“It’s not the years honey, it’s the mileage.” Dr. Jones’ cinematic exploits arrive in HD
The year is 1977. A burned-out George Lucas is relaxing in Hawaii with his pal Steven Spielberg, when talk turns to James Bond. Spielberg laments the fact that he’s never had a crack at 007, but Lucas says he’s got something even better, and he regales his buddy with his idea of a whip-cracking archeologist who roams the world looking for priceless treasures and always gets the girl. Taking his cue from the cinematic adventure serials of the 1930s that he grew up admiring, Lucas dreamed of a return to those daredevil antics and cliff-hanging stories. Star Wars was one outlet for those desires, but Lucas was also interested in setting a story on terra firma that paid homage to those classic serials.
Named for Lucas’ dog, the giant Alaskan Malamute who also inspired Star Wars‘ Chewbacca, and the second most boring last name that Lucas could think of, Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones was heading for the big screen. An archeology teacher by trade but a swashbuckling adventurer on his off days, Jones has a knack for dramatic escapes and a liking for headstrong women, the films revolving around a mythical object of great power desired by the forces of darkness, with Indy drafted in to recover it before they do. Lucas outlined his vision for five films and a gentleman’s agreement was reached, with Spielberg assenting to direct the pictures, and Lucas on story & executive producer duties. That’s how the legend goes, and regardless of how true it is, fast forward to 1981 and the ‘dream team’ collaboration of Lucas and Spielberg had finally borne fruit.
Raiders of the Lost Ark has Indy racing against the Nazis and his old adversary Belloq to find the Ark of the Covenant in Egypt circa 1936. Quite simply, it’s a masterpiece. The whole enterprise is a dichotomous throwback to past cinematic glories, being a piece of pure hokum treated with the utmost respect by all involved. There are some small niggles with the story, but the end result is so damnably exciting that such concerns are mere footnotes. The movie has action, humour, suspense, romance and even a touch of horror, all of it coming together to form an immensely enjoyable whole.
The impressive scale of the production – from massive dig sites in the Tunisian desert to cavernous studio interiors in England – brings with it a sense of truth and believability, and the hard-hitting action scenes lend a degree of old-school verisimilitude, as they carry so much more weight and impact in this age of anodyne CG effects. John Williams’ superb score is a character in and of itself, the composer providing a raft of instantly iconic cues that were part of a prodigious run of musical genius that has never been bettered in my opinion.
But for all of the technical nous and the thrilling fist fights and shootouts, they mean nothing if you don’t care about the people involved, and Jones is not simply another indestructible action hero. Harrison Ford is crucial to this aspect, his well-rounded performance proving as capable of staging the muscular action scenes as it is conveying Indy’s emotional and physical vulnerabilities. Indy is a flawed human being whose heart is in the right place, and nowhere is this more evident than his feisty relationship with Marion, the sparky interplay between Ford and Karen Allen giving the movie some much needed passion in between the punch-ups.
There are no passengers in the supporting cast either, with Paul Freeman casting a refined air as Belloq, and Ronald Lacey in good form as the quirky but menacing Nazi agent Toht. Wolf Kahler’s square jaw is put to good use as the arrogant Colonel Dietrich. John Rhys-Davies’ Sallah is a larger-than-life hulk of a man, and a true friend to Indy, as is Marcus Brody, the Dean of Marshall College played with dignified solemnity by Denholm Elliott.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom swings over to India in 1935 and features a set of sacred stones held by the perverted Thugee sect, with Indy fighting to free a generation of enslaved children along with the stones. This 1984 follow-up is a giddy, gaudy adventure, and it’s set before Raiders so technically it’s a prequel. It takes a much darker turn, dealing with an evil cult that’s partial to the odd human sacrifice, with a bit of open-heart surgery thrown in for good measure. The literal removal of someone’s heart is a not-so-subtle allusion to Lucas’ state of mind – he was going through an acrimonious divorce at the time – and Spielberg has said that it’s his least favourite of all the Indy movies. I can fully understand why; the story lurches from setpiece to setpiece with little in the way of connective tissue and the characters aren’t as multi-faceted as their Raiders counterparts.
