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Raiders of the Lost Ark


Indiana Jones’ first theatrical adventure is still his best and Raiders of the Lost Ark is still a top ten, quintessential American movie. It probably isn’t something future generations are going to revisit with a particularly critical eye and come back telling all us old folks we were wrong to adore. The film’s imagery has been indelibly etched in the minds of everyone that’s seen it, ensuring that we never look at a particularly round boulder, cobra snake, bull whip, fedora, or date-eating monkey the same way ever again. Raiders balances the scales of homage and original style better than possibly even Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy. Spielberg fills the screen with iconic images that we now take for granted, especially those of us who first saw the film as children. If one were to stop and contemplate the various booby traps Harrison Ford and Alfred Molina contend with at the beginning of the film, we might question the now-classic scene. Is there anything in the historical record to say that ancient people set deadly traps around their most prized relics? It doesn’t matter, because a much-beloved trope is born out of the sequence, in effect becoming its own historical record. Raiders is also one of a few ‘golden age’ Spielberg films that handles humour as well as action, though, of course, a lot of that credit must go to his actors. Also, as a fan of Italian trash cinema, I gotta love Raiders for bringing this specific brand of adventure pulp back into the mainstream. I’m especially fond of Antonio Margheriti’s Jungle Raiders and Ark of the Sun God.

Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom


I don’t really like Temple of Doom. Fortunately, the movie nerd cliché of Temple of Doom backlash has seen backlash of its own now, so liking the film is now the cooler thing to do. And you all know how much I despise being cool. I don’t dislike because the film is darker than Raiders, or bloodier (both films are pretty close to R-rated in my book), or even because Short Round is an unbelievably obnoxious sidekick (which he absolutely is). Even the casual racism is somewhat amusing. Temple of Doom is a shadow of the first film, like a knock-off made in another country by filmmakers that didn’t understand what made Raiders of the Lost Ark great in the first place. The jokes fall flat quite loudly, the plot is contrived to the point of being boring, and the villains and supporting characters are thinly sketched – especially when compared to the colourful rogues of the series’ first installment. The mixing of Lucas’ ‘darker, more frightening’ goals and Spielberg’s hesitant attempts at cooling the horror edge by including an under-aged supporting character verges on the schizophrenic. Also, none of the heroes have an active role in the story. But my number one complaint is the matter of Kate Capshaw’s mind-numbingly awful performance and entirely inappropriate character. I understand that this wasn’t entirely Capshaw’s fault and I know she gets a lot of flack, but it doesn’t quiet all the revolting screaming or dull the misogynistic overtones. Temple of Doom also transpires so far outside the world of the other two films that it feels entirely unrelated. I understand that it’s supposed to be a prequel, but Indy’s search for ‘fortune and glory,’ despite already having his PhD, sort of spits in the face of the character’s most intriguing traits. In every other movie (even that terrible one I’ll be getting to in a minute) and the television series (if we’re counting that as canon), Indy seeks treasures for archaeological satisfaction, not for the money. He also involves himself in adventures because he wants to do what’s ‘right’, not because a bunch of beseeched natives made him feel guilty. There are a few things that still work in the film’s favour, namely Spielberg’s tight action direction, gorgeous production design, and the colourful photography. After the hours of brown that was Raiders of the Lost Ark, the sequences that take place in the titular temple are an optical array of fantastic eye-candy. The action set pieces seem to be the only part of the script anyone put any effort into and they are pretty spectacular, especially the famous mine cart chase that still stands up to decent scrutiny. Perhaps finding comedic inspiration in the Faces of Death series is a bit dubious, though.

Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade


It has come to my attention that around the same time it became cool to like the bowl of mediocrity called Temple of Doom, it became even cooler to hate The Last Crusade. I find this utterly confusing as both a fan and critic. The Last Crusade is clearly a step down from the utter perfection of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but, thanks to a healthy dose of maturity and sharply crafted characters, the film is in some respects the best step for the character and a fantastic finale for the series (yes, finale). Though not quite comparable on a level of mature artistic achievement to Schindler’s List or Munich, The Last Crusade fits in nicely with Spielberg’s post-‘King of the Sentimental’-era modern output – fantasy/action films like Minority Report, A.I., and even War of the Worlds (all last act misfires absolutely included). When watched back to back with the first two films, the softening of the violence and menace is actually pretty surprising (though the first PG-13 film in the set, it’s by far the least gory). The Last Crusade’s violence is either played directly for laughs or for genuine emotional impact, like when Daddy Jones is shot. Tonally, Spielberg slowly cranks the film’s seriousness to ensure the climax holds that impact, but this creates a sort of Catch-22, wherein The Last Crusade is the only likeable Indy film that really drags. Even if it is a bit slow, this is the only one of the Indiana Jones films that still makes me laugh out loud, and I’m pretty sure that people that don’t get a kick out of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery’s father/son interactions are dead inside.

Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull


Disagreements on Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade aside, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is likely the one film here we can all agree isn’t good. But I continue to wonder if anyone really expect anything other than a passable adventure movie following a parade of behind the scenes fiascos with scripting woes and possible fallings out between the creative types? Perhaps a closer glance at the writer and director’s recent resumes might have been a good clue. When has Steven Spielberg ever been known to deliver on a project when he wasn’t interested? Wasn’t Munich a good enough launch into officially adult filmmaking for him to move on? Did he really owe George Lucas anything? Seriously, I’m like the only guy left in the world that still defends the Star Wars prequels; hasn’t Lucas developed enough negative surplus for you guys yet?

My expectations for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull were so dashed that I created a simple (kind of pathetic), ten item checklist of necessities:

1. Indiana Jones in a hat. Check.
2. Indiana Jones whipping something. Check.
3. Faceless thugs being dispatched in a manner probably too graphic for a PG-13 movie? Check.
4. Sallah. Wait, where the hell is Sallah? Anti-check!
5. Cate Blanchet looking refined, sexy, and commie? Check.
6. Lots and lots of cobwebs? Check.
7. Double-Crosses (that was quick). Check.
8. Marion Ravenwood (I love you, Karen Allen). Check.
9. Creepy crawlies (no confined spaces this time, but still pretty gross). Check.
10. John Williams’ original musical cue. Check

Nine out of ten makes for a modest success, I suppose.

Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures
Checklist aside, Crystal Skull is better than it has been labeled, but it’s still extravagantly weak, mostly for different and sadder reasons than The Phantom Menace. When George reintroduced Star Wars in 1999, he put everything he had into it and didn’t have to share much of the creative control. When The Phantom Menace hit, the fallout laid on Lucas’ ongoing problems as a storyteller and filmmaker. Then, after almost a decade and three ‘great comebacks’ that were largely considered mistakes, Lucas’ inability to let the past go has sucked in a more impressive creative talent and one that’s actually managed to grow as a filmmaker. Nothing from the behind the scenes lead me to believe that Spielberg had any interest in another Indiana Jones movie. He appeared good natured and happy to be push Shia LaBeouf’s career along its merry little way, but his general malaise was damning. Following years of script issues, the record states it took something like twenty years for Harrison Ford, Lucas, and Spielberg to decide on a middle ground, which was written up by Stephen King’s best adaptor Frank Darabount. But then, despite Ford and Spielberg’s excitement, Lucas rejected Darabount’s script and the air finally went out of the project. Spielberg brought on his blandest capable conspirator David Koepp to keep Lucas’ awful sense of dialogue in check, and went through the numbers. You can see it all there onscreen.

