It was in the late 70's that George Lucas offered Steven Spielberg the idea of doing a film based upon old Saturday matinee serials. Watching it again on DVD, one is struck once again by the power of practical effects. While we currently live in an age where computer effects allow filmmakers to show us just about anything, there's something about a reliance upon practical effects that seems to inspire the best. Their near-cheesiness at times is also charming (see also: Sam Raimi's "Army of Darkness"). Watching it, one also wonders when Harrison Ford lost his sense of humor.
As if anyone wasn't already familiar, Ford stars as Indiana Jones, professor of archaeology by day and archaeologist pretty much every other moment of the day, searching across the globe for precious artifacts. The first scene is one of the most famous in action movie history, as, when trying to retrieve one particular artifact, Dr. Jones is met with a two-ton boulder rolling down to greet him.
After a short rest where we see Indy in his day job, we find out the quest: the Nazis are after the Ark of the Covenant, which would give its holder the ultimate power. Indy manages to find a piece that will lead him towards it in the hands of ex-girlfriend Marion (Karen Allen), but unfortunately, rival Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman) is also on their tail.
"Raiders" - along with the other "Jones" pictures - is a great deal of fun, not only because of the classic staging of some of the scenes and the humor, but because everyone involved seems to be having a great time, which rubs off on the audience. As for the humor, there's many classic moments, such as when Indy and his sidekick (John Rhys-Davies) peer into a tomb, only to find snakes. "Asps. Very dangerous." says Sallah (Davies) to Indy, whose only weakness and most popular hatred seems to be snakes. Sallah then turns to his friend and dryly states, "You go first." Ford's deadpan sense of humor, never stronger than in this series (and it really hasn't returned much since) is certainly one of the best elements of the three films. I can't imagine the original choice for the series - Tom Selleck - being the same sort of success in the role as Ford.
Perfectly paced and backed by a classic John Williams score, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" still stands up surprisingly well years later. Ford is still perfect and the movie's mix of humor, action and globe-hopping excitement is easy to get swept up in.
"It belongs in a museum!"
"So do you!"
The third film in the "Indiana Jones" trilogy is a lighter, more action-packed affair, done after the reception to the darker "Temple of Doom" was met with criticism. Even after "Temple of Doom", though, audiences still wanted to see another adventure with the beloved character. While the idea to swing the franchise back towards the tone of the first picture was a fine idea, nothing in the series has been quite as inspired as the idea of pairing Indy with his father, played wonderfully by none other than Sean Connery.
The third film does not have quite the opening of the prior two, but it still fits quite perfectly with the tone and themes of the tale. We follow young Indy as he barely manages to retrieve a stolen relic. Flash forward and we see Jones in 1940, still trying to protect said relic from the same criminals. Indy finds himself on the search for the Holy Grail, a journey that his father - now missing - has already been on for years.
The elder Jones (Connery) has been adultnapped by the Nazis, who are convinced that he knows where the Grail is hidden. He sends Indy, Jr. his notebook, which provides clues that lead him and Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody, who must have gotten made fun of on the playground as a kid) into passages beneath Venice. Eventually, the two find themselves in a castle in Austria, where the elder Jones is being held.
It's at that point that this film really gets into high gear and, at points, really nearly matches the level of "Raiders". Connery and Ford are brilliant playing off one another, with Connery's stubborn father bringing out the best in Ford's bewildered, dry humor. While the prior films have involved Jones against a large amount of enemies, "Last Crusade" has, as one character says, "Germany declaring war against the Jones boys."
The film's action sequences are some of the best in the trilogy, especially a dogfight in the air that turns into a plane-vs.-car battle. There's also a superbly staged tank chase latter in the picture. The screenplay, by Phillip Kaufman, George Lucas and Jeffrey Boam, may not have come up with a terribly original screenplay (it feels like "Raiders" at times, only with different elements), but there's certainly some classic lines of dialogue, such as the elder Jones's "I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers", when he finds that junior has brought along his diary to his escape attempt - the same diary that includes the map to the Grail.
This third film would be a perfectly satisfying way to end the story of Dr. Jones. A perfect combination of witty humor, adventure and action, "The Last Crusade" still stands up quite well.