The strong, determined character of Marion is supplanted by the shrieking nightclub singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), and the bear-like Sallah is traded in for a very small and very annoying sidekick, Short Round (Ke Huy Quan). (Star Wars‘ Jar-Jar Binks is the bastard offspring of these two, combining Willie’s, ah, fragility with Short Round’s accident-prone nature and “hilarious” mangling of the English language.) And Amrish Puri’s villain, Mola Ram, is simply a very bad man, as opposed to Belloq’s suave, shady mirror-image of Jones.
The Thugee members themselves are depicted as backward barbarians, not least in the schlocky dinner scene, which opens up the film to charges of cultural insensitivity (at best). When the action does get going it becomes increasingly silly and there are some extraordinarily daft escapes peppered throughout the movie. People love to voice their complaints about that escape in Crystal Skull, but surviving a fall from an airplane in a life raft which then slaloms down a mountain and is plunged into a raging torrent of water is more believable? Really? And the mine cart chase is so over the top it might as well have been a fairground ride.
That said, I do have a soft spot for the film. The music is another instalment of Williams at the top of his game – heck, it’s probably my favourite score of the series – and the lively musical number that opens the show is another of Lucas’ affectionate callbacks to a past era. In a strange way, the supporting characters actually come as a breath of fresh air when looked at in the context of the series, because they’re so diametrically opposed to their equivalents in the other films. By that same token Temple is the only one that isn’t chasing Raiders, in terms of either the MacGuffin (the main artefact) or the people in Indy’s life, which gives it a certain freshness – even the font for the credits is different to the other three. And having just complained about the over-the-top action scenes, I will concede that the film reaches a terminal velocity of absurdity where I stop worrying about how demented it all is and just give myself over to the madness. It’s just a shame that the underlying story is so emotionally vapid.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade picks up the story in 1939 and brings Indy’s dad along for the ride, this time focussing on the Holy Grail, the cup of Christ which is said to give everlasting life to those who drink from it. Once again those dastardly Nazis are after it too, headed by devious American businessman Walter Donovan. This third film, made in 1989, is a more satisfying caper, putting some genuine heart (no pun intended) back into the story. It starts with an exciting teaser that panders to Lucas’ prequel penchant, starring River Phoenix as the fearless young Indy on the trail of a stolen treasure. When the main story begins it relies heavily on the goodwill stored up by Raiders, as we not only get the Nazis as villains – Indy even gets to meet Adolf himself – but another legendary Biblical relic is wheeled out. John Ryhs-Davies and Denholm Elliott return as Sallah and Marcus Brody respectively, the latter having turned from a classy giver of exposition into bumbling comic relief since the last time we saw him.
That’s the main stumbling block for many of the movie’s detractors, because there is a lot of humour in Last Crusade, which was a natural response from the filmmakers after all the criticism aimed at Temple for being too dark. I love it precisely because of the laughs; the comedy is so well timed that it’d be churlish to shun it. There are some bum notes, like Indy’s Scottish professor gag, but on the whole it works for me. And yet when the more straight-faced scenes do occur they don’t seem out of place, the cast smoothly switching into serious acting mode without missing a beat. (If Temple is too dark and Last Crusade too light, then Raiders is the one that pulls off this juggling act almost perfectly, with only the goofy heil-hitlering monkey letting the side down.) The action scenes are staged with the crunching physicality typical of the series, and though the narrative is somewhat choppy, it’s not as thinly sketched as Temple.
What elevates the story above being a mere clone of Raiders is the introduction of Henry Jones Senior, played with obvious relish by Sean Connery. Who better than 007 for Indy’s dad? But instead of taking names and kicking arse, the character is a slightly eccentric intellectual. Connery shows off a splendid set of comedic chops, delivering his lines with impeccable comic accuracy but retaining a strong emotional core to the performance which bolsters the more sober moments. His presence unsettles Indy and provides a new dramatic challenge for our hero. Indy’s fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants philosophy is given a stern test because he’s now got his own father to worry about, and their father-son dynamic works brilliantly thanks to the wonderful chemistry between Connery and Ford. (The theme of the absent father is a recurring feature of Spielberg’s work, and it runs throughout the Indiana Jones series.)
