[20 September 2012]
It seems that in the early ‘70s, George Lucas was on something of a creative roll. He was hard at work on a trilogy of movies involving cowboys and princesses in outer space, when he also had the great idea to develop a series based on the adventure serials he had loved so much as a child. When he had to stop working on The Adventures of Indiana Smith, in order to concentrate on his little project called Star Wars, it seems that the movie gods were smiling on him in endless ways. Not only did the space fantasy turn out to be one of the most popular movies ever made, but the time he let the other story rest allowed for one key contributor to make his way into the project.
By the end of the decade Steven Spielberg also had delivered one of the highest grossing movies in history (you know, the one with the shark) and when approached by Lucas to work on the stalled series, he made his first great contribution by suggesting they changed the character’s last name from Smith to Jones. Then and there, adventurer/professor/charmer/ophidiophobe Indiana Jones was born. In four different movies spanning almost three decades, the character became one of the most iconic cinematic creations of all time. That’s testament not only to its creators (among which should also be counted prominent screenwriters like Lawrence Kasdan, David Koepp and Tom Stoppard), but also to the man who plays him: Harrison Ford. Like a rugged version of James Bond (if he preferred whips to revolvers) Professor Jones is appealing to men and women of all ages, epitomizing a fantasy that combines adventure with academia.
The four movies starring Indiana Jones might be very well be some of Spielberg’s greatest achievements as a director. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the greatest movies made by the Hollywood machine because it expertly crafts supreme entertainment that feels relevant because of the emotions it stirs. Like the grand spectacles of the Golden Era, Raiders of the Lost Ark managed to be transcendent because it transported audience members to different places and allowed them to dream of doing things beyond the limits of traditional existence. The teenagers who saw the first movie, probably watched Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull 27 years later and felt the same elation as they did the first time they saw Ford’s crooked smirk and cracking whip.
While the quality of the movies consistently diminished after the flawlessness of the first installment, there is something undeniably charming about Sean Connery’s turn as Jones’ father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or Cate Blanchett’s sadistic turn as a Russian agent in Crystal Skull. Movie after movie, Spielberg made sure there was enough appeal to make the series as a whole seem more effective than the sum of its parts. Nothing still justifies the bitterness and racist undertones of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, although a little research reveals it reflected a very dark moment in both Lucas’ and Spielberg’s lives. (Blockbusters with soul!)
Beyond their success as populist movies and superb popcorn entertainment, the Indiana Jones films also have the distinctive—sometimes dubious—honor of having helped shape the concept of “summer blockbuster” (the second one even helping create the PG-13 rating giving teenage boys the kind of power they still have when it comes to deciding who to make movies for). The legendary Pauline Kael even went as far as saying the movies reeked of having been manufactured by a marketing department. Was she far from the truth, though? And if so, does it matter when movies stray from the path of sublime artistry and settle on being likable? Is this even “settling” in broad terms? These are all very fascinating concepts you will most likely ponder on while you change discs to watch the next addictive Indiana Jones adventure.
This is the first time all Indiana Jones movies are available on Blu-ray together (only Crystal Skull had been released in the HD format) and Paramount Home Media has done an extraordinary job in updating them. All movies have been remastered, with Raiders of the Lost Ark apparently having been restored to the way it looked when it debuted. The films look absolutely stunning and it’s even more refreshing to see that little or no digital altering has been done (good work, George Lucas!) which means the film’s rudimentary special effects look even more wondrous. The films look beautiful in 1080, something that wasn’t as obvious in VHS or DVD. Attention must be paid for example to Douglas Slocombe’s fluent cinematography in the first installment, and then to the way in which Janusz Kaminski emulated his style for the digital era in Crystal Skull. Spielberg may not always be the best director, but he is certainly a perfectionist
All movies are presented with a myriad of audio and subtitles options and each disc includes their respective theatrical and teaser trailers. The fifth disc contains most of the bonus supplements including the brand new documentary On Set with “Raiders of the Lost Ark”l, a delightful piece featuring never-before-seen archival footage and interviews with the cast and crew. Also included are individual making-of documentaries for each of the films, where again best is saved for Raiders of the Lost Ark and so-so for Crystal Skull (although it’s a real pleasure to see how Ford grew more fond of the character with each installment).
The immersive fifth disc also includes featurettes about the stunts, John Williams’ iconic score, trivia about the locations, an FX piece, rundown of the most prominent characters and newer takes on how the effects and post-production of Crystal Skull were made. The set is overall wonderful (even the menus are fun to look at) but there is one major problem with the overall feel of the boxset and it’s the packaging. Even if they save shelf space and look kind of attractive, studios should become more aware that cardboard slips can only damage the discs. Getting the discs in and out of the very tight slips is as suspense-inducing as any of the series’ best sequences (will I break my disc or will I destroy it by leaving sweaty prints all over its delicate surface?). Other than this, the set is as amazing as the movies it contains, a treasure chest of wonders in its own right.