Nearly 20 years after the release of the prior "Indiana Jones" picture comes "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull". While one may question whether or not audiences are still interested the character, my response would be an absolute yes. While "Crystal Skull" doesn't replicate the success of the earlier films for a few reasons, it does at least give audiences a taste of the kind of magic and old-fashioned storytelling/adventure that seems to be in short supply these days.
The film opens with Jones in the American Southwest in the 1950's, Indy (Ford) and Mac (Ray Winstone) held captive by a group of Russians, lead by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, who looks like she's having fun hamming it up as a villain.) Jones is lead into a secret warehouse that holds many of the secrets of the US Government, and Spalko wants Indy to find an artifact for her, which leads to a nifty action sequence and an insane escape by Indy from something other than Spalko and her squad.
While Indy manages to make it back to the classroom, it's not long before he's launched into another adventure with new sidekick Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), searching for both the lost Professor Oxley (John Hurt) and a crystal skull that can provide superhuman, mind control powers to those who hold it. It's not exactly surprising that Mutt turns out to have a connection to Indiana Jones, but I suppose it is a little surprising that Indy crosses paths with a figure from his past - Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen).
The remainder of the picture is essentially a lengthy chase/adventure as both sides try to get their hands on the skull and search for a lost Amazonian city called Acator that's related to the crystal skull. The script could have used a little work - the movie's a little too goofy at times (although a few references to the earlier films are handled well, get a laugh and don't go too overboard) and the plot could have used a little more streamlining.
However, the film's action sequences are some of the more thrilling in a recent blockbuster, and while that's partially due to wanting to root for Ford's character, sequences such as a lengthy jungle chase are marvelously constructed (well, aside from a laughable moment where LaBeouf swings through the jungle on vines.) The ending isn't the epic finale (or, better yet, even memorable) finale that I would have hoped the rest of the movie was leading up to, largely just a major special effects sequence that lacks much impact. It's not a complete loss, but I suppose I was hoping for the finale to be something bigger, grander and more substantial instead of an ILM demo. And again, for the movie to offer the potential idea in the final moments that LaBeouf's character would take on a larger role in future films... one can only hope that that doesn't eventually come true.
As for Ford, despite the actor's advancing age, he still manages to take on the iconic role superbly, handling the action sequences well and getting into the character's shoes like he'd never left. As for LaBeouf, I've never liked the actor, but will admit that he does a decent job in the sidekick role and plays off of Ford better than I'd expected he would. Blanchett is fun as the villain and Allen and Ford are great back together once again.
Overall, "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" may not boast the kind of magic that the originals did, but it does at least does offer a couple of hours of reasonably good fun and a glimpse of that old-fashioned charm and adventure.
P.S.: If this is the "Complete Adventures", are no more films in the series going to be made, or is it the "Complete Adventures"...so far?
VIDEO: Image quality seems a tiny bit more defined on this Blu-Ray for "Crystal Skull" versus the prior release, but the presentations otherwise look awfully similar. Where the improvements were really seen were on the original films, which look - for the most part - noticeably crisper and more detailed. While age and a touch of softness and wear is still seen on occasion, the films do look freshened up and more vivid.
SOUND: All films are presented in DTS-HD 5.1. Audio quality sounded similarly terrific on "Crystal Skull", but again, where the most improvements were heard were on the original films. The re-done 5.1 mixes for the original trilogy are engaging and highly entertaining, and sound bolder and more detailed on this DTS-HD 5.1 presentation.
The core of the set is a series of "making of documentaries, including the long doc that appeared with a prior "Trilogy" set - the docs are a pretty remarkable mixture of fun new interviews and surprising "that had to be sitting in someone's closet kind-of-thing" behind-the-scenes footage of the actors and crew having fun on set (Spielberg chatting up an uncooperative snake, who appears confused about what the bearded man is saying to it) and trying to work out the scenes. Beyond that, there's some terrific additional footage that I wouldn't expect to see or have available, such as screen tests with some of the other choices for Indy (Tom Selleck, for example). While the participants are complimentary of those who didn't make it, the screen tests give one the idea that this wouldn't have gone on to three films or even two. The footage is in surprisingly good condition.