The line-up of baddies isn’t exceptionally memorable, but Julian Glover adds a touch of class as grail hunter Walter Donovan, with Michael Byrne on Nazi henchman duties. Alison Doody rounds off the ensemble as the ‘mata hari’ character of Dr. Elsa Schneider, and what she lacks in gravitas as an actress, she makes up with her suitably Teutonic beauty (though she’s actually an Irish native). And Williams’ music once again papers over the cracks, providing more memorable new cues that fit right in alongside the classic originals.
Finally we have Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, catching up with Indy in 1957, where the titular artefact is renowned to lead to a lost city of gold and a source of huge psychic power. With Indy’s old flame Marion and her son Mutt in tow, Indy must reach the lost city first if he is to save his friend Harold Oxley and stop KGB agent Irina Spalko and her band of Russkies from claiming this unique prize as their own. This 2008 effort was always on a hiding to nothing as far as the “fans” were concerned, coming so long after the third movie and well into the post-Star Wars Special Edition era, where Lucas is regarded with a hatred usually reserved for dictators and daytime TV presenters. But, in my humble opinion, this is still a solid action adventure, solid enough to nab nearly $800 million at the worldwide box office!
It’s fair to say that it’s not a patch on Raiders, but then again, what is? The story has a definite shift in tone compared to the other three, moving from 1930s serials into outright 1950s B-movie territory. It takes some getting used to, yet Indy can’t be expected to fight the Nazis forever and the Russians are a worthy alternative, what with the climate of fear engendered in the Western world by the post-war spread of Communism behind the Iron Curtain.
The story is standard Indiana Jones fayre, with Indy following a series of clues to locate the skull and then the lost city itself. People argue that he doesn’t actually do very much, having to interpret another character’s lunatic ramblings for the latter half of the film, but this perfectly true of the other films because Indy always has to follow a path laid out for him by someone else. And what is Oxley if not a living, breathing riddle to be solved, a map made flesh? I’d rather have John Hurt wibbling like a loony than have Indy look at yet more crusty old cartography. And yes, Indy’s very much a spectator at the climax of the film but he’s also powerless to control events at the end of Raiders, which everyone seems to forget.
The action beats are actually pretty good. There’s a great deal of physical work on show, especially in the first hour of the film. There is a fair bit of CG sprinkled throughout the film too, though it’s used more for embellishment rather than outright fakery, and you only have to watch the production diary to see how little blue-screen and how much practical work actually went into it. The college chase is a particular highlight as Jones is dragged into a car from a moving motorcycle and fights his way out the other side, hanging on to the back of the bike in true Indy style. Plenty of miniatures are dotted about the show too, like some of the longer shots of Area 51 and the Aztec graveyard, not to mention the fake town blown to smithereens for the A-bomb test.
Speaking of which, it’s time to assess Indy’s escape from a nuclear explosion in a fridge. Is it completely hare brained, if we’re talking real-world physics and whatnot? Absolutely! But is it outside the realms of possibility inside Indy’s world, a place where a life raft is as good as a parachute, and where mine carts with no propulsion system of their own are able to rocket along like a rollercoaster? Absolutely not! It’s a perfectly preposterous escape that sits fine with me, and the shot that follows it, with Indy dwarfed by the huge mushroom cloud, is a classic moment in the series. Welcome to the nuclear age, Dr. Jones.
Harrison Ford donned the fedora once again at 65 years of age, and all credit to him for wanting to do so much stunt work, but he seems to have forgotten how to be Indy in the quieter moments. This older incarnation is so laid back he’s practically horizontal, and it’s left to Shia LaBeouf as Mutt Williams to provide the spark that’s missing, with a performance full of the brio of an angry young man, and he’s adept at delivering the hepcat ‘50s lingo without it sounding forced or contrived. As with Ford, the returning Karen Allen seems to be playing a dull facsimile of her original character. Denholm Elliott passed away many years ago, so instead of recasting the role of Marcus, Marshall College’s Dean is now Charles Stanforth, Jim Broadbent doing all he can with this minor role.
