The appeal of Indiana Jones, the character and the franchise, is now a matter of public record. When a sub-par installment of a film series can invoke the phrase “raped my childhood” in multitudes worldwide, you know you have a hit on your hands. You don’t need me to tell you that all four Indiana Jones movies appearing in a single Blu-ray box set is a major event. The original DVD box set was a monumental occasion both for fans and that particular home video medium, and while the quality DVD release probably diminishes the significance of Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures, since it’s still available and includes most of the same special features, it doesn’t make the Blu-rays anything less than a “must buy,” provided you’re willing to allow a copy of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull anywhere near your home.
Indiana Jones, for those who have never seen a movie before and are also making their first forays into the internet, is a motion picture hero played by Harrison Ford, created by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for the hit 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark. Inspired by the serialized movie heroes of the 1930s and 1940s, and a fair amount of George Stevens’ adventure film Gunga Din, Indiana Jones travels from one end of the globe to the other, collecting historical artifacts for museums and, in the series’ only theatrical prequel, The Temple of Doom, just for “fortune and glory.” If that sounds like a stuffy History Channel reality series, his search often involves ancient death traps, Nazis and the ultimate revelation that all the supernatural myths surrounding these artifacts are terrifyingly real.
Setting a tale of rip-roaring adventure against an academic background was a particularly clever move for this series, partly because it necessitated a hero as smart as he is daring, and partly because it legitimizes his adventures. Rather than stopping bad guys merely intent on ruling the world, Indiana Jones also seeks to illuminate history in a lifelong quest for facts. Although his obsessions often lead to foolhardy, even dangerous behavior, there’s a nobility to the character. Besides, any story based on genuine obsession does wonders for audience involvement. Don’t know what the Sankara Stones are? That’s okay. Indiana Jones does, and he thinks they’re important enough to risk his life for. Since he’s got a doctorate in archaeology, you’re willing to trust him on that.
The first three Indiana Jones movies aren’t just good action movies, they’re great action movies. They successfully marry the energy of youth, that irrepressible desire to just put something fun on the screen, with superior technical craftsmanship, delightful performances (though some disagree with that in regards to Temple of Doom) and some of the most inventive action sequences ever filmed. Although sometimes inconsistent, they represent an overall standard of quality that few action films – let alone entire franchises – ever achieve. The most recent Indiana Jones movie, made 19 years after the previous film in the series, made money but was considered a heartbreaking dip in quality by fans worldwide. It may be an Indiana Jones movie in name only, depending on who you talk to, but it belongs in this box set, much in the same way that no Batman movie collection is complete without Batman & Robin.
The films are well known and, mostly, beloved by action fans everywhere, and although each is deserving of a full thesis paper, I will re-review them briefly here for those looking for a primer.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The first Indiana Jones movie remains the best and, by extension, perhaps the best action movie ever made. The hero is a smarmy alpha male, much like his closest equivalent in the cinematic medium, James Bond, but is also deeply flawed, driven by an overpowering desire for knowledge, achievement and glory. This leads him to make interesting decisions, like leaving the heroine kidnapped when a “real” hero would have saved her come hell or high water, just because it would prevent him from finding the all-powerful Ark of the Covenant, which the Nazis want to turn the tide of the upcoming World War II, and might not have found at all if Indiana had been able to resist his urges.
Like all the Indiana Jones movies, Raiders contains an imp of the ridiculous (ancient Central Americans had pretty advanced laser technology, if you think about it), but the overall tone of danger and consequence, and the surprisingly cynical ending, keep the film from ever feeling like the kind of action fluff that inspired it. There’s nothing truly negative to say about Raiders of the Lost Ark. It still works, and will probably stand the test of time better than any other action movie on record.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The second Indiana Jones movie actually takes place before the first, making it the first prominent prequel on record. This younger version of Indiana Jones has a lot of growing up to do, and is willing to trade priceless artifacts for money to private, criminal investors, whom he is also willing to kill in brutal ways. Over the course of the film, Indiana Jones runs across a cursed Indian village whose magical Sankara Stone has been stolen – along with all the village’s children – by an evil cult. By the end of the film he’s learned a valuable lesson about selflessness and the reality behind the myths he had taken for granted as a scientist.
Although Temple of Doom includes what may be the series’ best action sequence – an impossibly thrilling chase sequence on high speed mining carts – it’s often derided by audiences for being too dark (hearts are ripped out, and Indiana Jones beats a small child while under the cult’s magical influence), offering racist stereotypes of Indian culture and including two arguably annoying supporting characters, the young Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) and Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw). Short Round reeks of fan service to young audiences, and Willie Scott shrieks and complains more than she actually makes herself useful. But the darkness actually befits the film’s prequel sensibilities, since Temple of Doom portrays a darker Indiana Jones to begin with, and the supporting cast ably references the film’s genre roots in both 1940s serials and the outlandish Penny Dreadfuls from the turn of the century. They’re appropriate, although perhaps not ideally adapted to modern times. The racism isn’t as forgivable, although again, it’s at least in keeping with Temple of Doom’s rough origins.