I don’t like to play the Lucas blame game, because I think the guy is a genuine artist and has a hugely important place in film history (and, again, I actually enjoy the prequels), but here it’s obvious that the man isn’t only continuing to deal with his never-ending Star Wars and Saturday morning serials obsessions, but his post- Young Indiana Jones historical diddling has taken precedence, as has an official mid-life crisis level re-re-visitation of his greasy roots. This isn’t just Indiana Jones 4, this is Star Wars 7, American Graffiti 3, and chance to deal with the one major element of 1900s pop-culture Lucas hadn’t yet dabbled in—the red scare. Spielberg has no place in this film beyond his work with an awesome cast (he’s even fully dealt with red scare sci-fi in the far more efficient and relevant War of the Worlds remake), but then, working with Steve again is really just another symptom of his confused midlife crisis.

For the sake of space, read the rest of my thoughts on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull here. Please ignore all the typos I’m seeing while re-reading it myself.

Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures

Video


All four films in this set were filmed in good old 35mm and all four are presented in 1080p video for this Blu-ray release. The official word has Raiders of the Lost Ark being the one film in the set that has been given the full restoration treatment, including a 4K scan and brand new digital re-mastering. For the sake of doing it right I’m directly comparing this transfer to the previous DVD release, which, for the record, was a pretty great transfer, at least for the limitations of the format. First things first, the natural film grain has not been DNR’d out of this transfer. The entire film features a fine sheen of the stuff and grain thickness increases based on lighting schemes. Spielberg shot Raiders quick and dirty and even a top of the line transfer should show this. However, those that prefer their Blu-ray to appear closer to brand new should still be plenty satisfied with the general clarity of things. There are limits to the transfer’s detail capabilities, but these are all an obvious part of the source material, not a case of upgrading a DVD source and passing it off as a new transfer. Spielberg and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe just weren’t that concerned with us seeing every single background brick, they were more concerned with the impression of detail, often seen through smoke and sand. What works here in HD is the cleanliness of these impressions, specifically their lack of bleeding and compression artefacts. Foreground textures are sizably sharper than the DVD as are more complex background patterns, which tend to turn muddy in SD. Besides the obvious increases in detail and loss of compression artefacts, this new transfer is definitely brighter than the DVD release, occasionally to a minor detriment. Sometimes, this brightness leads to a bit of blooming, which does equate a tiny bit of detail loss on rare occasions (the golden idol, for instance, is shiny enough to lose a bit of texture, as are some of the desert hills towards the end of the film) and occasionally softer darkness spoils the mood the tiniest bit. The colour balance is a lot warmer than the DVD, which is generally more natural for the skin tones, but is a little disappointing in terms of the more lush jungle greens at the beginning of the film (the occasional blue pieces of wardrobe look just fine). Differences aside, the Blu-ray transfer features better cutting between hues and generally smoother gradations.

There’s nothing in the technical specs I’ve read to indicate quite as much effort has been put into the restoration of Temple of Doom, but there’s no reason to be disappointed with the final effect of this new 1080p transfer. In fact, even though I’d call the Raiders of the Lost Ark transfer is better overall, the upgrade from DVD to Blu-ray is more substantial here. The DVD has some pretty mushy backgrounds, but here complex textures and contrasting elements are easily distinguished in both extreme close-up and deep-set shots. The comparative difference between the most expansive wide-shots are almost breathtaking at times, specifically establishing shots of (often painted) landscapes and architecture. Colours are sizably more vibrant than the somewhat dulled DVD, especially the blindingly vibrant reds that overwhelm the opening Shanghai sequence. Here, the solitary sequins on Capshaw’s dress can be visually separated and the wall of red background light features almost none of the compression noise seen on the DVD release. The even more vibrant reds of the Thuggee cult sequences are just as spectacular and possibly the biggest comparative upgrade from the SD version. The thematic darkness of Temple of Doom applies to its overall look as well and this prevalent shaded quality creates problems for the old release. This transfer largely corrects the generally ‘browned-out’ black levels, creating stronger contrasts with the warm and cool colour elements, which then helps establish those complex and finely textured backgrounds. Small details found in black wardrobe and set pieces aren’t lost due to overzealous crush either. The grain of 35mm film is still plenty evident, but generally finer and more consistent than the DVD release, which appears quite blocky and even pixilated throughout. The Blu-ray also corrects the slight horizontal warp seen on the DVD.

Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures
Again, nothing in the original specs says anything about The Last Crusade getting the 4K treatment (did it?), but there’s still little to nothing to really complain about, aside from perhaps a twinge of compression noise/edge enhancement here and there. This is the least of the three new transfers in terms of upgrade, but this is mostly because it had the least need to make improvements. Like the Raiders of the Lost Ark disc, the colour correction and increase in vibrancy end up sitting somewhere slightly above detail and clarity accruals. The Last Crusade features the cleanest overall look of the original three films and may also be the brightest, which leaves even the SD DVD in a pretty clear place. The general hues are warmer (both redder and yellower) than those of the drier, browner DVD, through cool colours like greens and blues basically match between the two transfers (1080p’s smashing abilities with hue purity aside, of course). Comparing these images directly, the DVD just appears generally dull and even washed out. Contrast is sharper, leading to a pretty sizable bump in close-up textures, which now appear life-like enough to touch. The image’s prevalent brightness tends to blow-out some of the background details on both transfers, but the Blu-ray corrects some obvious issues with mushy pattern blends and edge haloes. There are more signs of DNR work here, too, but there’s still plenty of film grain texture and natural blends – no waxy faces or weird CRT scan noise.

I’m not sure how much of my vague disapproval with the look of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has to do with this Blu-ray disc’s almost blinding clarity. Apparently, Spielberg refused to go full-on digital (which was a beautiful look for the Star Wars prequels), but went for a very clean, very digital 35mm look. I’m not usually one to harp on tradition if filmmakers want to move on, but the first three Indiana Jones features have such pleasant grain and imperfections to them. Sometimes, this super-pristine transfer, without more a smidgen of dirt, grain, of even real life texture, looks a little bit like it was shot entirely digitally and at worst, made for TV. This isn’t a bad thing for the purposes of this video section of the review, I suppose, because immaculate means there’s very little to complain about in terms of compression effects, it just isn’t quite what I was originally expecting from the material. The majority of the film features powerful, high contrast, and deeply dark textures. The cave diving stuff is especially rich in detail, reveling in every single one of those mossy, cobweb-encrusted walls. My favourite scene visually is at the beginning of the film, when Indy accidentally finds himself on a proto-‘50s town block settled to be Big Boy bombed. Here, Spielberg and frequent collaborator cinematographer Janusz Kaminski channel a bit of Tim Burton and David Lynch zaniness, including some really wonderfully vibrant hues and a little shot soft focus. The film’s climax features a more metallic and slightly lavender look, which is really the worst case of lacking texture in the whole film, but also the most immaculate part of the whole disc.

Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures

Audio


To match its 4K restoration, Raiders of the Lost Ark has been given a full digital restoration, presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. To quote the press release:
Quote: The sound design was preserved using (Ben) Burtt’s original master mix, which had been archived and unused since 1981. New stereo surrounds were created using the original music tracks and original effects recorded in stereo, but used previously only in mono. In addition, the sub bass was redone entirely up to modern specifications and care was taken to improve dialogue and correct small technical flaws to create the most complete and highest quality version of the sound possible while retaining the director’s vision.
It’s a pretty wordy explanation, but it seems to say that the 5.1 channels were filled without compromising Spielberg and Burtt’s intended sound and without adding artificial stereo and surround elements that weren’t part of the original source material. We all know this movie like the back of our own ear at this point and we all know how sharp the original mix already was. It even sounds good in plain old stereo. This new mix offers a clearer version of Burtt’s expertly pitched whirr of noise where smaller, solitary aural elements can be picked out without being overwhelmed by the bigger and more boisterous stuff. There’s no better place to appreciate what has been done with the sound than the opening sequence with all its crackling, natural ambience, directionally enhanced booby traps and, of course, that rumbling rock that bowls over every channel on the set, especially the LFE. I’m thinking that the punchy bits of noise actually sound more natural here than they did on the 5.1 DVD release, specifically when it comes to gunshots. There are issues with dialogue, which are to be expected based on the film’s age. When the action is lively, the words remain clear, but lack natural intonations. This is likely due to either source ADR or because of additional noise reduction applied to this release. Non-action sequences where dialogue was caught more casually on set suffer no such artefacts. John Williams’ score has never sounded richer; in fact, I’m not sure any of his classic scores have ever sounded this good on home video, not even those on the recent Jaws and Star Wars releases. There’s so much bass in the musical mix that it positively throbs the room, but none of the fine sound detail is lost in warble.

