Nostalgia can be a good and a bad thing. “Good” in that one can feel transported back to simpler, happier times, and “bad” in the sense that the sense of fondness can cloud one’s perception of a current experience. Nineteen years ago, Indiana Jones rode off into the sunset at the conclusion of Last Crusade. At the time that meant the series’ conclusion. But this year, after two decades of delays, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull hit theaters with massive hype and, arguably, skeptical expectations. On Oct. 14 the movie releases on Blu-ray Disc (and DVD) with just as much hype, but unlike the film itself, which in this reviewer’s opinion failed to meet expectations, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on Blu-ray delivers the goods.
Crystal Skull takes place in 1957, with Jones, now 65 years old, traveling with a rebellious young sidekick named “Mutt” Williams (Shia LaBeouf) on a quest to obtain the mythical Crystal Skull of Akator. Rather than fight off Nazis this time, Indy and his sidekick fend off Russians led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), who are after the Crystal Skull to unleash a mystical power that’s unknown to all. Indiana Jones films traditionally have pretty thin stories, and Crystal Skull is no different. The crystal skull is one of several in existence, all of which are actual alien skulls. Indy and Mutt discover this alongside the Russians, who also discover with our stalwart archaeologist that the “unknown power” is the ability to travel via UFO to another dimension. While gaining this knowledge, Jones is reunited with Marian (Karen Allen, who last appeared in Raiders of the Lost Ark), who informs Indy that Mutt is (you guessed it) Indy’s son. Like I said, it’s not exactly high-brown narrative, but it’s entertaining and gets the job done.
The AVC-encoded 1080p video in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull by and large looks great, although there’s a subtle amount of grain throughout. Normally in Blu-ray movies, grain like this is either a sign of a poor transfer or an old film. In the case of Indiana Jones 4, it’s actually the result of something unique to this film: it was actually filmed rather than shot digitally, as George Lucas would normally require. Although Indy 4 was created many years after The Last Crusade, Spielberg and Co. wanted Indy 4 to “feel” like the preceding films, so they used celluloid film rather than digital cameras. This results in a slightly softer feel to the entire movie, even on Blu-ray, though the print itself has no errors. The only thing odd about the Blu-ray transfer is that the foreground lighting seems unnecessarily bright. In addition, while the colors are well-saturated and vibrant in the jungle sequences, the film in most other locations has a decided lack of contrast and looks washed out — and no, not just because of its desert color palette. However, the bitrate is nothing short of amazing, with even the most action-packed sequences never dropping lower than 31 Mbps. Ironically, the famous globetrotting-plane scenes drop into the mid-20s in terms of bitrate, but the scenes that count — those filled with meaningful action — are rock solid. The audio track is also fantastic, with the surrounds providing great scene context and ensuring that dialogue is never overwhelmed by special effect audio.
Unlike The Nightmare Before Christmas’ two-disc edition, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull uses both of its discs for something meaningful, not just a simple digital copy. In fact, Paramount has packed both Blu-ray discs full of content, a move that’s impressive but not entirely surprising considering the movie’s hype and cachet. The first disc is comprised primarily of the feature film itself, plus three additional bonus features. Indiana Jones Timelines is the highest-profile of the three Disc One features. Although it doesn’t have a set time, this feature includes three interactive timelines that take about 10-15 minutes to read/view manually: plot points, production milestones and important historical moments during the years in which the film is set. The appoints along these horizontal timelines are heavy on text, but many of them are complemented by 15-second video snippets related to the milestone at hand (for instance, Shia LeBeouf’s sword-training sequence). The timeline information is also intertwined with the other timelines as appropriate, such as historical information about a crystal skull found in Belize, which is tied to the story timeline for Mutt and Indy locating the skull as well as the production timeline of the art department preparing the crystal skulls for camera tests.
The Return of a Legend (17:34) is an interesting hybrid of behind-the-scenes feature and an ode to the relationship between George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Interestingly enough, much of this feature is driven by interviews with Spielberg himself, and it’s clear that Spielberg had serious reservations about doing a movie that mixed Indiana Jones and aliens. The additional interviews — with all primary cast members and key crew — also explore production obstacles, but it’s Spielberg’s skepticism that really steals the show. The feature never really does show or tell what inspired Spielberg to think the plot was finally good enough to put his name on it, and depending on your impression of the movie, you may actually find yourself wondering if it ended up being the paycheck alone that urged him back behind Indy’s camera. Oddly enough, though, one of the most compelling reasons Blu-ray owners will want to watch this feature is because it includes footage from the original Indiana Jones trilogy — yes, in 1080p — essentially confirming that the trilogy is well underway in the transfer department and preparing for release on Blu-ray in what seems to be the not-too-distant future.