Though inferior to Raiders, Indiana Jones’s second outing is a spectacular thrill ride with greater significance to the character than most people give it credit for, and remains Indy’s only successful picture to focus on non-Christian mythology. It’s a great sequel despite its flaws.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Indiana Jones’ third adventure is also his funniest, which actually hurts The Last Crusade in the long run. The film opens with a wild chase sequence in which a pubescent Indy (played by River Phoenix) acquires every iconic aspect of his character – his whip, his ophidiophobia, even Harrison Ford’s real-life facial scar – over the course of a single afternoon. As an adult, Indiana is still running, this time across the world to locate the Holy Grail before the Nazis find the key to eternal life, and rescue his Grail-obsessed father, played by Sean Connery, in the process. All the transfers of the Indiana Jones movies are impressive, incidentally, but for some reason The Last Crusade looks better than every other film in the entire set, even the most recent one.
While the climax to The Last Crusade remains a series highlight – forcing Indy to undergo a series of memorable deathtraps before putting his actual archaeological knowledge to the test – much of his third outing feels suspiciously reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Once again Nazis are after an all-powerful religious artifact, once again Indiana winds up in a prolonged car chase with a Nazi caravan, and the final gory effects sequence finds the villain receiving basically the same biblical judgment as Indy’s original antagonists. Ford and Connery have great chemistry, but again familiarity seeps in, as Spielberg’s obsession with troubled father-son relationships have long since become cliché. The supporting cast, particularly John Rhys-Davies and Denholm Elliott, is reduced to comic relief, to the degree that they actually feel out of character. Worse, the film’s intensely jokey tone makes many of the more interesting scenes feel like mild diversions than aspects of a genuine action classic.
Perhaps The Last Crusade’s lighthearted tone was a reaction to criticisms of Temple of Doom’s darkness (it even retcon’s Doom’s story arc, showing Indiana Jones as an altruistic museum-booster at a much earlier age), but the return to the Raiders formula makes it seem like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had run out of ideas for the character far too soon. Personally, I rank The Last Crusade just slightly lower than Temple of Doom in quality for these reasons, but in spite of any perceived deficiencies it’s still a genuine Indiana Jones adventure, and would have been a fitting conclusion to the franchise if they had never made…
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The fourth, and to date final Indiana Jones movie is universally considered to be the worst, and for once the universe makes perfect sense. The problems with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are so vast and numerous that hours have been spent cataloguing them in well-reasoned, angry internet videos. But we can distill the major bullet points here, at the very least.
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull follows Indiana Jones into the 1950s, where Communist Russia has supplanted Nazis as the go-to villains in search of all-powerful artifacts. This time, Cate Blanchett plays a Soviet agent seeking the Crystal Skull, a South American artifact said to wield psychic powers. Jones is brought out of near-retirement by Mutt, a greaser played by Shia LaBeouf, who needs Jones’s expertise to save his kidnapped mentor and his mother, who turns out to be Marion Ravenwood, Jones’s love interest from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Mutt also turns out to be Indy’s son, and the Crystal Skull turns out to be an actual skull of an alien species from another dimension.
Many have complained that aliens have no place in the otherwise supernatural-based Indiana Jones franchise, but if that was Crystal Skull’s only problem we could have accepted it as part of the series’ exploration-centric universe. The problem with Crystal Skull – beyond the legendarily silly opening, in which Indy survives a nuclear blast at ground zero by locking himself in a refrigerator – is that Indiana Jones never seems particularly interested in the Crystal Skull in the first place. He’s not after fortune and glory, he’s not after knowledge, and he seems only vaguely invested in saving the world from Communism. Unlike The Last Crusade, where the disappearance of his father motivates him out of the academic environment, he’s basically dragged along for the ride to save a professor character with whom the audience has no connection and with whom Indiana has only a vague personal relationship.
With nothing to excite Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford winds up turning in an uninvested performance, so Crystal Skull can’t even coast on charm. The nonsensical storyline, unnecessarily large supporting cast and often ridiculous (even for an Indiana Jones movie) action sequences don’t help matters, and the aggressively sepia cinematography – courtesy of the normally excellent Janusz Kaminski – feels out of place in the otherwise classically-shot franchise. Does it rape childhoods? Of course not. But it does unspeakable things to the previously unassailable legacy of the series.
The Special Features:
The original Indiana Jones DVDs contained no commentary tracks – common for a Steven Spielberg release, since the director supposedly doesn’t like them – but did feature alarmingly in-depth documentaries about the production of each film, from conception to release. These documentaries are intact and, with little material left over, Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures – a misnomer, since “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” are nowhere to be found in this set – only includes two new special features. The first, “On Set with Raiders of the Lost Ark,” is a new documentary cobbled together from oodles of on behind the scenes footage from the original production. There’s no through-line, and the footage – mostly fascinating – speaks for itself. The second, “The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark,” is a vintage EPK making its home video debut, and while it’s also an involving look at the production of the original film, so much of the footage is culled from the same source as “On Set with Raiders of the Lost Ark” that you can pretty much just watch one or the other. It’s not the bonanza of special features we found on the Star Wars Blu-ray set, and alas, doesn’t deserve much credit for adding new material, but the impressive new transfers and mighty surround sound mixes compensate, making the release, again, a “Must Buy” regardless.
The Indiana Jones movies, or rather the first three, remain a high-water mark for action filmmaking, deserving of their vaunted reputation and fully capable of earning impassioned new audiences for generations to come. Indiana Jones: The (Mostly) Complete Adventures is a more-than-worthy release of the classic films, and even through in the bad one just for kicks. Buy it. Just plain old-fashioned buy it.