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Regular visitors to the site might recall that I recently reviewed the DVD release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Now that Paramount has kindly supplied us with a Blu-ray copy, I thought I'd take a comparative look to see how the high-definition version stacks up against the standard-definition version. Because so much of the content is replicated across the two releases, only the video and audio portions of this review are significantly different, so you might want to skip directly to those if you read the earlier review.

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 the 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 in The Last Crusade...

 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 as an AVC encoded 1080/24p widescreen transfer at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull looks much better on Blu-ray than it does on DVD. Of course the increased resolution plays a big part in this - with the HD version having around five times as many pixels on the screen as the PAL DVD - making for a much sharper image, free from the blur that plagued the upscaled standard definition DVD. However, the dramatic increase in visible detail is not the only improvement on offer.

 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The colour rendition on this Blu-ray release is generally better than the DVD, but flesh tones are still a little too saturated to appear lifelike. However, it would appear that this is more to do with the source material than anything else. The brownish-golden hue that was so noticeable on the DVD is still present, but here it's much closer to the theatrical experience and not as 'muddy'. The image is still softer than many recent Blu-ray releases, but once again this would appear to have more to do with the manner in which Crystal Skull was filmed. The transfer is very clean and I couldn't spot any obvious artefacts, even after zooming in on the full 1080p screen captures. Black levels are also satisfyingly deep and shadow delineation is good during the darker scenes.

However, while this Blu-ray transfer is markedly better than the sub-par DVD effort, I wasn't completely blown away. Don't get me wrong, it's an accurate representation of the source material, but Crystal Skull itself isn't my favourite looking film. If it was possible I’d probably have gone with an overall score of eight point five, but as our system can’t accommodate this I’ve opted for the more conservative option. It’s a fine looking film, but I’ve seen better in recent times.

 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Audio


Paramount dishes up a solid Dolby TrueHD 5.1 effort for this Blu-ray release. As with the standard Dolby Digital 5.1 track on the DVD the TrueHD track improves as the movie progresses, particularly by the time Indy and Mutt arrive in Peru. The subtle use of the surrounds during the graveyard scene helps to pull you into the action, with the wind gently whispering in the rears, punctuated by the occasional clap of thunder. Of course you’d expect any film with effects provided by Ben Burtt to sound fantastic, and on the whole this is true. The familiar gunshots and whip cracks are all there, but I actually thought the whole thing was lacking just a little bit of ‘oomph’ at the low end.

This relative lack of bass came as a surprise, because I thought the standard Dolby Digital track was reasonably powerful in this area. Unfortunately the TrueHD track just didn’t knock my socks off. Bass is certainly no worse than the lossy track, and the TrueHD is definitely an improvement overall, but when compared to my favourite ‘demo material’ it’s just not quite there. Thankfully the John Williams score sounds fantastic - whether you're listening to new cues like ‘Call of the Crystal’ or old favourites like ‘The Raiders March’ - and the dialogue is balanced nicely in the mix. Even so, for my money this is a good, not a great track. Although there can be no mistaking the talents of Messers Williams and Burtt the audio just doesn’t deliver the kind of punch that I’ve come to expect from such a big ‘event’ movie (save for perhaps the last act). It’s not a bad track by any stretch of the imagination, but it didn’t live up to my expectations.

 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Extras


Disc one kicks off with the 'Indiana Jones Timelines', which is the only HD-exclusive feature in the set. There are three concurrent timelines to explore—production, story and history—all of which feature text, images and video segments relating to the period of your choice. Learning about the real-world events that shaped the story is a neat idea, but I wish that the content makers had included some documentary footage alongside the footage culled from the film.

'The Return of a Legend' (17:34) 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' (11.44) 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
Finally on disc one we have two theatrical trailers. The first gives us a few short glimpses of the original Indy films glorious HD, before moving on to Crystal Skull. This trailer is interesting in that it highlights how little things can change between the release of the trailer and the final release, such as the inflection in Indy's voice when he delivers his 'part time' reply to Mutt. It’s different from the completed film and slightly more appropriate to my mind. The second trailer is the film's full theatrical trailer, but the teaser is conspicuous by its absence.

Disc two opens with the ‘Production Diary: The Making of The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' (01:20:52) 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.

 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
'Warrior Makeup' (05:34) 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.

'The Crystal Skulls' (10:10) 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' (09:59) 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' (22.42) 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' (12:44) 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’ (03:41) 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. All bonus material is presented in high-definition.

 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 fourth viewing.

As for the Blu-ray, well the A/V presentation is a step up from the DVD and the extras are solid, even if 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 and 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.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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