Raiders of the Lost Ark
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. (Movie Rating: 5/5)
The Temple of Doom
As a sequel to the Indian Jones saga, Spielberg and Lucas decided to try something a bit different by doing a prequel instead. The next adventure in Dr. Jones' hunt for rare archeological finds takes place a year prior to 'Raiders,' before the Nazis started signing pacts with other countries and became a major worldwide threat. Of course, the truth behind this decision is much simpler than that, and also less inspiring than imagining a grander continuity scheme on the part of the filmmakers. In keeping with the spirit of celebrating classic B-movie serials, it makes sense our hero should battle other sinister forces with ambitions for world domination.
For 'Temple of Doom,' Lucas decided to revisit many of the rejected ideas he had conjured up when initially developing the story which evolved into 'Raiders.' These are the over-the-top and ridiculously unrealistic action sequences, such as the daring escape from a crashing airplane with only an inflatable raft and a lofty shootout inside a Shanghai nightclub. The most crackpot and outrageous of these is the rollercoaster-like chase inside a mine shaft, which over the years has also become the film's most iconic highlight. To this day, I still watch this second installment with anticipation for that sequence, shot with a combination of live-action and stop-motion. This and the dinner scene with a variety of exotic but disgusting foods more than makes up for the movie's other failings and continues to be a greatly enjoyed.
Still, for as much as I can be entertained by the film, I can admit the overall tone of the story feels somewhat out of place within the Indiana Jones universe. Supposedly, Lucas and Spielberg had always wanted to something creepier, but what started out as ideas about spooky ghosts somehow gradually metamorphosed into a religious cult of black magic. The plot follows an extraordinarily dark subject matter involving human sacrifice and child slavery with a terrifying villain in Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) at the center. (The film became a major contributor to the adoption of the PG-13 rating by the MPAA.) As opposed to its predecessor, 'The Temple of Doom' goes more for the frights and thrills of your typical action-adventure flick, yet Spielberg still carries that same high-spirited sense of excitement as before.
With the celebrated success of the first movie establishing the character as an easily likeable heroic archetype, it's actually rather interesting to see Dr. Jones as the man he was previous to his encounter with one of Hitler's armies. There's also something more cynical and a tad derisive in Ford's performance as well, like that of a person burned a few too many times in his misadventures with bad people. Kate Capshaw's haughty "Willie" and Jonathan Ke Quan's loyal Short Round are meant to keep Indy grounded, especially when he's momentarily zombified. In fact, that aspect of the story is arguably seen as a flaw because our hero's fallible side is corrupted to an extreme that borders on the uncomfortable. But as mentioned earlier, all is soon forgiven once we jump aboard the mine-cart chase and Indy saves the children of a local Indian village, providing fans with a darkly sinister chapter that's still offers a great deal of fun and excitement. (Movie Rating: 3.5/5)
The Last Crusade
For the third installment in the adventures of Indiana Jones, Spielberg and Lucas change the mood once more and with far better results than its predecessor. To rinse away the awkward aftertaste left behind by 'Temple of Doom' (frankly, it's not bad, it's just... different), the filmmakers revisit many of the ingredients which made the first movie special and add a splash of something new to give the franchise a nice kick. In fact, there are quite a few kicks in 'The Last Crusade' which make it almost the equal to 'Raiders' — one of them being the return of the Nazis as the central villains and Hitler's pursuit of occult-related artifacts. Also, audiences get to travel the world with Dr. Jones as he tries to stop one the most evil forces of the planet. And the best kick of all, Sean Connery joins the adventure as Indy's father and brings a great deal of comedy to the mix.
Like the previous two, the plot involves the hunt for an ancient religious artifact believed to possess mystical, supernatural properties. And this time, it's the holy grail of archeological finds. Literally! But unlike the first two, this quest for the King Arthur legend adds a deeper, more poignant meaning to the overall story by serving as a clever metaphor for our hero reconciling with his distant father. On an even grander scale, the theme takes on a worldlier, corporeal significance because the spiritual search for God and faith is really about fathers and sons (first hinted in an insightful analysis by Caryn James for the New York Times). To achieve this tearful reunion, the filmmakers have Indy and his father be a part of the same idealistic journey against a powerful and evil force that seeks to divide rather than unite, making this adventure his most challenging yet.
