DVD Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2-Disc Special Edition)


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In honor of October 14's DVD & Blu-ray release, I'm offering you an insider's view of the 2-Disc Special Edition DVD that Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment was kind enough to send my way. But before we adventure into the extras, here's my original review of the theatrical film:

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Director: Steven Spielberg

“Here we are now, entertain us.”-- Nirvana

And so we return to Dr. Jones and the gang’s all here, John Williams’s score sounds better than ever, and the fedora has become as recognizable as Chaplin’s cane. Following months of advertising including near singular sponsorship of the 2008 NBA Playoffs, the question wasn’t whether or not Indiana Jones would make money or break box office records, but rather if it was worth dusting off our favorite archeologist from his nineteen year retirement of perfectly preserved and re-mastered memories on DVD and sending him on a fourth perilous search for another trove of treasure. Of course, even to co-creator George Lucas, Indiana Jones was never about the treasure itself—similar to Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, it never quite mattered what he was chasing, for the real treasure was in the quest itself as we followed archeology professor Dr. Henry Jones to the most unimaginable corners of the world in a wit and daring filled hero’s journey to outsmart the Nazis or whoever stood in his way to—much like a modern day Arthur—secure whatever grail he needed to win.

From the groundbreaking Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), to the uneven Temple of Doom (’84) and the enjoyable misnomer Last Crusade (’89), Harrison Ford’s most endearing character since Han Solo (for my money, the coolest one from the Star Wars canon) has garnered generations of fans but now at age 65, bringing him back to high flying adventure sounded like an unlikely and primarily profit driven undertaking. Like many, I feared going in that Spielberg and Lucas, who have both become unparalleled masters of the latest filmmaking technology, would forget the cheesy B movie roots or matinee spirit of the original extraordinary trilogy and in forgoing classic entertainment, offer a perfect reinvention of Jones with Iron Man styled special effects. However, my concerns were put to rest within minutes as we’re faced with the retro Paramount logo and old-fashioned credits announcing that the Indy we love is back.

Opening in 1957 Nevada, it takes less than five minutes for Dr. Jones to find himself in lethal jeopardy as he tries to outthink—not the Nazis this time but rather Communist Russians led by the wicked dominatrix Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett reveling in her Ukrainian accent and dark colored bob). Admittedly when we first catch a glimpse of the aged Ford cracking dialogue that directly references his age and ability, doubt instead of awe is the new reaction we have to this elder Indy but soon, we’re distracted by enough chaotic complications and old fashioned wonder that cynical preoccupation is abandoned and we’re well into the story.

Scripted by Spiderman and Panic Room scribe David Koepp from a story by Jeff Nathanson and George Lucas, while the psychic, paranormal phenomena and extraterrestrial excitement feel a bit out of place, again that MacGuffin couldn’t matter less as we’re more entranced by the outrageous spectacle first introduced with the arrival of the newest addition to the “good guys,” greaser Mutt Williams (a delightful Shia LeBeouf), whom we first see in perfect imitation of Marlon Brando in The Wild One straddling a killer motorcycle. Bearing information from his mother Marion (Karen Allen), who-- despite being the most memorable Indiana Jones heroine-- for reasons that are never explained (possibly old age?), Jones doesn’t quite put together with being that particular Marion, Mutt serves as Jones’s call to action, leading him on a wild goose chase to the mythic South American city of El Dorado by way of Cusco, Peru to track down the legendary crystal skulls that have fascinated the Russians (and Blanchett) as well.

Soon reacquainted with Marion Ravenwood and other colleagues including Ox (John Hurt) and Mac (Ray Winstone), Indy and Mutt’s lives are increasingly threatened as they get closer to the treasure but along the way, we have our trademark thrills—some of which play like a greatest hits mix tape of the earlier films and some that I still remain dazzled by twenty-four hours later. The ultimate features an unforgettable jeep chase with swashbuckling action in the form of a Mutt and Irina swordfight, gunfire, and more, as-- in true Indy fashion-- Spielberg keeps topping the sequence before it, stacking up danger until he knocks it all down like a wicked Jenga game.

There’s the quintessential “gross out” moment harkening back to the horrifying snake pit debacle from Raiders that indeed sent people fleeing to the restroom as the leads are attacked by, as Indy calls them “big damn ants,” which manages to overstay its disgusting welcome just seconds into the overly long sequence. And while this isn’t the only part of the film that feels like padding and there aren’t as many genuine laughs as Kasdan penned in his memorable Raiders screenplay, the action is so riveting and the affable nostalgic and high energy spirit of the series is kept remarkably intact as to rival the overly cool, and hyper real action movies of today, that I was amazed by just how big of an absence was left in action film when Indy hung up that fedora.

Although it would be woefully unwise to call him back to adventure again and Spielberg does hint that perhaps Mutt may be the next in line for the professor’s whip, it was a fond farewell to the films and a nice reward for fans who, similar to myself as someone roughly as old as the entire series, always looked forward to the next hybrid of imaginative thrills and brain teasing wit.

In other words--we were there, so Spielberg, Lucas and Ford entertained us.

