The best idea ever hatched by two guys building a sandcastle.
Warning: Iím about to review a release that contains one of my absolute favorite movies, a movie Iíve been obsessing over for three decades. So, you know, self-indulgent gushing ahead.
As I said when I reviewed the Blu-ray release of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull four years ago, Raiders of the Lost Ark was a formative movie for me. I went to see it with my older brother and some of his friends back in the summer of 1981, and it had much the same impact on me Star Wars did four years earlier. The moment Harrison Ford emerged from the shadows in the opening sequence, I was hooked.
Itís one of those movies that showed me what movies could do and make me want to know how they do it. Everything the movie sets out to do, it does. Itís a popcorn flick, yes, but itís a rarity, a popcorn flick that is smart, is peopled by well-drawn characters, and entertains whether characters are dodging machine-gun fire or sitting around talking.
Itís a special movie, which is one of the reasons Iím constantly amazed when people complain the sequels donít live up to it. Call me crazy for asking this if you wish, but how could they? You canít improve on perfection, and hitting the same mark again is almost impossible. Had everyone who worked on Raiders returned for the sequels, theyíd all still be different offerings.
Changes were inevitable, and the sequels reflect what the creators had experienced in the years between installments Lucas goes through a divorce, Temple of Doom gets a whiny heroine and a darker tone. Lucas and Spielberg become fathers, and they reflect on their strained relationships with their fathers, so Last Crusade becomes a story about reconciliation and growth. Everybody gets older, Crystal Skull becomes a story about loss and finding something to fill the subsequent void in your life. You donít think the same sort of differences would exist had Kasdan penned the sequels? Look at the movies heís see how he has changed over the years. The man who made Darling Companion may be the same man who wrote Raiders, but at the same time heís not.
Raiders was a product of the mindsets of its creators at that time. Lucas was still under the spell of Joseph Campbell, Spielberg still had a desire to make a Bond flick, and Kasdan was still the guy who knew how to take genre elements and put a spin on them. Lucas brought the mythic elements, Spielberg wanted huge action, and Kasdan wanted to fuse those components with rounded characters and dialogue that was equal parts natural and witty. And it all came together. Call it kismet, serendipity, karma, fate, whatever. It was a magical confluence of talent, melding the strong suits of three people to make something wonderful.
Much like Star Wars, Raiders is a throwback that somehow managed to change everything that came afterwards, an old-fashioned modern marvel. It set the bar for modern action movies, and I donít think any movie has managed to scale quite the same heights, not even Die Hard or the first two Lethal Weapon movies, all of which I love and never get tired of watching. Raiders still stands apart. To paraphrase Kubrick, itís the proverbial good action-adventure movie.
But does any of that matter? Nah, not really. All that really matters is that it works, works in a way that is still dazzling. I canít count the number of times Iíve seen this movie. Hell, I canít even count the number of time I saw while in college, a time during which my roommate and I watched it with frightening regularity. (One day he and I overheard someone saying sheíd never seen it. He and I would have been less shocked had this person pulled out a knife and stabbed everyone in the room.) I know that Iíve seen it enough times to be able to count the beats between edits, and to know not only what camera move is coming but also how long each camera move will last. I can recite the dialogue, and I can also anticipate the sound effects. Sad, isnít it?
But itís a testament to what the movie means to me, the effect it had on me when I was eleven and still has on me. Iíve changed in the past thirty-one years but the movie has stayed the same, and that says a lot. No subsequent viewing of any movie can completely replicate the experience it gave you the first time you watched it, but the great ones can give you something close, and Raiders does that for me. If I ever want to say the hell with everything else and get lost for a couple hours, this movie is the perfect way to do so.
I saw Temple of Doom the day summer vacation of 1984 started. This was a week or so after it opened, and Iíd been forced to spend that week or so listening to people whoíd already seen it go on and on about it. I really enjoyed it at the time, but that enjoyment had been tempered over the years. Itís something of an odd beast, a movie in which a dude gets his still-beating heart ripped out and the heroís diminutive sidekick yells stuff like ďHold on to your potatoes!Ē during a car chase in which he needs help reaching the pedals. Thatís a weird mix.
A lot of people hate the movie, using it as an example of what they see as Lucasís burgeoning insanity. Even Spielberg has said he made the third movie as a way of atoning for the damage Temple inflicted (and because he and Lucas had initially agreed to make three), stating that the only good thing the movie did was introduce him to Kate Capshaw. It has some severe flaws, but itís certainly not an awful movie. Had it been dialed back a bit, had some of it been made less grating, it could have been a good movie. The Short Round stuff didnít need to be quite so juvenile, and Willie could have been a damsel in distress without becoming a shrill annoyance.
What saves the movie is the action. The opening fight is a great sequence (the musical number that precedes it is pretty great, too), the scene in the spikes-and-skulls room is fantastic, and everything from the moment Willie is lowered into the pit to the rope-bridge climax is damned effective (the stuff with the mine cars being the highpoint, of course). And the relentless pacing certainly doesnít hurt. Dear god, this thing moves. I know some people complain about the tempo of the stuff inside the palace, but I donít get it. Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn cut the movie down to the bone; itís an engine of energy. The scriptís not up to snuff, but the filmmaking compensates just enough to make the movie kinda-sorta work.
My college roommate and a friend of ours went to see Last Crusade the night it opened. It was the first time Iíd ever been in a theater outfitted with a Dolby system; thanks to having grown up in a one-horse town, I was almost nineteen before I got to experience channel separation in a theater. (The old theaters where I live were so archaic they were still accepting Confederate money as late as 1995.) That bit at the end when a certain character is shot at pointblank range? That was something to hear. I went to see it again when I came home for the summer. Seeing as how it starred both Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, my mother wasnít about to miss it. I enjoyed it both times, I enjoyed it when I saw it a year later on cable, I enjoyed it the numerous times I saw it on VHS and DVD, and I still enjoy it. Yeah, they couldíve titled it Raiders Lite and not been too far off the mark, but big deal.
Hiring the late Jeffrey Boam to pen the script for Last Crusade was a wise move, as he had a knack for combining humor and action in the way Lucas and Spielberg wanted (just look at Lethal Weapon 2, which is a practically a how-to class on the subject). The movie goes for the same amount of humor as its immediate predecessor, but its action hearkens back to the scale and openness of Raiders. Itís an obvious attempt to get back to what made the series so popular in the first place, but, again, big deal. (Anyone who complains about Nazis once again being the villains is obtuse. Nazis will always make for great villains.) Itís a big action flick, and it does what any big action flick should. Itís not as dark or shaded as Raiders, but it doesnít need to be. It instead focuses on a heretofore unseen aspect of Indyís personality, providing brief glimpses of why he is who he is.
Most of this is revealed, of course through his interactions with his father. Itís no secret Lucas wanted a more staid presence in the role (his choice was Gregory Peck), but Spielberg was absolutely right to suggest that the man who played one of Indyís spiritual fathers play his actual father. But what really makes it work is taking the guy who became famous playing an action hero and sticking him in a tweed suit and making him an out-of-his-element academic. You take James Bond and you make him sit; itís simple but effective, upending audience expectations. And just as the elder Jones becomes more proactive as the movie moves along, the junior Jones is somewhat cowed by his old man, reverting back to the kid who desperately wanted approval but rarely ever got it, which also plays against expectations and is amusing to watch. (Thereís a very simple equation involved in why Indy teaches half the time and punches guys in the face the other half, and the movie deftly lays it all out.)
The action in the movie is just as strong as ever (is there any question Spielberg is the greatest action director ever to grace the medium?), with the desert chase (which Spielberg more or less made up during filming) being the highlight. But the chemistry between Ford and Connery is arguably the movieís driving force. Itís easy, effortless, and totally believable. The movie never strains to make it work, instead going for subtle moments that eventually make a whole. The bit where Connery checks his watch during the motorcycle chase is simply great, and all of the dialogue and interactions that arise from Conneryís admission of carnal knowledge are even better. That ďIím as human as the next man/I was the next manĒ exchange? Brilliant.
Iíve already written at length about Crystal Skull, so Iíll spare everyone another cinder block of verbiage that only tangentially touches on the subject at hand. But I will say this: I donít get what all of the moaning is about. Itís not as good as Raiders (only fools would expect it to be), nor is it as good as Last Crusade. Itís definitely better than Temple of Doom, though, and I like it quite a bit. I went in hoping for an enjoyable action-adventure flick, and thatís exactly what I got. It was great seeing Ford back in the hat and jacket, Spielberg delivered several killer action sequences (the chase across the campus of Marshall College proves everyone else still stages action sequences in his shadow), and Karen Allen came back, which made me happy beyond words.
The things that bother other people donít bother me. Really, whatís the big deal about the prairie dogs? Why is the bit with the fridge more ridiculous than anything in the first three movies? How can you readily accept supernatural forces but blanch at forces from another world or dimension? Why is it okay to pay homage to serials of the Ď30s and Ď40s but not okay to pay homage to the sci-fi B-movies of the Ď50s? Truth be told, my biggest problem with it is the late Pat Roach not being around to get knocked into that giant anthill. I wanted a lot of fun, I had a lot of fun. When it comes to Indy sequels, thatís good enough for me.
But you may want to disavow anything I have to say regarding the series as a whole, because even if the other three were beyond awful, I would gladly pay full price for this release just to get my hands on Raiders. But theyíre not beyond awful, not by a long shot. None even comes close to being awful. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a singular achievement, and the series as a whole is a whale of an accomplishment in its own right. How many other series span three decades, have attracted generations of fans, and maintain a level of quality that only once comes anywhere near mediocre? Spielberg and Lucas set out to make a quick, relatively cheap love letter to action-adventure flicks of yore, but what they gave the world was a classic, a movie that proves that genre means nothing.
People who dismiss Raiders because it has chases, shootouts, and giant boulders perplex me. So what? It may not affect you in the same way as something more thematically, intellectually, or emotionally complex, but it can affect you to the same degree. I rank it alongside Jaws and 2001 as the best movie Iíve ever seen. And while the other two donít work me over in the same way 2001 does, the impact of each is equal to that of Kubrickís masterpiece. The spectrum of what a movie can do is a wide, varied one, and a movie that sends you out of the theater exhilarated out of your mind is just as worthwhile as one that sends you out with your mind firing. The old ďit ainít artĒ argument holds no water. Thereís more art (to say nothing of craft) in Raiders of the Lost Ark than in half of the past decadeís Best Picture winners put together.
But enough of that. What you get here is a big box of fun, the action-adventure series to which all other action-adventure series aspire. Spielberg was bummed about being turned down to direct a Bond movie, Lucas said he had something better. He was right. These movies have been a big part of my life for three decades now, and Iím glad they are.
So you sat through all of that when all you really want to know is how the movies sound and look. Well, hereís your answer: spectacular. Not flawless, mind you, but spectacular nonetheless. The movies are presented in a 2.35:1 ratio; the 1080p transfers have been encoded with AVC, and each movie is housed on a 50GB disc.
Raiders was graced with a 4K scan and frame-by-frame restoration (the whole process was supervised by Spielberg, so blame him if you donít care for the results [some people have already started]), and the results are outstanding. This movie has a look thatís far rougher, dirtier, and softer than the rest of the series, a result of intent, the film stock employed, and the in-and-out, TV-style nature of the production.
Itís also the darkest of the four, visually speaking, and itís here that previous video incarnations have faltered. Not so much here, though, as all of those shadows have been stabilized to a large degree, although some of the deeper ones do crush a bit. Colors have been given a significant boost; the greens of the jungle, earth tones of the desert scenes, and polished gold of the Ark have never looked better.
Detail and clarity are also heightened; sets and costumes now have more texture, and for the first time ever I noticed that Jock isnít wearing shoes. Grain is compressed well, but it does often spike in scenes that feature effects and/or composited elements (the lightning storm during the scene in which the Well of Souls is uncovered and the map sequences are prime examples), which is an unavoidable consequence of the techniques employed and the time.
Temple of Doom and Last Crusade are largely uniform in look. Theyíre brighter, slicker, and more colorful than Raiders, and the softness that was inherent in most anamorphic photography of the Ď70s and early Ď80s is largely gone. The change is evident right from the beginning, as the dance number that opens Temple of Doom really pops, the reds that dominate the scene bolder and richer than ever before. Compositing work had improved in the three years between movies, so the effects have a cleaner look, free of coarse, noisy grain. Blacks are resolved better, with nothing in the way of crush.
The improvements in clarity and detail once again bring to the fore things you likely never noticed before; Short Round used to look like he was just walking funny as he, Indy, and Willie get on the plane, but now you can clearly see he still has those blocks strapped to his feet. That odd inconsistency thatís always plagued one section of the scene on the rope bridge is still there, but it has been smoothed out some; itís still noticeable but itís no longer as bothersome.
Last Crusade looks slightly better than its immediate predecessor. Contrast is stronger, leading to colors that are even bolder; and because the movie wasnít shot primarily on soundstages, the image benefits from the addition of natural lighting, which adds clarity to the numerous exteriors. Blacks are solid, which works wonders for interiors, most of which are quite dark.
The transfer for Crystal Skull is the same one included on the standalone Blu-ray. I was knocked out by it four years ago, and my opinion has not changed. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski gave the movie a look that falls somewhere between Douglas Slocombeís photography for the original movies and his own work for Spielberg, which often has a darker, more metallic look. This suits the movie quite well, as in a way it bridges the gap between the seriesí influences. Colors, from the ubiquitous golds and browns right on down to the numerous greens in the jungle vegetation, look fantastic; black levels are dead on. The sense of depth in the image is astonishing, and the level of detail never wanes.
Each movie has been outfitted with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track (even Crystal Skull, with the DTS track replacing the Dolby TrueHD track from the original Blu-ray). The first three movies also get French 5.1, Portuguese 2.0 and 5.1, and Spanish 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks. Crystal Skull gets French, Portuguese, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, as well as an English Audio Descriptive track. English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, and Spanish subtitles are available for all four movies.
As with the video, Raiders was given the most extensive makeover. Ben Burttís original mix--which had been archived at Skywalker Sound and from which the mix here was directly sourced and repurposed--was opened up, taking what was originally a modest surround mix (some 70mm showings were outfitted with a surround mix, but Burtt used the rear channels sparingly, as most theaters back in the day put little effort into balancing their speakers) and transforming it into a full-blown one, extending the score to all corners, taking effects that had originally been mixed in mono and splitting them into stereo, and fattening up the low end.
Burtt even went back and added sound effects to bits he missed the first time around (although he still missed a few). Could it pass for a modern mix? No, but it does offer a more expansive, more refined aural experience than the DVD mix. The improved separation gives Burttís classic work a far better showcase; subtle differences in gunfire are more apparent, and the way the pieces of the flying wing slice through the air after it explodes are better delineated. Dialogue and music also sound much better.
Not as much work went into the mixes for Temple of Doom and Last Crusade, but they naturally didnít require massive overhauls. Temple has a wide stereo spread, and surround action is restrained but appropriate. Thereís some mild atmosphere in the rears, and effects are occasionally pumped in to help fill out the action sequences (such as that wave of water at the end of the mine chase, which comes rushing toward you and then washes over you). The lossless encode makes the nuances in the mix much easier to hear; for example, the various footfalls and the popping and squeaking of the balloons in the opening fight are much clearer.
The audio mix for Last Crusade is fuller and more open, with surround action that is better integrated and more convincing. The desert chase is a perfect showcase for the improvements. Mixing effects, dialogue thatís both shouted and spoken in more even tones, and John Williamsís driving score (I canít believe I havenít mentioned Williams by name before now), it balances them perfectly, never allowing anything to get lost. The tankís guns boom, its treads accurately squeak (a consequence of Germanyís ball-bearing shortage), the Germansí grenades whip end over end, and the rifles and pistols all have a different report. Thereís a good sense of space in both exteriors and interiors (the sonics in the various chambers of the Grail cave are expertly handled), and the low end has a very healthy presence.
As for Crystal Skull, the change in codec brings no other change; if thereís any difference between the audio here and that of the previous Blu-ray, I couldnít spot it. I donít think thereís a single moment in which the entire soundstage isnít engaged in one form or another; when theyíre not putting you directly in the middle of the action, the surrounds are either imparting a flawless sense of acoustics or channeling the score. The low end pushes to an insane degree. The action sequences still make for excellent demo material.
The extras here are comprised of both new material and features that were originally included on the various DVD sets and Crystal Skull DVD/Blu-ray. Not everything from the previous releases has been ported over, though, so obsessives and completists will want to hang on to the old stuff.
The only extras on the four discs that house the movies are teaser and theatrical trailers, all of which are presented in high-def.
Disc Five of this five-disc set contains all of the following features (which unless indicated otherwise are presented in standard definition):
On Set with Raiders of the Lost Ark (57 minutes, HD) is a new compilation of behind-the-scenes footage from the Raiders shoot. You get cast/crew interviews, some deleted scenes, alternate takes, and fly-on-the-wall production stuff. Want to see some of the original version of the Cairo swordsman scene? Itís here. Want to see Indy lashed to the periscope of the German sub? Itís here. Want to see a disconcerting shot of one of the Hovitos wearing Wayfarers between takes? Itís here. And as the piece concludes, it even throws in some deleted stuff from the other movies.
The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark-1981 (58 minutes), which wasnít included on any of the DVD sets but was included as a bonus tape in an old VHS set, is a vintage television special (which I can remember watching way back when).
The next three pieces are a repurposing of the long documentary from the 2003 DVD set:
The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark (51 minutes) is a retrospective making-of piece.
The Making of Temple of Doom (41 minutes) is another retrospective making-of piece.
The Making of Last Crusade (35 minutes) is (you guessed it) yet another retrospective making-of piece.
The Making of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (29 minutes, HD) originally appeared on the Crystal Skull DVD/ Blu-ray, where it was part of a longer making-of doc.
The next four features were also originally included on the 2003 DVD set:
The Stunts of Indiana Jones (11 minutes) looks at the stuntwork from the first three movies.
The Sound of Indiana Jones (13 minutes) focuses on Ben Burttís famous sound design for the original trilogy.
The Music of Indiana Jones (12 minutes) looks at the creation of John Williamsís iconic music and its key role in the moviesí success.
The Light and Magic of Indiana Jones (12 minutes) focuses on visual effects.
The next five features were originally created for 2007ís Adventure Collection DVD set:
Raiders: The Melting Face! (8 minutes) explores how Toht met his signature demise in Raiders. Some members of ILMís modern make-up/prosthetic workshop attempt to recreate the effect using the same techniques as the original artists.
Indiana Jones and the Creepy Crawlies (12 minutes) runs through the various animals that have played a role in the series. An optional pop-up track provides more info on the various creatures.
Travel with Indiana Jones: Locations (10 minutes) spotlights some of the seriesí most memorable shooting spots. An optional pop-up track provides trivia on the various locations.
Indyís Women: The American Film Institute Tribute (9 minutes) is footage from an AFI event that coincided with the release of the 2003 DVD set. Karen Allen, Kate Capshaw, and Alison Doody participate in a panel discussion, giving their thoughts on their respective roles.
Indyís Friends and Enemies (10 minutes) highlights some of the more famous supporting characters.
These final three features have been ported over from the Crystal Skull discs, and they focus on that movieís production:
Iconic Props (10 minutes, HD) looks at some of the more famous props from the franchise that made a return for Crystal Skull; some of the new vehicles, costuming accessories, and weapons introduced in the movie are also covered.
The Effects of Indy (23 minutes, HD) covers the CG work ILM performed for the movie.
Adventures in Post Production (13 minutes, HD) details the editing process, some late-inning visual effects work, sound design, and scoring.
What else is there to say? This is a genuinely fantastic set, a one-of-a-kind collection of movie history, and worth every penny.