fantastic and was made from a new 4K scan of the original camera negatives. With a beautiful cinematic appeal that brings back memories of seeing it in theaters, the image comes with a nice layer of film grain throughout but tends to come off a bit heavier in some spots. Black levels are rich and true, providing some appreciable depth. Contrast is comfortably bright and vivid, allowing for clean, crisp visibility of the background information. The colors are mostly accurate and bold, but many scenes can look somewhat lackluster. The swastika flags in the second half of the movie, in particular, are more of an orange than the intense red we'd normally expect. The image is also terrifically detailed with distinct lines and textures in clothing, buildings and the faces of the cast, especially in close-up. Several sequences, however, appear quite blurry and soft, but that's due to age, film stock, and photography. In the end, 'Raiders' looks fantastic!
Like the video, this DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is identical to the previous track found in the box set, which is a good thing. Much of the action remains in the front, where the soundstage feels expansive and full of warmth. With outstanding, fluid channel separation, the mid-range is surprisingly extensive with rich, detailed clarity of the various noises, delivering lots of discrete off-screen sounds. Williams' iconic score, especially, is fulfilling with distinct instrumentation, spreading into the rears to create a satisfyingly immersive soundfield. The low-end is deep and appropriate for a thirty-year-old track. Atmospherics are occasionally employed in the surrounds and are quite effective for broadening the soundscape. Only minor point of complaint is that loud action sequences and the music seem louder than vocals, almost drowning out certain bits of dialogue. It doesn't completely ruin the film's enjoyment, but it's definitely worth noting and makes it short of perfection.
Only supplements are the same collection of three trailers found in the previous release.
From the imaginations of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' remains incredibly effective at capturing the melodrama, thrills, and overall excitement of a unique genre that entertained the hearts and minds of a younger generation. The film swings to Blu-ray with the same spectacular audio and video presentation as the previous release, but it lacks the large assortment of supplements. Nevertheless, devoted fans will not want to miss out on this owning this sensational classic!
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.