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Okay, I'm aware that this film has divided people, so I'll say one thing right off the bat—if you don't agree with the review, by all means comment, but keep it respectful and don't launch into any personal attacks.

Feature


Set some twenty-odd years after The Last Crusade, we catch up with Indiana Jones in 1950s America. As usual things aren't going his way, and along with his friend Mac he is currently being held captive by a bunch of nasty Russian agents. Indy is taken to the secret military installation known as Area 51, where he is coerced into identifying a mysterious container by the head of the Russian forces, the cold and calculating Col. Dr. Irina Spalko. In spite of his valiant efforts to resist, Indy is double crossed by Mac and the Russians escape with the contents of the container, leaving Indy to survive the detonation of a nuclear bomb with only a lead-lined refrigerator for protection!

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
After his miraculous escape, Indy heads back home to Marshall College to discover that he is being investigated by the FBI as a possible communist. Shortly after he is suspended from his teaching post Indy encounters a young 'greaser' named Mutt Williams, who just happens to be the son of his old flame Marion Ravenwood. It seems that Marion has gone and gotten herself kidnapped along with professor Harold Oxley, a mutual friend of both Indy and Marion.

So begins Indiana's latest adventure, as he and Mutt travel to Peru in search of the burial place of the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana, which just might hold the key to unravelling the mystery of Oxley and Marion's disappearance. There they find a strange artefact—a crystal skull unlike anything seen before, possessed of strange magnetic properties. Unfortunately for our luckless heroes, the Russians are right on their tail. Having been captured, they are brought to the Russian camp where they are reunited with a mentally unstable Oxley and the ever-feisty Marion, who has a big surprise for Indy...

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
There has been a lot of talk about this movie since its release, much of it negative. People felt almost as betrayed by Crystal Skull as they did by the Star Wars prequels, at least if some of the comments I've seen are to be believed. To be honest I can sort of see where they are coming from, as this Indy definitely isn't the one we all fell in love with back in the eighties. However, that is also sort of the point. Time marches on and so has Henry Jones Jr., and it seems unfair to judge the film on a set of criteria decided upon twenty years ago. This time around Indy is supposed to be in his late fifties, so it's entirely reasonable to expect different character traits from the more mature adventurer.

A lot of criticism has been levied at perceived excessive use of CGI, and while there is a fair amount on display most of it is perfectly acceptable. There were only a few of moments where I was taken out of the film by the effects (the monkeys and the ants), but on the whole they do a good job of delivering set-pieces that would otherwise have been incredibly difficult or even impossible. Admittedly I did find one or two set-pieces a little far-fetched, such as Mutt's Tarzan adventure and the whole 'nuked the fridge' episode, but on the second or third viewing they didn’t even phase me. Another big criticism relates to the decision to go with a science-fiction theme, rather than the more familiar religious themes running through the previous instalments. I for one see this as a natural progression for the character and a logical choice given the time period he finds himself in.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Personally I've had enough of all the negative stuff and I'd like to concentrate on the film's positive aspects. Firstly, and most importantly, Harrison Ford still has it. When I saw on-set images of the actor looking, shall we say, a little worse for wear (although let's face it, a lot better than I'm going to look in my 60s—hell, even now), I was concerned that too much time had passed to allow Ford to convincingly portray an action hero. I needn't of worried, because like Sean Connery before him Ford is able to pull off the action just as well as men half his age, and with twice the charisma.

The action itself is still as outrageously over the top as it ever was. From the opening set-piece at Area 51, to the jungle chase complete with perilous cliff-top confrontations, Spielberg and his creative team have delivered excitement to match anything in the previous films. As mentioned, a few of the stunts stretch the bounds of believability just that little bit too far, but is this really any different to some of the events in the original films? Temple of Doom had our hero dropping out of a plane on a rubber dinghy and stopping a runaway mine cart with his feet for God's sake. Then there was the fighter plane in the tunnel...

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The film also has its share of humorous moments, with great throwaway lines such as 'what are you, like eighty?' (Mutt to Indy) raising a smile. Indy wrestling with a giant 'rope' (you'll have to watch the film) is a particular highlight and a welcome nod to the original Raiders of the Lost Ark. The top and bottom of it is that I'll take Indy firing on less than all cylinders over any of your National Treasures or Saharas any day. Sure it's self-referential and relies somewhat on the audience's nostalgia for previous instalments, but no more so than any other film in a successful series. Personally I like that it's familiar; that’s what I want from an Indiana Jones film.

Video


Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull looks decent enough, but it's some way off of reference quality. It's a tricky one to judge, because now I've moved on to Blu-ray I've been spoiled by the superior resolution and colour rendition and up-converting a 576i image to 1080p is never going to give perfect results. Even so I think the overall look of the film is less impressive than most recent features. However, I've tried to take the fact that I’m watching SD material on an HD display into consideration when assessing the quality of the transfer.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
I've not had a chance to look at the Blu-ray release yet, but to me the colour rendition on this DVD release appears to be slightly off. Flesh tones are just that little bit too saturated, and there's a brownish-golden hue to the image that, while present theatrically, seems to be more prominent here. The image is also quite soft, even taking the up-conversion to 1080p into account. With that said, the transfer is very clean and I didn't spot any obvious digital nastiness, even after going so far as to apply 4x zoom to search for signs of edge enhancement. Black levels are also satisfyingly deep and shadow detail is surprisingly good.