Generally speaking, Temple of Doom is more of the same – the lossless qualities of the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound help ensure a cleaner overall experience, which makes it easier to pick out the little embellishments among the louder pieces. Again, the warmth and roundness of John Williams’ score (which is probably at its most boisterous on this film above the other two) is the most expressive aural element, and the basic dialogue and sound effects are often easily lost in the rush of slam-bang music. Dialogue and source effects are plenty natural, the ambience of the jungle and caves is effectively immersive, and the action sequences feature plenty of aggressive directional elements. Burtt’s sound effects are a bit weirder this time around, as if realism was thrown out the window, but it certainly works for the more fantastic/horror-laced production and certainly sounds cool on the disc. The horrible, horrible bug scene and the mine cart chase are surely the track’s all-star moments.

Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures
This is the part where I start running out of things to say about audio quality, because again, generally speaking, this new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track improves in all the expected ways, including general clarity, element separation, and lack of compression effects. Williams’ score is generally more whimsical this time around, chugging along throughout the action sequences and calling out all the gags with fun little embellishments. This mix tends to set the music in front of the effects and dialogue, except during the most aggressive action scenes, which, despite plenty of over-the-top antics, tend to skew a little more naturally this time around. Burtt keeps the wackier stuff mostly under wraps, which makes for a nice, natural mix that deals more in ambience and dynamic ranges for the sake of comedy. But there are still plenty of aggressive, directionally-heavy moments throughout the film, including those elongated motorcycle and plane chases. My only complaint here is that the dialogue track is noticeably softer than the other two remixes, making it difficult to understand some of the more whispered words.

Despite iffy scripts and bored directors, I don’t think any of us were disappointed in good ol’ Ben Burtt and his memorable sound effects collection when we saw Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The quality of this new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track (the previous Blu-ray release featured a 5.1 Dolby Digital TrueHD track) shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the pedigree or the effort Paramount usually puts into their big releases. The opening act pretty much contains everything you need—a car chase, a few fist fights, whip cracks, some explosions (including a nuke), and some specifically Ben Burtt-ian extras, like magnetized ammunition. The killer ant scene is another fun bit, featuring some huge surround sound creepy crawling, but the sci-fi finale is Burtt’s finest moment, recalling classic genre buzzes and beeps, vamped up with a modern slant, including some heavy bass and lively multi-channel spinning. John Williams is getting old too, and I’ve been regularly disappointed with his more recent scores (comparatively speaking, of course), with the exception of Revenge of the Sith, which was built gracefully and tonally on the original prequel’s cues. He doesn’t pull off the same shocker magic with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but Williams’ restraint in using an unaltered version of old cues is admirable, and gives the full-on theme a great bump when it finally springs in. The score is well-represented on the track, featuring full and immersive symphonic sounds that stand out effectively against all manner of otherworldly sound effects.

Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures

Extras


The original press release listed six total discs in this set, two of which were entirely devoted to extra features. This final product features five discs, so it appears some stuff went missing. First, I’ll run through the four movie discs. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, The Last Crusade, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull discs each feature a collection of trailers and nothing else (no timeline pop-up on Crystal Skull).