Ford, Spielberg, Lucas, Rhys-Davies, Karen Allen, Kate Capshaw, Connery, editor Michael Kahn, producer Frank Marshall, writer Laurence Kasdan and many others do participate in the newly recorded interviews. The interviews aren't the usual discussion of how wonderful the films turned out or how great it was to work with everyone; they're an insightful batch of fun stories (we learn more about the sickness the spread throughout much of the crew aside from Spielberg, who didn't sample the local cuisine; Spielberg chats about "renting" the submarine from the "Das Boot" production) and insightful casting, story and technical discussion.
There's also plenty of chat about the sequels, as Spielberg, Lucas and others chat about how "Doom" found itself turning towards darker waters, shooting in Venice and working with Connery for "Last Crusade". Although it doesn't completely satisfy as a replacement for commentaries, it's still a very well-done documentary that is good enough that it should hold solid replay value for fans.
We also get a shorter doc focused on "Crystal Skull" that runs around 30 minutes and a new, previously-unseen documentary focusing on "Raiders" and an original "Raiders" "making of" documentary.
Stunts of Indiana Jones: This 11-minute featurette has Ford, Spielberg, stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong and others discussing the stunts and how they were planned and rehearsed.
Sound of Indiana Jones: Spielberg and ace sound designer Ben Burtt discuss the different challenges of recording sound effects and creating a sound universe for the "Indiana Jones" films. Famed sound designer Gary Rydstrom ("T2", "Saving Private Ryan", "Finding Nemo")'s first credit happens to be "Temple of Doom" (as a sound technician, according to the Internet Movie Database), although he's not interviewed here.
Light and Magic of Indiana Jones: This 12-minute feature offers a look at the contributions of effects company Industrial Light and Magic to the "Indiana Jones" trilogy.
Music of Indiana Jones: This 12-minute piece looks at the work of composer John Williams, who discusses his work on the "Indiana Jones" trilogy and what it's like to work with both Lucas and Spielberg.
With "Raiders", we get: "Indy's Women", with Kate Capshaw, Karen Allen and Allison Doody discussing their thoughts about how they first found out about their roles and memories from working on the film. There's some fun stories here, but it's the kind of documentary that many will only need to watch once. "Indy's Friends and Enemies" is a chat with Spielberg, the screenwriters and others about Indy's women and enemies.
With "Raiders", we get another good introduction, but it's followed by "Raiders of the Lost Ark: An Appreciation", which isn't quite as good - it's largely those involved (including Spielberg, Ford and Lucas) discussing how great the film and series was. "The Melting Face" is a look at the famed effects sequence.
"Temple of Doom" opens up with another introduction that discusses Spielberg's reluctance to do a darker film and how Lucas saw the arc of the trilogy. We also get "The Creepy Crawlies" and "Locations", which take a look at the snakes, insects and other spooky animals on-set. Locations takes a look at some of the locations from the various films.
Finally, from "Crystal Skulls", we get - While the post-production phase isn't covered in the lengthy documentary, we do get "Adventures in Post-Production", a documentary that follows the crew into the editing room, where the film was not edited digitally. We also hear a good deal from sound designer Ben Burtt, who talks about having a library of sounds from the first three movies. We also hear some insights on elements that went into creating some of the bigger effects (such as one element taken from a malfunctioning lamp post) heard in the movie. Finally, composer John Williams discusses his work on the film's score.
"The Effects of Indy" is a detailed look into how some of the film's effects sequences were accomplished. Overall, this is an interesting and informative piece that takes viewers through each of the layers that went into the effects sequence. We also find out more about the miniature work that was done for these scenes, which is quite impressive. "Iconic Props" takes a closer work at the film's props - many of which have become legendary - and the task of the property master.
Overall, the majority of the extras have been seen previously, but are still quite enjoyable and informative.
Final Thoughts: Paramount bundles together all four "Indy" films in this very nice new Blu-Ray set. All four films are presented with terrific audio/video and a nice round of extras. Recommended.