Quick Take: Returning to Akator on Blu-ray elicits mixed emotions.
Picking up nearly two decades after the last big-screen adventure for Archeologist and “part-time” teacher Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr. (Harrison Ford), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull finds the now-65-year old Jones globetrotting with a young, rebellious sidekick named “Mutt” Williams (Shia LaBeouf) on a quest to obtain the mythical Crystal Skull of Akator. According to legend, the Skull is an object that will grant its power to whoever returns it to its rightful place. Naturally, such an item has also piqued the interest of others, including Indy’s shady partner, Mack (Ray Winstone) as well as KGB special agent Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), who is out to nab the Skull for the benefit of Communist Russia.
Crystal Skull arrived in cinemas last spring riding a wave of fanboy anticipation, studio-fueled hype and a gaggle of concerns from long-time fans: Could Ford still cut it as an action hero? Would franchise director Steven Spielberg, who has moved on to more serious fare such as Munich and Schindler’s List still be able to make a lightweight popcorn flick? Would Skull be as good if not better as 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and if not, would our nostalgia for the character and the series cloud our judgment on this installment?
The answer to the above is -to an extent- yes, with the answer to the final question being a sheepish kind of. Many hold 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and 1989’s Last Crusade in rather high regard, but I found them to be merely…okay (I’m one of the few who like the second one more than the third). Sure, the stunts were great and the combination of Ford’s (and in Crusade, Sean Connery) presence and Spielberg’s directing nicely elevated each film above their thin plots and even thinner supporting characters.
For better or worse and depending on your thoughts on the sequels, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull winds up being more of the same. With the exception of Indy, the supporting characters are still pretty thin despite the efforts of a solid supporting cast that includes Karen Allen returning as Indy’s old flame, Marion Ravenwood and John Hurt as an old academic associate of Indy’s. Even worse, David Koepp’s screenplay, from a story by George Lucas, has plot holes big enough to fit the Ark of the Covenant through and some truly cringe-inducing sequences. I can live with the Tarzan homage, but seriously guys, after two decades of story development… that ending… Really?
Fortunately, the contributions of Ford and Spielberg once again save the movie from falling apart. While the work of both is hardly groundbreaking, both do what they can with the material they are given. Spielberg still shows that he has what it takes to make a fun popcorn movie, handling the set pieces, stunts and pacing well enough to keep the story zipping over Lucas’ and Koepp’s eye-rolling whoppers like a lead-lined refrigerator bomb shelter, vine-swinging greasers, computer generated gophers and… that ending.
As for Ford, he nicely handles Indy’s advancing years without turning the issue of age into a parody or embarrassment. He shows that while Indy is older and not necessarily wiser, he still possesses that adventurous spark and is more than up for jumping around between cars, motorcycles and trucks or beating up on baddies half his age.
I wasn’t expecting much out of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when I sat last May and given my low expectation levels, I was okay with what I saw. It is hardly high art, but not as horrifying as the Internet “bitch-a-lots” made it out to be. Watching the film at home, I thought it might like it less but found my opinion to be pretty much the same: flawed, but harmless. Rumor has it that there is a fifth adventure in the works, but I really hope that this remains a rumor. If it does get made, I suggest they use the following title: Indiana Jones and the Filmmakers Who Should Have Quit While They Were Ahead.
Whatever reservations one may have about the actual film, I seriously doubt anyone will complain about the audio and video quality of Paramount Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray release. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode in its 2.4:1 theatrical ratio is a beauty, featuring sharp picture detail, strong black and contrast levels, a varied but well-maintained color palette and zero edge enhancement, compression artifacts or video noise. Although it was shot on film (Spielberg refused to shoot digitally), there is little to no film grain present. However, I don’t believe DNR was applied to the transfer.
The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio track is also a winner. Then again, would you expect anything else from Lucasfilm and sound editing guru Ben Burtt? I didn’t think so. The audio excels in all departments: clear center-channel dialogue, thunderous bass and effectively conveyed sound effects and music over a wide soundstage in both the front and surround channels. If you want to show off your audio system to your friends and family, pop this sucker on and let it rip.
As was the case with the recent editions of Transformers, The Godfather Trilogy and Iron Man, Paramount (and in this case, Lucasfilm) has bestowed a copious amount of bonus babies for Indy’s Blu-ray debut. The video supplements are presented in an impressive-looking 1080i AVC-MPEG 4 encode.