Cate Blanchett’s cold, calculating performance as Spalko never strays into pastiche, even with that accent, and she’s a surprisingly hands-on villain compared to the others in the series. Ray Winstone’s Mac is exceedingly annoying, but as poorly executed as the character is, he’s a throwback to the backstabbing sidekick seen in the first film. And it’s no coincidence that Crystal Skull ends up in the jungles of South America, completing the circle started in the credits teaser for Raiders. John Williams is on scoring duties, natch, and while the music doesn’t quite measure up to the others it’s grown on me over the last few years, the skull theme a particular highlight.
All in all, this is a peerless collection of action adventure movies. Raiders is the one true Indiana Jones film, being so good that the sequels were never likely to match it, but they all have something to recommend them.
Each movie is presented in 2.35 widescreen (approx.) as per the original theatrical presentations, and encoded with AVC at full 1080p24 resolution. Audio is lossless English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 across the board. The discs reviewed here are the Italian versions, which are entirely region free and English-friendly but have a different alternate language set to the UK edition, which officially goes on sale on the 8th of October. These discs still carry the UK ratings on them though, and Temple of Doom is the full uncut version. Each movie disc carries a selection of trailers in HD. Raiders get a teaser, theatrical trailer and the re-issue trailer, Temple has a teaser and theatrical trailer, Last Crusade the same, and Crystal Skull contains theatrical trailers 2, 3 and 4.
The Indiana Jones Trilogy was remastered for the 2003 DVDs, the transfers having undergone the Lowry (now Reliance Media) digital process to remove dirt, improve detail and correct certain flaws, which included the removal of a snake reflection in the Well of Souls sequence and the tightening up of several matte shots. However, Raiders was freshly scanned and given a 4K finish for its 30th anniversary, and that new version is what is presented here. (The snake reflection has been removed again, although the one in front of Marion a few minutes later still remains.) Two things are immediately obvious: the brightness level has been raised vis-à-vis the older Lowry transfer, and the colour has been changed to a warmer, more contemporary palette. Skin tones have a decidedly yellow tinge and the blue in the picture often looks more of a teal colour, which even extends to the Paramount logo itself.
The brightness issue is less contentious for me, as Spielberg wanted to get more highlights in the shadows with this new transfer, and in terms of contrast it has the effect of flattening out what were some quite harsh highlights in the old Lowry transfer. The black level doesn’t reach obsidian depths but it’s consistent with the photography of the time. Fine detail is generally very good, but the anamorphic glass occasionally makes its presence felt with some slight softness. Thankfully they haven’t blasted it with edge sharpening to give the image more impact, nor has any noise-reduction been overdone; the opticals retain their inherently coarse grain structure. There is a bit near the beginning with Alfred Molina where the image literally pops in and out of focus, but it has always – ALWAYS – been like that, so please do not adjust your television sets.
Temple and Last Crusade were not remastered as extensively as Raiders in terms of colour and brightness, although they were still captured at 4K and given a meticulous digital cleanup. Shot on anamorphic once again, fine detail is excellent throughout both films and is more consistent than Raiders, though a tiny lick of sharpening has been applied. (FYI there is a shot at 83 minutes in Last Crusade which jumps in and out of focus, it’s a registration problem that’s always been there.) There’s a dusting of light grain which seems authentic enough at first glance but looks somewhat static in a few shots, which is a typical symptom of the Lowry remastering process and seems to indicate that these transfers are the older 2003 versions. That said, Lucasfilm has stated that these two are derived from new scans. In any case, the opticals are very clean and practically grain-free thanks to some diligent processing.
The colour timing of these two looks more evenly balanced than the teal and orange look inflicted on Raiders. Skin tones in particular benefit from this more even-handed timing, lacking the orangey hue and appearing more naturalistic. That’s not to say that the colour doesn’t zing when it has to, with the fiery reds of the Thugee’s grotto looking very intense, and the palette is evenly saturated with no signs of banding. The blacks are fine, not stretching too deeply but that’s simply how the films were shot, and they rejected the temptation of jacking up the contrast to give the image more ‘pop’. There’s a tiny amount of aliasing on vertical edges, but it’s hardly noticeable unless there’s a hard contrast, e.g. the arrows of the Thugee archers framed against the sky as they prepare to fire on Indy, and the titles on Last Crusade (look at the letter ‘A’). I spotted no compression nasties at all, but the final shot of Temple has been windowboxed (bordered at the sides) for some unknown reason. The edges of the film frame were visible on the DVD, but a slight crop would’ve been all that was necessary, not this heavy handed bordering.