Also like 'Raiders' and 'Temple,' the idea for the film went through several changes before Spielberg agreed upon a script by Jeffrey Boam, based on a story by Lucas and Menno Meyjes. Part of the goal was to distance this third entry from the sequel as far as possible and still be different from the first, which meant a much more lighthearted tone and humor that complemented the franchise's sense of high-spirited adventure. John Rhys-Davies's Sallah and Denholm Elliott's Marcus Brody provide a mildly clownish feel that perfectly balances the darker agendas of Julian Glover's Donovan, Alison Doody's Dr. Schneider and Michael Byrne's General Vogel. And finally, Henry Jones, Sr. (Connery), while not a terrible parent as far as we can tell, is clearly a difficult man to impress, especially when it comes to his son, creating some great moments like their memorable escape on motorcycle where Connery looks on with stern seriousness.
While evoking the same spirit and tone of 'Raiders,' the filmmakers also expand on the history of our hero with the introduction of this father-son element. Taking a cue from 'Temple' as a prequel, the prologue takes us even further back to a very early adventure, possibly the first, with a young Indiana Jones (played magnificently by River Phoenix) stealing a golden cross from some treasure hunters. It's a spectacular intro showing the origins of Indy's inspiration for archeology, the scar on his chin, his phobia of snakes and the fedora hat that's become the signature style of his attire. But like Ford's annoyed insistence of not being called "Junior," this film should never be seen as the lesser of its predecessor; it is its equal. 'The Last Crusade' is one of those rare movie sequels that's every bit as good, entertaining, and terrifically memorable as the first. (Movie Rating: 4.5/5)
The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
After a near 20-year hiatus, Spielberg and Lucas reunite with Harrison Ford for a third sequel to a now-dearly-beloved franchise, one with such a ravenously devoted fanbase (myself included) that expectations were set so extraordinarily high that it was practically destined to disappoint no matter what the filmmakers did. At first glance, the fourth installment is a hodgepodge involving aliens, communists, a Marlon Brando wannabe, swinging monkeys, and a lead-lined refrigerator surviving a nuclear blast. Then there is some silly nonsense about backstabbing double agents, while Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) suddenly returns to brighten the screen. It would seem that 'Crystal Skull' severely dropped the ball, to use a phrase later spoken by Shia LaBeouf, especially since it took the creators this long to continue the wayward adventures of Indiana Jones.
But frankly, such reproach seems harsh and rather undeserving for a series of movies that so easily blended the action-adventure genre with heavy doses of fantasy, the occult, and homages to B-movies. Part of the joy in watching the Indy adventures is the escapist fun of hunting ancient artifacts with wildly mystical superstitions and supernatural powers, packed with the thrilling excitement that comes with that journey. And 'Crystal Skull' delivers exactly that, another dangerous adventure into the unknown, albeit not quite as good as its predecessors, but still an entertaining addition. I'll concede the whole monkeys swinging through the jungle scene, which includes Mr. LaBeouf, was pretty lame, but it's really not any crazier than a Nazi-saluting monkey, or eating chilled monkey brains for dessert, or Marcus Brody monkeying around in general. And surviving an atomic bomb inside a fridge is no more ridiculous than outrunning poisoned darts from the Hovitos, riding a car inside a hazardous, rollercoaster-like mine, or walking away from a Nazi tank going over a cliff.