2-Disc Special Edition DVD

Anytime you're discussing a feature that involves not only George Lucas but also Steven Spielberg, you know that first and foremost the technology of their product will be first rate. While it was definitely evidenced in the latest film and in fact cited as the number one detractor by some critics who felt that too much CGI was employed, I thought it brought the magic of Jones universe to an entirely new level and this is evidenced right away on the 2-Disc DVD set. Although I still have yet to find a Blu-ray player in my price range, rest assured that nothing was spared in its transfer to DVD, despite the fact that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull marks the first Blu-ray new release motion picture from Lucasfilm Ltd. and Steven Spielberg as the press release denotes.

Presented in its original widescreen theatrical version that's enhanced for 16x9 ratio televisions, the DVD's sound matches its stellar picture quality with Lucas' own THX Certified Dolby Digtial 5.1 Surround and audio options to listen in English, French, and Spanish with the exact same choice for the subtitles. Primarily the main attraction of Disc 1 is the film itself and although most will be tempted to just pop in Disc 2 to get right into the special features, there's two worthwhile extras waiting for you alongside the feature on the first disc.

In "The Return of a Legend," Spielberg, Ford, Lucas and others reveal the origin of the fourth film. Although he assumed that ending Last Crusade with that memorably breathtaking iconic western styled shot of Ford's Jones riding off into the sunset meant that the series was over, roughly five years later, the main three (Spielberg, Ford, and Lucas) began getting inundated with questions of when the next movie would arrive from fans and press members around the globe. According to Spielberg and despite being in his mid-fifties at the time, Ford was the first person to take it seriously and its his tenacity that propelled the hypothetical "what if's" into action first by phoning the reluctant Spielberg who declined, then Lucas who was more enthusiastic and called Spielberg on his own. Their double-teaming of the director paid off and plans were quickly put into motion which also ended up involving the original producers of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy who'd first met on that set and later married.

From Lucas' first instinct of "let's do aliens," once Independence Day was released, its quality impressed Spielberg to such an extent that they decided to rethink their Jones idea. Merging together 1950's B movies and 1930's serials-- the creative well from which the original films had been dug-- Lucas change the aliens from extra-terrestrials (which E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind director Spielberg definitely knew a thing or two about) to "inter-dimensional" beings derived from String Theory.

As writer David Koepp noted, the success of the films had always been to "play with existing mythology" like the existence of actual Crystal Skulls and the idea of the paranoia from the 1950's regarding Soviet mind control and use the real legends as much as possible to make their own fantastical tale seem that much more authentic. Koepp would be the third writer brought on board after Lucas' original script which found Indy discovering a long-lost daughter (which was vetoed by Spielberg; although part of me wondered what a young female Marion Jr. would've been like) and was afterward given to the talented Jeff Nathanson who improved upon it even more before Koepp-- Spielberg's "closer" finished it off.

Revealing some of the several dozen title ideas they'd had from the quintessential Indiana Jones and the... with finishes such as "Saucer Men," and "Attack of the Giant Ants" etc. they finally found common ground upon Lucas's insistence that the word "kingdom" would be included to acknowledge their MacGuffin. Above all, vowing not to reinvent the wheel on the type of a series that now belongs to the entire world as Spielberg shared, their mission was instead to serve up one more helping to both those who grew up with the originals (like this reviewer) and those just meeting Dr. Jones for the first time and agreeing that they wouldn't make the film unless all three were fully on board so they proceeded.

In a second marvelous feature on Disc 1, we delve into the film's "Pre-Production" featurette from both the complicated computerized pre-visualization of the effects via the creators who were some of the first collaborators on board transforming (with no access to the script) Spielberg's vision and rudimentary one dimensional drawings complete with perfect framing into what would ultimately develop into the shot-by-shot execution of some of the most awe-inspiring action sequences.

Their painstaking work provided the first blueprint for Crystal Skull and then it began to trickle down to all of the other departments, informing wardrobe and everything else on the type of film they wanted to make. Adamant about not wanting to change the lighting style or overall visual look of the films which the cinematographer noted invovled "high key, glossy" old Hollywood styled photography, Spielberg began to round up all the players including Ford who revealed that the "whip-cracking skill" took a few weeks to return along with the new inclusion of Shia LeBeouf as Mutt, Ford's son who's modeled on a 1950's greaser.

Given a list of three films to watch as homework-- consisting of Blackboard Jungle, Rebel Without a Cause, and The Wild One-- LeBeouf (who'd first impressed the director with his work in Holes) began to become Mutt, learning how to play with knives from the sword that would be used in one of the film's most memorable scenes to the switchblade the actor perfected on his own, sans blade coach, making the knife his "Tetris" for the shoot.

From this first glimpse of "Pre-Production," we journey right into the fully loaded second disc that offers an in-depth twelve part cinematic "Production Diary," as we're given unprecedented access to the making of a film that was so hushed up, people's livelihood's were threatened for losing a script or revealing anything to the press. While there's far too much to go into here, it's a movie-maker's dream as well as a fascinating look for the technology geek in all of us, especially when we're brought into the offices of the men and women who built miniature sets, incomplete actual sets, and then made them all merge together to brilliant glory via cutting-edge technology. Featuring three pre-visualization sequences for proof of their hard work-- which alone should be sent to Oscar voters to earn the hardworking team a Special Effects statue, the disc also provides photo galleries, trailers, a look at the Lego Indiana Jones video game and much more.