Pre-production (11:44) follows just about everything that went into the film before principal production and photography ever began. Watching Spielberg conceive and provide feedback on the pre-vis animatics is quite compelling, as is hearing about all the work that went into creating a costume for Indy that’s both immediately familiar yet has nuanced differences as well. Two Theatrical Trailers round out the Disc-One bonus features.
Disc Two, which, like the first disc, includes all its bonus features in HD, kicks things off with a bang. Production Diary: Making Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (1:20:52) is an impressive feature-length “featurette” of seven mini-features that span the beginning of photography in New Mexico and working on Yale’s campus to filming in the Hawaiian jungles and creating the lost city of Akator. Rather than focus on CG elements, which are covered in a later feature, this is a true making-of feature that covers everything about making the film, from casting and set construction to cinematography and stunts. Although the majority of the content is behind-the-scenes footage and after-the-fact interviews, there’s also a generous mix of HD-cam footage shot by various crew members, which — though not frequent — gives a certain aura of authenticity that many making-of features don’t have.
Warrior Makeup (5:34) is just what it sounds like: a feature about the makeup for the film’s two indigenous tribes near Akator. The warriors are a minor supportive group, so it’s either insane or impressive (not sure which) to hear that the actors not only shaved their entire bodies before getting prosthetic beads attached to their torsos, but had 26 artists poke and prod them for hours, only to wrap-up their day by being covered in colored clay.
The Crystal Skulls (10:10) makes extensive references to the real historical crystal skulls and the lore surrounding them. This context is interesting, but in terms of the value to this feature, it sets the stage for the challenges the art department faced while creating skulls that needed to look both otherworldly and ancient. Stan Winston Studios was called in for the task, and interviews with Winston’s studio lead account for most of the audio in this feature. If you’ve ever wanted to see what 3D modeling software like Maya looks like, watch this feature; the actual 3D models are manipulated on-screen in real time in a few scenes to illustrate the process they went through with Spielberg while coming up with the final skull design.
Iconic Props (9:59) feels almost like an extension of the Crystal Skulls feature, but expanded beyond the skulls alone to all the props in the film. Whether discussing Mutt’s sword, the letter sent to Marian or simply a decorative box, this feature outlines the importance of making props not only functional but memorable, almost as if they’re characters themselves. Essentially, this feature is art guy porn, but it’s surprisingly entertaining.
The Effects of Indy (22:42) opens with a brief interview with the series’ model maker, who seems to lament the fact that he’s been involved in the entire series but was only asked to make a single model for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. If you start to feel sorry for the guy, rest assured that those feelings go away almost immediately as you get into the interviews with ILM’s visual effects teams and see how they created the film’s most memorable sequences. ILM did do some miniature work (the temple and the bombed-out city), but by and large this feature focuses on the CG elements, and rightfully so. That doesn’t mean it’s not cool to see the detailed miniatures, but viewing the original plate alongside the finished piece that includes CG is just, well, cooler.
Adventures in Post Production (12:44) reveals that the movie was neither filmed nor edited digitally, which was almost certainly a hard thing for George Lucas to swallow but that was required in order to keep the same feel of the original trilogy. The sound editor accounts for several minutes of interviews, which is nice to see, since 99 percent of movies seem to ignore audio completely. But, the attention is definitely warranted in this case, because the entire library of original sound effects and music had to be digitally transferred for this fourth Indiana Jones film. Creating new songs was also required, so one-third of this feature includes interviews with John Williams and outlines the creation of new themes. My theory: this feature was a carrot that the producers threw to the audio team to persuade them to actually do all the work, and the John Williams stuff was tossed in to make it appear less like that sort of a bribe piece.
Closing: Team Indy (3:41) opens as a reflective piece in which Steven Spielberg talks about the moviemaking process in general, not just the process of making an Indiana Jones film. However, after 30 seconds, the piece becomes little more than an extended credits crawl in which the primary cast and crew’s names are superimposed over video footage of those people in action. Oh, and then there’s another traditional credits crawl. Pretty boring, really.
Pre-Visualization Sequences (14:07) includes three full-length pre-visualization scenes: the escape from Area 51, the chase sequence through the jungle, and the not-long-after-that scene in which the fire ants attack the Russians.
The last feature is the requisite Galleries, which includes stills from the Art Department and Stan Winston Studio, as well as Production Photographs, Behind-the-Scenes Photos and Portraits.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is by far the weakest of the four Indiana Jones films, although its character development is arguably a bit stronger than the previous outings. But even a weak film can be bolstered on Blu-ray by a solid A/V presentation and cadre of bonus features, and that’s precisely what Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on Blu-ray achieves. Regardless of your (and our) feelings for the film itself, this is one Blu-ray release that outshines most others with its sheer amount of meaningful bonus content, making it a must-buy for the hardcore Indiana Jones fans — even if the film itself will see very little play time.
- Score: 8.3
- This marginally entertaining movie benefits from nostalgia and a plethora of Blu-ray bonus features and decent A/V, even if the lighting and grain do seem odd at times.
— Jonas Allen