There is no audio commentary to be had, which isn’t surprising given the fact that Spielberg has yet to record one for any of his films but a bit surprisingly in regards to George Lucas (who has recorded many for his films). Disc one of this two-disc set does however contain some decent supplements, including an HD exclusive.
That exclusive is the Indiana Jones Timeline, a text, photo and film clip-comprised extra that is broken up into three sections: History, Production and Story. “History” covers actual real-life events in relation to the film. “Production” chronicles exactly what it promises: a timeline of the film’s long production history, while “Story” fills in background stories on the characters and items such as the Crystal Skull. While the timelines do allow the viewer in spots to select a corresponding clip from the film, they unfortunately don’t play simultaneously with the film.
Return of a Legend (17:34) covers how the film came to be and some of the obstacles the production faced in the past two decades, including a director who really wasn’t all that interested in doing another Indy flick. While it isn’t exactly a full and honest examination of the attempts to bring Indy back (example: there’s no mention of the many Lucas-rejected screenplay adaptations), it is an interesting short doc made better by Spielberg’s candid confessions.
Pre-Production (11:44) is a quick look at Spielberg and company ramping up for filming.
Rounding out disc one’s bonus material are two Theatrical Trailers, both in gorgeous 1080p video and immersive 5.1 surround sound.
Produced by supplements wizard Laurent Bozereau, the documentaries on disc two extensively cover the film’s production from first day of photography right through post-production. Given the option of being able to play as one 80-minute documentary or in six separate parts, the entertaining Production Diary: Making Kingdom of the Crystal Skull covers all aspects of the film’s production and features interviews with the cast and crew.
Shooting Begins: New Mexico covers the first day of production and shooting on location in New Mexico. Keep your eyes open for Spielberg wearing a T-shirt for his upcoming film Tintin in one shot. Back to School: New Haven CT covers filming at Yale University, while Welcome to the Jungle: Hilo, Hawaii takes us to the Hawaiian island for the shooting of the Peru jungle sequence. On-Set Action brings us back to Los Angeles for the soundstage shooting and offers a look at the film’s stunt work. Exploring Akator covers shooting the film’s conclusion and examines the origins of the made-up city, and Wrapping Up covers the film’s denouement and final day of shooting. While the doc does have the aura of your typical “everything went as smooth as glass” puff-piece, it’s well-made and quite entertaining.
The remaining featurettes further examine aspects of the production, starting with the six-minute Warrior Makeup and followed by The Crystal Skulls (10:10). The latter is a quick look at the Skulls created by Stan Winston Studios and is dedicated to Winston, who passed away at age 62 this past June. Iconic Props (10 minutes) looks at props such as Indy’s trademark bullwhip, jacket and hat as well as the many props created and used in this film, such as swords and spears. All three are brief, but well worth a look.
More comprehensive is The Effects of Indy, an interesting 23-minute look at the various visual effects used in the film, a mix of the old (models, matte paintings, etc) and new (computer generated effects). Adventures in Post Production (12:44) is a quick look at the final touches of the production, which includes both film and sound effects editing as well as scoring the film’s music. Michael Kahn, Ben Burtt and John Williams are all interviewed for this short albeit far too briefly. The video supplements close out with Closing Team Indy (3:41), a credit sequence for the cast and crew featured in the docs.
As if all the above wasn’t enough, there is a collection of Still-Frame Galleries and Pre-Visualization Sequences. There are five galleries (Art Department, Stan Winston Studios, Production Photos, Portraits and Behind-the-Scenes Photos), with two broken down into sub-categories, and the Pre-Visualization Sequences (Area 51 Chase, Jungle Chase and Ants Attack) are all set to John Williams’ score.
It is nice to see the Man in the Hat back on the big screen, but in the end I had mixed feelings about his return. Harrison Ford’s performance and Steven Spielberg’s ability to keep things moving along help overcome the film’s debits to make Indy’s first appearance in two decades an agreeable, if entirely forgettable, two hours. Paramount Home Video and Lucasfilm have delivered one terrific Blu-ray edition of the film, filled with tons of supplemental material and a knockout video and audio presentation that makes for a worthy demo material.
Order Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on Blu-ray from Amazon.com.