Then comes the solitary bonus features disc, which begins with On Set with Raiders of the Lost Ark (57:50, HD) a mostly new, two-part documentary following the making of the original film. This features vintage interview footage with Spielberg, Ford, Lucas (briefly), associate producer Robert Watts, stunt coordinator Glenn Randal, producer Frank Marshal, mechanical effects supervisor Kitt West, and actors Paul Freeman, Roland Lacey and Karen Allen, along with vintage behind the scenes footage and outtakes/bloopers/deleted scenes. This new documentary is fantastic for archival purposes, the bloopers are truly funny, and the deleted scenes/outtakes are quite exciting, but is a bit scatter-shot in terms of telling any kind of story. It’s not as if it’s hard to follow (the producers put events in order as they occur in the film and compare the footage to the final footage), it’s just a different approach than we’ve been treated to on previous behind the scenes docs, which usually feature a bit of narration. Perhaps I just prefer talking heads too much.

Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures
Next up on the standalone extras disc is a collection of ‘Making the Films’ subheadings. These start with The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark (57:50, SD), another vintage doc from director Phillip Schuman that I believe hasn’t been available on DVD before. This rather dingy looking featurette/EPK covers a lot of the same ground as the On Set doc, but acts well as a companion piece. This is followed by a making-of look at all four films, beginning with The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark (not to be confused with the previous one, 50:50, SD), The Making of The Temple of Doom (41:10, SD), and The Making of The Last Crusade (35:00, SD), all of which appeared as on the original DVD release, but not on the re-released ‘Adventure Collection’ that was released more recently to cash-in on Crystal Skull. The originally announced sixth disc was scheduled to feature all the extras from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s previous two-disc Blu-ray release, along with some additional bibs and bobs from the previous releases. However, this final collection is clearly only five discs long, though it appears that the stuff promised on that sixth disc is present on this fifth disc. This includes slightly shortened The Making of The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (28:30, HD), a nostalgia piece-cum-production diary (as labeled on the original release) which covers the conception, screenplay, pre-production, filming, stunts, casting, et cetera, complete with cast and crew interviews.

This brings us to the ‘Behind the Scenes’ subheading, which includes a nice collection of previously available featurettes:
  • The Stunts of Indiana Jones (11:00, SD)
  • The Sound of Indiana Jones (13:20, SD)
  • The Music of Indiana Jones (12:20, SD)
  • The Light and Magic of Indiana Jones (12:20, SD)
  • Raiders: The Melting Face (8:10, SD)
  • Indiana Jones and the Creepy Crawlies (with optional pop-up trivia, 11:50, SD)
  • Travel with Indiana Jones: Locations (optional pop-up trivia, 10:00, SD)
  • Indy’s Women: The American Film Institute Tribute (9:20, SD)
  • Indy’s Friends and Enemies (10:10, SD)
  • Iconic Props (9:50, HD)
  • The Effects of Indy (22:30, HD)
  • Adventures in Post Production (12:40, HD)


Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures

Overall


Why did I even bother writing this review? I know you’re going to buy this. The only people that aren’t going to buy this are those that hate one of the four movies enough to not want a copy on their shelf, even for the sake of prosperity. I certainly don’t expect I’ll ever watch Kingdom of the Crystal Skull again and don’t feel any real need to own Temple of Doom, but I’m reasonably sure there won’t be a Raiders of the Lost Ark solo release Blu-ray anytime soon, so I guess we’ve got to take what we get. Paramount hasn’t skimped on re-mastering this particular golden goose for Blu-ray release, including brilliant new 1080p transfers and vibrant new DTS-HD MA soundtracks. The extra features don’t feature a lot of new material, but, aside from audio commentaries (which we all know Spielberg isn’t going to do, ever), there isn’t a lot more to say about the behind the scenes stories of these films. Except maybe Crystal Skull. But who cares about that?

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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