Far as I see it, 'The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' is perfectly in line with the franchise's theme as homage to the classical Hollywood style, especially the film serials. Only this time, the filmmakers mixed the low-budget matinee genre with the feel of a 1950s sci-fi B-movie, which it does rather spectacularly. Granted, the idea of highly-advanced beings mentoring primitive humans on language and civilization is more of a modern take on extraterrestrial visitors, but that general feel of pulp science fiction still remains at the heart of the plot and provides a great deal of the humor. Oh, and by the way, they're not aliens; they're interdimensional beings. The end result gets a little kooky and overboard, even goofy in several areas, but again, it's really no more outlandish than what we enjoy in the earlier films. To keep things lighthearted and witty, Spielberg includes several nice nods to the first three adventures, starting with a rousing prologue set inside the same warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant was stashed away.
The most glaring allusion is our hero now taking the place previously occupied by Sean Connery as the difficult-to-impress dad. In this last installment, Indiana Jones discovers he's a father, and one of the movie's funnier moments is the motorcycle chase scene when Indy looks at Mutt (LaBeouf) in the same unimpressive glare as dear-old dad. Referencing his age and the passage of time, the story is also set in the 1950s, which makes sense within the Indiana Jones universe, over a decade since the downfall of Nazi Germany. Inspired by speculations of Stalin's interest in paranormal phenomena and psychic warfare, David Koepp's script logically pits our hero against Communist agents, led by the coldly mechanical Spalko (Cate Blanchett).
While I admit the fourth installment is not exactly the inspiring finish (and possibly the last installment, in spite of persistent rumors) to one of the greatest and most treasured movie franchises ever, I have to also admit I find it a fun and entertaining entry, flawed as it may be. Spielberg keeps to the outrageously adventurous spirit of the iconic film hero while further pushing the corny goofiness of the B-movie serials which inspired the original in the first place. Far as I'm concerned, the Indiana Jones legacy remains intact and a highly enjoyable series that can be watched repeatedly, over thirty years later since the first movie, without losing any steam. (Movie Rating: 3/5)
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Paramount Home Entertainment brings 'Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures' to Blu-ray in a handsome and sturdy five-disc box set. The package is shaped and opens much like a book with each page showing new artwork and pictures for each adventure. Those same pages also serve as sleeves for each disc which slide out by placing some slight pressure to the top and bottom, widening the mouth only a little. The inside is smooth and glossy to prevent the discs from scratching.
All four films are contained on separate Region Free, BD50 discs and found inside one of the pages, respective of their order within the franchise. The fifth disc is also a Region Free, BD50 and contains all the special features. The book comes with a side-sliding slipcover made of a hard cardboard material with glossy artwork and lightly embossed. At startup, each disc goes straight to an animated menu screen with full-motion clips and music playing in the background.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Coming from a new 4K scan of the original camera negatives, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1) looks every bit its age but it's still fantastic. 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! (Video Rating: 4/5)
The Temple of Doom
The AVC-encoded transfer of the prequel arrives in similar fashion to the first, if only slightly better because the original elements were probably better preserved. Resolution wavers slightly, much of it the result of age causing several blurry scenes, although the overall picture quality is in excellent condition with a consistent ultra-fine layer of grain. The worst moments are during special effects sequences with matte paintings. Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, definition is especially sharp and detailed in daylight exteriors while poorly-lit interiors maintain strong shadow delineation. Contrast and brightness are terrifically well-balanced with deep, accurate blacks and great visibility of background info. Colors are cleanly rendered with primaries looking particularly vibrant in the last few minutes. (Video Rating: 4/5)
*EDIT* It seems that there is an odd cropping effect, where black bars suddenly appear on the left and right side of the image, just a few seconds before the closing credits roll. This is not present on the previous DVD releases of the 'Temple of Doom,' so the Blu-ray may possibly come with a strange, rather distracting anomaly. Pictures are available in our forums for discussion, and thank you to our friends at ecranlarge.com for bringing this to our attention.