Crystal Skull was not lensed by the series’ regular DoP Doug Slocombe, who had since retired. Spielberg’s current-day collaborator Janusz Kaminski was brought in, and they both resisted Lucas’ cheerleading for shooting the film on digital. They went with 35mm and retained the anamorphic lensing for a sense of continuity, the director having avoided that format for the best part of 20 years. But it still looks very different from its forebears thanks to the advances in film stock and lenses, as well as the advent of the Digital Intermediate process.
Finished at 2K, Crystal Skull has a thoroughly modern sheen to it, though some attempt was made during shooting to give the film a slightly more old-fashioned style. Slocombe’s photography for the first three uses little in the way of overt diffusion and the lighting is bright but not overly exaggerated, whereas Crystal Skull looks softer & glossier and tends to use a fair bit of high-key lighting. The Blu-ray is a faultless rendition of that master, with good detail, very little grain, no egregious edge sharpening, lovely deep blacks and the standard teal/orange colour scheme.
Raiders’ audio has been redone for this new edition. Ben Burtt went back to his original masters to re-record them for optimal clarity, creating a brand new 5.1 mix that sounds like the film you love, only with added awesome. The bass has been cranked up to seismic levels, even though the 2003 DVD Dolby Digital 5.1 mix was no slouch in that department. Every slap, kick, punch, gunshot and explosion is underlined with a whopping bass extension, and while it’s not the most nuanced use of LFE it seems fitting for the heightened reality of the film in general.
The discrete rears have been taken full advantage of, with some deft sound steerage during moments that were distinctly front-oriented on the old mix. Marion’s cries of “Indeeeeeeeee!” during the Cairo basket sequence now move around the back of the room, and when Toht reaches for the burning medallion in the Nepal bar fight you can hear Indy struggle with the Sherpa behind you. Those are but two of many such changes, one of which is the removal of that classic backfiring sound effect when the Flying Wing kicks into gear; it sounds a lot more mechanical now. The dialogue can still seem a touch thin, but that’s 30-year-old recordings for you. The music sounds absolutely wonderful, swelling to fill the whole sound stage with its legendary magnificence.
The 5.1 mixes of Temple and Last Crusade are a pleasure to listen to. They’re leaner than the hyper-aggressive Raiders track, but that’s no bad thing. They sound like they should do, being mid-’80s Dolby Stereo shows, favouring the front sound stage with occasional support from the rears. The bass is quite restrained, the subwoofer subtly blending in with the on-screen action rather than calling attention to itself every 2 minutes. Dialogue is clear and nicely integrated into the mix, with some directional panning across the front array, and the piercing screams of the ladies never fall prey to distortion. Williams’ music is the star of the show, sounding rich and full and glorious. I can’t believe that these have been mixed by Burtt, because he’s actually allowing the music score to take centre stage.
Moving on to Crystal Skull, its 5.1 track is smoother and more refined, the mix sounding more cohesive in terms of the entire sound field. Bass runs deep, dialogue never gets lost under the action and is well balanced in the quieter moments, and the rears provide ample support. The music comes through just that little bit lower than the other movies, which is more in keeping with Burtt’s present-day philosophy. Though not officially mixed in Dolby EX (the theatrical 6.1 system) it’s well worth engaging on your receiver at home if you have 6.1/7.1, because you’ll be rewarded with an even livelier experience.
The fifth platter is where you’ll find the bulk of the extras, and most of it will be very familiar if you own the 2003 Trilogy DVD set and the 2-disc DVD or Blu-ray of Crystal Skull. Some items have also been carried over from the 2008 individual DVD re-releases of the first three movies.