All things considered the transfer is better than I initially thought it to be, but I actually find the appearance of the original trilogy slightly more appealing. Whether that's to do with the quality of the transfer to DVD or as a result of the filmmaking process itself is open to debate.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Audio


Paramount delivers a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track for this release, although once again I've been spoiled by the superior fidelity of HD audio in the last year or so. Having said that, and despite some reservations during the opening scenes of the film, I became increasingly impressed by the quality of the standard definition track as the film progressed. By the time Indy is merrily destroying half of Area 51 as he attempts to escape from the Russians the audio had kicked up a notch, really pulling me into the action.

The warehouse scene is actually a pretty good example to use when highlighting the quality of the track. When Indy crashes through a pile of crates, wooden splinters fly from left to right, accompanied by the anguished scream of a hapless Russian soldier in the rears and a solid thud from the LFE channel. Bass is actually extremely powerful on occasion, with every gunshot and whip crack sounding just as good as they did all those years ago (kudos to sound effects wizard Ben Burtt). Of course it wouldn't be an Indiana Jones film without a John Williams score, which sounds fantastic whether you're listening to new cues written specifically for the film, or old favourites like the Raiders March. Thankfully dialogue is isn't lost amongst the effects, and is in fact balanced nicely in the mix. I may have been spoiled by HD audio, but by DVD standards this is a great track, if not quite up there with the very best.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Extras


'The Return of a Legend' (17:36) features Spielberg talking at length about the circumstances that led to the creation of another Indiana Jones movie. Ford pops up once or twice to talk about the process, as do George Lucas, Karen Allen and Shia LeBeouf. Although not particularly in-depth, there is some brief discussion of the various script revisions and ideas, along with the various titles under consideration (be thankful we didn't get 'Saucer Men' or 'Attack of the Giant Ants').

'Pre-Production' (11.46) starts with pre-viz in 2007 and moves through photography, costume design, casting, training and working relationships. It's all pretty fluffy, but there are one or two interesting bits to be found, although it could all have been covered as part of larger 'Making of' documentary.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Speaking of which, the Production Diary: The Making of The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' (01:20:20) can be viewed as either one long documentary or in five separate parts. The diary takes the viewer from the first day of shooting through to post-production, with pretty much everything in between. Spielberg is a constant presence, and even Lucas shows up a little more often than he usually does. There is interview footage with the principal cast, who relate their experiences of working on the film, while the technical wizards actually responsible for costuming, filming, editing and every other facet all get a look in. It's not the most in-depth feature of its type that I've ever seen, but it goes a long way beyond the sort of promotional rubbish that passes for a 'making of' on most DVDs these days.

'Warrior Makeup' (05:36) details the creation of the makeup effects for the ancient warriors. Head of makeup Felicity Bowring takes us through the arduous process of creating and applying the complex makeup and prosthetic keloid scars.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
'The Crystal Skulls' (10:12) deals with the fabled crystal skulls themselves. Spielberg, Lucas and others talk about the different skulls found across the world and the belief that they may be alien in origin. Lucas explains how this anchoring in 'reality' shaped the storyline to a degree. There's also behind-the-scenes footage of the creation of the skulls and the alien 'greys' and giant crystal skeletons.

'Iconic Props' (10:02) goes behind the scenes with the property master as he takes us through the various swords, armour, Area 51 artefacts and other weird and wonderful props used in the film. This sort of thing is always interesting, but I wish it had been a bit longer and covered some of the previous movies, although I'm guessing we'll eventually see something like that when the whole saga is released in one big boxed set.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
'The Effects of Indy' (22.44) details the various visual effects techniques used to bring the action to life, from practical miniatures and compositing  to ILM's digital work. It was nice to see how the effects were created, and especially interesting to see how much of the work was actually digital and how much was merely enhanced with CGI.

'Adventures in Post-Production' (12:46) deals with the tasks of editing, sound design and scoring. Spielberg sets a lot of the introductions up, and there are interviews with Ben Burtt (who named his son Benny Burtt, if you can believe it) and John Williams among others. The featurette mostly concentrates on the audio elements of pre-production, mostly likely because the other stuff is covered in greater detail elsewhere.

‘Closing: Team Indy’ (03:43) is a short little featurette that basically name checks virtually everyone who worked on the film. This is followed by three computer generated ‘Pre-Visualization Sequences’ with a combined running time of around thirteen minutes. Things are rounded off by a series of five still galleries and three trailers.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Overall


I’m not claiming that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a masterpiece, or even that it lives up to the standards set by the original film (it doesn’t, but let’s face it, neither did the other sequels). No, for me it’s an enjoyable way to spend some time in the company of an old friend. In fact, it’s one of the only films I’ve seen twice at the cinema this year—I liked it more the second time I saw it and I still like it after my third viewing.

As for the DVD, well the A/V presentation is good and the extras are solid, although much of the content is in danger of repeating material covered in the 'Production Diary'. If only Spielberg had relented and recorded a commentary track, we could have had something truly special on or hands. As it stands, this is a competent release that offers an enjoyable viewing experience. I don't have a problem recommending this one to fans of the series or those in search of a decent film to while away a couple of hours.


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