The Last Crusade
Being the last entry in the original trilogy, the third installment rides onto Blu-ray with the best presentation of the first three. Aside from some negligible, age-related softness, this spectacular 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1) displays a thinly-layered film grain and cleanly defined lines in clothing, buildings and surrounding foliage. Facial complexions appear natural with rich, lifelike textures, exposing every pore, wrinkle and trivial blemish. Contrast is quite vivid but very well-balanced with crisp, brilliant whites. Colors are bright and animated while blacks are often inky rich and penetrating, save for a couple poorly-lit interiors. Shadow details are plainly visible in the darkest portions, and the overall image has an appreciable cinematic appeal with good dimensionality. (Video Rating: 4.5/5)
The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The fourth movie is the identical AVC-encoded transfer (2.35:1) of the 2008 release, and it remains a fantastic presentation. Janusz Kaminski's cinematography displays a deliberately over-saturated palette with intensely vivid primaries, giving flesh tones a slightly sunburnt look. Facial complexions still appear healthy and revealing. Contrast and brightness are exceptionally well-balanced with crisp whites and rich black levels, providing the image with great dimensionality and an appreciable cinematic appeal. Definition is fairly sharp and highly detailed, but the finer lines in background objects tend to look a bit blurry, likely due to the original photography. It's an excellent video nonetheless. (Video Rating: 4.5/5)
Raiders of the Lost Ark
According to some news sources, this DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack was made from the original mono design and the results are excellent. 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. (Audio Rating: 4/5)
The Temple of Doom
The second installment whips up a highly-enjoyable DTS-HD MA soundtrack that's terrifically engaging and loads of fun. The front-heavy presentation seems fairly faithful to the original design, except for the random discrete effect in the surrounds meant for ambience. Along with williams' music lightly bleeding into the rears, such activity is pleasant and quite satisfying because it never feels exaggerated or forced. Dialogue is pitch-perfect and clear in the center while the rest of the soundstage exhibits a welcoming and broad image that's consistently active. Dynamics deliver precise clarity in the orchestration and the several action sequences with some impressive echoing which enhance the soundfield. Bass is hearty and plentiful with a couple low moments that are nice. (Audio Rating: 4/5)
The Last Crusade
Much like the video, the DTS-HD MA soundtrack is also the better of the first three films, with a rear activity that's a bit more consistent. Action sequences display excellent, flawless panning between channels while subtle ambient effects during the quieter scenes maintain a satisfyingly immersive soundfield. As always, Williams' classic motifs spread throughout the system to keep the listener engaged and in the middle of the moment. The mid-range is clean and distinct with superb separation and clarity in the upper frequencies. Low bass is like the other two mixes with a deep response that's appropriate to the movie's age while providing great depth to gunshots, explosions and canon fire. Vocals are precise and intelligible, even during the loudest segments. (Audio Rating: 4/5)
The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The new DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack doesn't sound all that different than its Dolby TrueHD counterpart. The low-end, perhaps, feels a little deeper and throatier, providing the design with some impressive depth, but otherwise, this lossless mix is identical to the 2008 Blu-ray. A broad and expansive soundstage exhibits excellent dynamic range with crystal-clear clarity and convincing off-screen activity. Dialogue is distinct and intelligible from beginning to end, and John Williams' memorable score spreads into the back with terrific fidelity and envelopment. Directionality is precise with discrete, flawless panning, generating a highly-enjoyable, demo-worthy lossless mix. (Audio Rating: 5/5)
A large chunk of the supplemental package is a reiteration of what was seen in previous DVD releases. They can all be found on the fifth disc, except for the trailers. The only things missing are storyboard comparisons, still galleries, a short featurette on the trilogy and the intros with Spielberg and Lucas.
The adventures of Indiana Jones are some of the most beloved movies in recent memory, making it one of the most cherished franchises in cinema history. Starting with the first installment, each film is an homage to the classic Saturday matinee serials of a bygone Hollywood era. From the imagination of George Lucas and the creative filmmaking style of Steven Spielberg, the movies are incredibly effective at capturing the melodrama, the thrills, and the overall excitement of a unique genre that entertained the hearts and minds of a younger generation. Arriving for the first time on Blu-ray, these new high-def transfers bring the adventures home in spectacular audio and video presentations along with a treasure trove of bonus materials, sure to keep everyone busy for a long while. Long-time devoted fans will not want to miss out on this owning this set because this is a must-own package.