The centrepiece of the collection is the new On Set With Raiders of the Lost Ark feature, divided into two parts: From Jungle To Desert and From Adventure To Legend. Running 29 and 28 minutes respectively, they combine the existing ‘making of’ footage seen in the 1981 documentary with deleted scenes, alternate takes and bloopers. It’s fascinating to see how certain scenes evolved, the on-set footage providing a context to the deleted material as Spielberg explains to his actors what he wants to see, with them also adding their two cents. Certain plot holes are plugged, as we finally see just how Indy was able to hang on to the Nazi U-boat as it makes its way to the island, though the bit with the old man telling him not to look into the Ark is conspicuous by its absence. No such luck for the other movies, as all we get is a very short montage of deleted fragments from Temple and Last Crusade, and nothing at all from Crystal Skull.
The next section is devoted to Making The Films, presenting five documentaries that look at each film in turn. Raiders gets two, the first being a vintage 1981 piece that was cannibalized for the On Set… feature mentioned above. It should be familiar to Laserdisc fans, because it was included on the PAL boxset. It’s pretty good too, playing more like a production diary than a stuffy studio-sanctioned promo piece, and is packed with lots of candid behind the scenes footage and cast/crew interviews. The second is the 50-minute piece made for the 2003 DVD, and Temple and Last Crusade also get their 2003 documentaries ported over, running for 41 minutes and 35 minutes respectively. Crystal Skull gets a new 28 minute documentary that’s been whittled down from the myriad extras on the 2-disc DVD release.
Behind The Scenes is where many of the smaller featurettes from the existing releases have been collected. The 2003 set is represented by four pieces detailing the Stunts, Sounds, Music and Light and Magic of Indiana Jones, running for 47 minutes in total. The 2008 DVDs are covered by: The Melting Face (8 mins) from the first film, Indiana Jones And The Creepy Crawlies (11mins, with/without pop-up trivia track) and Travel With Indiana Jones: Locations (9 mins, again with optional trivia track) from the second, and Indy’s Women: The American Film Institute Tribute (9 mins) and Indy’s Friends And Enemies (10 mins) from the third. Crystal Skull gets three HD featurettes: Iconic Props (9 mins), The Effects Of Indy (22 mins) and Adventures In Post Production (12 mins).
So, while the 2003 extras are reproduced in their entirety, there are several bits missing from the 2008 DVDs. The stills galleries, storyboard sequences and the Introduction featurettes from the first three movies have been jettisoned, and Raiders also loses the Indiana Jones: An Appreciation featurette. Crystal Skull misses out on the stills galleries, three pre-viz sequences, five featurettes (Return Of A Legend, Pre-Production, Warrior Makeup, The Crystal Skulls, Closing: Team Indy) and the lengthy Production Diary. That’s over 120 minutes of stuff from Crystal Skull which has been reduced to a mere 28 minutes! And it’s a real shame that the stills galleries are gone from all of the movies, because there’s loads of behind the scenes photos and interesting poster art concepts to peruse.
After complaining that Lucasfilm didn’t port over any existing extras for the Star Wars Blu-ray set, it may seem ungrateful of me to complain about them including much of the old Indy extras here – but the trouble is they’ve done it at the expense of including anything majorly new, and they’ve left out a large chunk of extant material anyway. At least they raided the archives for the Star Wars set, the coolness of the original trilogy’s deleted scenes and prop turnarounds going some way to mollifying the grumblers, but we get mere glimpses at deleted material here. Señor Spielbergo isn’t crazy about deleted scenes (or commentaries, for that matter) and I accept that, yet the bonus package for Indy is looking a bit tired and they could’ve at least preserved the majority of the Crystal Skull DVD extras. You can get rid of the 2003 DVD boxset if you haven’t done so already, but those with the standalone 2008 DVDs of all four films may want to hang on to them.
The Indiana Jones movies are fun escapist entertainment, as they always have been, and the Blu-ray presentations are very good with regard to picture and sound, small niggles aside. But the extra features are a mild disappointment to this reviewer. It’s not that the material isn’t any good, it’s great, but I’ve seen most of it before and they’ve omitted some of the best stuff from the standalone DVDs, not to mention the fact that they’re still holding on to most of the deleted scenes. Maybe one day, Lucasfilm will realise that fans don’t actually like stockpiling old releases just to keep hold of the extras, nor do we like getting the same stuff recycled with only a sprinkling of new material. An Indy nut will want to pick this up on day one regardless, but the rest of you might want to wait for a sale.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum