There's a wild disjoint in the bundle of behind-the-scenes special features packaged with this new Indiana Jones hi-def box. In the new two-part doc, "On Set with Raiders of the Lost Ark," we see as-yet hidden archival footage of a young Steven Spielberg, scrawny and bearded and decked out in a Star Wars ball cap, bragging about shooting the continent-spanning Raiders of the Lost Ark in just over 70 days. It's an image of the director at the peak of his talents, equal parts agreeably dorky and (somewhat justifiably) cocksure. As usual, Spielberg talks about how much he loves telling stories. Like he's playing the role of Old Hollywood showman, he calls movies "pictures," a hint at the gleeful nostalgia that defined the tone of the early Indiana Jones outings.
Then, decades later, Spielberg speaks to the dubious origins of the series's ultra-superfluous fourth go-around, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. He invokes "fans" and "demand" and how he thought he'd closed the book on Indiana Jones with The Last Crusade's classicist ride-off-into-the-sunset finish. Then we see him toasting the production with champagne, a lifetime away from the pigeon-chested geek boasting about his own directorial thriftiness. It's kind of depressing, and works to color appreciation of the first three films in hindsight, garishly conveying that for all his talk of "stories" and "pictures," Spielberg's always been a supply-and-demand carnival barker, a shameless popcorn salesman.
Anyway, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull gets a bad rap. The Indiana Jones movies have always suffered from the law of diminishing returns. The obvious highlight is Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film as perfectly paced and briskly entertaining as anything in Spielberg's filmography, and the most productive point of intersect between his and George Lucas's shared interest in reflecting on and repurposing the swashbuckling, cliffhanging exploits of those Saturday-morning serials they compulsively namedrop. There's also the cheesy-radical pleasure of watching a Jewish-American filmmaker, who would go on to win his Academy Award for an Oscar Schindler biopic, cracking howling Abrahamic seraphim out of the Ark of the Covenant to melt the faces off sniveling Nazi scientists in the film's climax. From the runaway boulder to the bubbling-flesh finale, Raiders of the Lost Ark cracks like a whip, an essential piece of American entertainment. (It's also the only film in the series to stand outside the typically Spielbergian redemptive-father thematic, unless the deadbeat dad here is meant to be Jehovah himself.)
As a follow-up, Temple of Doom is more intriguing than essential. It's the most truly indebted to that episodic, chapter-play format, unable (or disinterested) in sustaining a steady tone, or even a locale, as Indy and company get knocked around between 1930s Shanghai, the Himalayas, and a subterranean Indian mine staffed by kidnapped child laborers. Vacillating between jokey kid-friendly bits (with comic relief provided by Jonathan Ke Quan's Short Round), dreadfully Westernized stereotypes of India (a royal banquet unfolds like an episode of Fear Factor, from the creepy-crawly appetizer to dessert of chilled monkey brains), and curiously dark passages (the infamous heart-snatchings, the grisliness of which contributed to the minting of the MPAA's PG-13 rating). More than anything, Temple of Doom is a gratifyingly low-stakes Indy excursion: no Nazis to outpace, no primal religious super-weapon, no fate of the world hanging in the balance. The prequel may play as a lesser adventure, but in so doing, it rounds out the idea of Indiana Jones as an adventurer—more an all-purpose globetrotting buccaneer than a bow-tied academic who occasionally dusts off his trusty bullwhip to tan some Third Reich hide.
Though a cursory Google search reveals a thin contingent of Indy fans who consider Last Crusade the best of the proper trilogy (attributable to that alchemy of Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, and sprightly young River Phoenix, maybe?), this bald Raiders of the Lost Ark rehash scans as wholly dispensable. As much as Spielberg intended it as the capper to his high-adventure trilogy, Last Crusade just as tellingly foretells the eventuality of an undercooked cash-grab like Kingdom of Crystal Skull some 19 years later. Half of the first act is origin story, with Phoenix's young Indiana Jones plunging into a phobia-instilling snake pit, bungling his first whip snap, developing a distrust of authority, and minting his "It belongs in a museum!" catchphrase all in one overlong locomotive getaway. Better when, as in Temple of Doom, the character's storied past feats of derring-do and archeological repute were hinted at, rather than so explicitly stage-managed. Last Crusade coasts by on such in-jokiness, signs of a franchise already replying to its embedded fanbase. There's some decent chemistry between Ford and Connery, playing the fuddy-duddy Henry Jones Sr., yet even the presence of the elder genre icon feels like its spiking the film more than adding to it. Last Crusade, for all its layered New Testament sorcery, feels most of all as if it's simply about Ford and Connery starring in a film together.
Maybe the less said about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the better. Though there's something fascinating about how completely the film fails. From its employment of caricatured communists (lead by a starchy Cate Blanchett) as period villains, to its magical-alien plotline, its wholly cartoony evocation of Eisenhower-era America, the notorious fridge-bombing, and the curious casting of Shia LaBeouf as—spoiler alert!—the bastard baby of Jones and Karen Allen's Marion, with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull it seems like Spielberg (and Lucas, and screenwriter David Koepp) are actively making every ridiculous choice, even beyond their decision to revive the dusty franchise. The film suffers under the weight of fan-service: meeting the request of a message-board trolling audience who could seemingly never be satisfied with a final product, even if it approached anything like satisfaction.
Indy's "complete adventures" may well prove scattershot, and plain stupid, in places. Still, the series feels, if nothing else, wholly instructive. Even more so than the action-figure delivery system that was Lucas's Star Wars sextilogy, the progression from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull broadly articulates the arc of American blockbusting, from clever economy to cynical bloat. As the fella would say, it belongs in a museum—glittering trans-dimensional E.T. noggin and all.
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A terrific transfer, especially for the first three films. (The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull disc seems to be the same one previously available on its own.) Beyond their genre-revivalist mish-mashing, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were always at the forefront of film technology, so it's little surprise that the luster of the films retained in the move to 1080p. Raiders of the Lost Ark shows its age a bit, but of course it adds to the charm, especially considering Spielberg's run-and-gun production schedule. The new audio mixes are similarly great, even if it's disappointing if none of the films made the leap to 7.1, to really bring out that tone-setting THX intro bumper. Last Crusade may the best looking (and sounding) of the bunch, digitally reconditioned to seem as brand new as the series's latest entry. If only Harrison Ford's craggly visage had weathered the gap so well.
The box's fifth disc is loaded with special features, while each individual title retains hi-def remasters of theatrical and teaser trailers. Most of this stuff is familiar to any fan of the series who owns previous home-video releases: standard making-of EPK features, and extensive behind-the-scenes looks at the production and post-production process of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (who cares?). The real cherry here is the abovementioned feature-length, fly-on-the-wall "On Set with Raiders of the Lost Ark" doc. As a portrait of Spielberg, Lucas, Ford, et al., looking much younger and livelier, it captures something of the excitement of the first film's production, before all the franchise's principals seemed like they were going through the paces.
A necessary package for any fan of the franchise, at least until the folks at Lucasfilm dust off another forgotten making-of feature or, God forbid, green light another Indiana Jones adventure.