Raiders of the Lost Ark (4K UHD)

Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman)
Stars: Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), Paul Freeman (René Belloq), Ronald Lacey (Toht), John Rhys-Davies (Sallah), Denholm Elliott (Dr. Marcus Brody), Alfred Molina (Satipo), Wolf Kahler (Colonel Dietrich), Anthony Higgins (Gobler)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1981
Country: U.S.
Raiders of the Lost Ark 4K UHD
Raiders of the Lost Ark

Inspired by the cliffhanging serials and exotic adventure movies of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the brainchild of wunderkinds George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, arguably the two most important cinematic entertainers of the last half century, made everything old seem new again. Set in the mid-1930s and following the adventures of a rough-and-tumble archeologist with the pitch-perfect name of Indiana Jones, Raiders is a giddy, unrepentant throwback to an earlier cinematic era, evoking fantasy and nostalgia with a larger-than-life hero who could get in the most calamitous circumstances, but never lose his hat. Although widely understood as the antithesis of the serious-minded and often heavy-handed irony and despair that characterized so much American filmmaking in the 1970s, Raiders is actually a curious hybrid of whose exhilarating sequences of action and suspense—some of which count among the greatest ever committed to celluloid—sit atop a darker and more cynical depiction of adventure-movie motifs than is often acknowledged.

One of the primary keys to the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark is the character of Indiana Jones, perfectly cast and played by Harrison Ford, then best known as the rugged and sardonic smuggler Han Solo from Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1981). Great—truly great—movie characters, the kind that enter legendary status and become a part of the collective cultural unconscious, are few and far between, and one would have to think hard to come up with one from the past few decades more endearing and enduring—and complicated—than Indiana Jones.

Indiana is a globe-trotting fantasy character brought down to earth in a rumpled leather jacket, beaten fedora, and five-day beard. He’s part Humphrey Bogart and part Superman. He evokes Bogart in his coolness under pressure and self-assuredness, even as he tweaks the icon with his comic tendency to get in way over his head. Simultaneously, he evokes the idea of the superhero, complete with an alter ego as a mild-mannered, bespectacled, tweed-suit-wearing professor of archaeology who stumbles for words when one of his female students writes “Love You” on her eyelids and bats them flirtatiously. As a character, Indiana Jones is a nostalgic recreation of a bygone era of über-masculine heroes with the modern twist of sly self-awareness of his own flawed humanity. Lucas had originally envisioned him as a suave, womanizing James Bond-style playboy, but Spielberg, Ford, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan immediately recognized he need to bring down to earth (Spielberg even suggested at one point that he be an alcoholic). Thus, Indiana works so well not because he’s inhuman (as so many hard-body heroes of the 1980s would be), but rather because he is resolutely human, both emotionally and physically. We see him panic, we see him act in desperation, we see him fight dirty when needed and bear the aches and pains of his many physical altercations and lose more than he wins. Even though Indiana is working almost entirely in his own self-interest (he is a mercenary, an archeological solider-for-hire, which complicates any notion of him being a exceptional American hero), we still root for him simply because he is willing to fight it out to the bitter end.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana is pitted against nothing less than the Nazis in a race to discover the lost Ark of the Covenant, which one character describes as “a transmitter—a radio for talking to God.” Indiana’s chief nemesis (and shadowy double) is a fellow archeologist, René Belloq (Paul Freeman), who has a way of showing up at the last minute and snatching artifacts out from under him (the film’s sly way of associating Indiana with the “losers” of so many ’70s films). Belloq has been hired by the Nazis to find the Ark, so it is up to Jones, who is working for the U.S. government, to get to it first. This means that he must first travel to Nepal, where he meets up with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), an old flame who possesses a crucial artifact needed to find the Ark and ultimately joins his cause, proving to be even scrappier and more determined than he is to get what’s hers. They travel to the heart of Egypt to find the Ark, and the film draws to a gory, special-effects-laden climax in which the Ark is opened on a small private Nazi island in the middle of the Pacific.

The screenplay, penned by Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat) from a story by Lucas and Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of the Being), is a model of streamlined efficiency, as is Steven Spielberg’s direction. Coming off the elegant and moody sci-fi hit Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and the ambitious (and highly underappreciated) comic spectacle 1941 (1979), both of which had gone way over budget and over schedule, Spielberg was getting back to his roots as an efficient orchestrator of complex action and complicated humanity against the backdrop of real locations and practical stunts, which he had amply demonstrated with his early films Duel (1971) and The Sugarland Express (1974). Raiders remains one of his finest works and, simply put, one of the best action-adventure movies ever made.

Throughout the film, Spielberg evokes the kind of armchair-clutching action sequences that remind us why they’re called “motion pictures.” Much like the James Bond series (which Spielberg had always wanted to direct), Raiders of the Lost Ark begins with an action setpiece that is only tangentially related to the narrative. Set in South America, it shows Indiana going after an ancient golden statue hidden deep in a trap-infested underground temple and features one of the most famous images in the film: Indiana running desperately down a rocky corridor with a giant boulder rushing after him. This scene, while largely inconsequential to the narrative that follows, establishes Indiana’s character and the mood and tone of the film; in effect, it builds up our expectations (if this is how they open the film ...), and the movie knocks our socks off because it meets those expectations again and again, topping itself over and over, almost to the point of exhaustion.

One of the best sequences involves Indiana going after a Nazi truck convoy single-handedly in order to reclaim the Ark. It features every heart-pounding stunt imaginable, from leaping off a horse onto a moving truck, to Indiana being thrown through a windshield and having to climb hand-over-hand underneath the moving vehicle. All of this, of course, is set to a beautifully overwrought musical score by John Williams (who had scored Spielberg’s Jaws and Lucas’ Star Wars), which at times builds up Indiana’s mythos and at other times comically undercuts it (note that the first time we hear the famous fanfare is when he is swinging awkwardly on a vine and plunging into a river). In some movies, musical scores of this kind are too much, but in Raiders of the Lost Ark, everything is too much—that is its dominant aesthetic. The villains aren’t just bad, they’re downright evil, particularly the Nazi mastermind Toht, played to the hilt by Ronald Lacey in lispy Peter Lorre fashion. Indiana’s love interest isn’t just any women, but a feisty ex from a decade earlier who hates him so much she loves him. The Ark isn’t just sealed in an underground crypt called the Well of the Souls, but it’s also surrounded by thousands of venomous snakes and a crypt of decaying mummies. And on and on it goes.

In the 40 years since its initial theatrical release, Raiders of the Lost Ark has entered the pantheon of great movies. It is a pinnacle of cinematic entertainment—a masterly technical and emotional triumph that nevertheless leaves room for ambiguity and complexity (people are still debating the significance of the Citizen Kane-inspired final shot). There is never a boring moment, or a scene that goes for too long, or an action setpiece that feels somehow lacking. It combines memorable characters with action and a compelling narrative that drives forward and never looks back. If it is about anything, it is about our collective love of the movies and their ability to immerse us in a gripping fantasy world that we want to return to again and again.

Raiders of the Lost Ark 4K UHD Blu-ray
Indiana Jones 4-Movie Collection 4K UHD Box SetRaiders of the Lost Ark is available on 4K UHD as part of the “Indiana Jones: 4-Movie Collection” box set, which also includes Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).

Aspect Ratio2.39:1
Audio
  • English Dolby Atmos
  • English Dolby TrueHD 7.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 surround
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Italian Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Italian Dolby Digital 2.0 surround
  • Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 surround
  • Russian Dolby Digital 2.0 surround
  • Subtitles English, English SDH, French, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Cantonese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Korean, Mandarin (Simplified), Mandarin (Traditional), Norwegian, Russian, Swedish, Thai
    Supplements
  • On Set with Raiders of the Lost Ark two-part documentary: “From Jungle to Desert” and “From Adventure to Legend”
  • “The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark” 1981 documentary
  • “The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark” documentary
  • “The Making of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” documentary
  • “The Making of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” documentary
  • “The Making of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” documentary
  • “The Stunts of Indiana Jones” featurette
  • “The Sound of Indiana Jones” featurette
  • “The Music of Indiana Jones” featurette
  • “The Light and Magic of Indiana Jones” featurette
  • “Raiders: The Melting Face! ” featurette
  • “Indiana Jones and the Creepy Crawlies” featurette (with optional pop-ups)
  • “Travel with Indiana Jones: Locations” featurette (with optional pop-ups)
  • “Indy’s Women: The American Film Institute Tribute” featurette
  • “Indy’s Friends and Enemies” featurette
  • “Iconic Props” featurette
  • “The Effects of Indy” featurette
  • “Adventures in Post Production” featurette
  • Teaser Trailer, Theatrical Trailer, and Re-Issue Trailer
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    Release DateJune 8, 2021

    COMMENTS
    In 2012, I wrote that Paramount’s “Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures” Blu-ray box set offered “hands down, the best the Indiana Jones films have looked on home video.” Well, here I am nine years later essentially saying the same thing: The new “Indiana Jones: 4-Movie Collection” box set, while disappointing in terms of packaging and a lack of any new supplements, nevertheless offers us the best presentation of these films, with the upgrade to 4K UHD/Dolby Vision significantly increasing the level of visual quality. All four films have been given new scans and look like new, with Raiders of the Lost Ark being particularly impressive, having been subject to extensive film and digital restoration that results in a crisp, clean, intensely filmlike transfer (thank you, Paramount, for keeping the grain!). The palette of Raiders is fairly limited, mostly browns and grays, but flesh tones and the occasional burst of bright colors (as in the ending) are nicely toned and well saturated. All signs of dirt, damage, and age have been carefully removed, and the film has been color corrected and timed, yielding what I imagine to be its best presentation since its theatrical release in 1981. Temple of Doom looks just as good, although it is a much different looking film. The color schemes that dominate the film are much different than the more earthy tones that dominate Raiders of the Lost Ark. The bright reds and strong contrasts of the Beijing opening sequence are gloriously presented (this is the first time I can remember seeing the film where Spielberg’s directorial credit didn’t bleed into the dragon’s mouth behind it), as are the dark tones and shadow detail of the scenes in the Temple of Doom. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is arguably the most colorful of the first three movies, with expansive blue skies, intense stained glass windows, and, of course, Venice, although it also features plenty of earthy tones in the desert scenes. The image is sharp and clear, with excellent detail, even in the darker sequences such as the journey through the Venetian catacombs. And, of course, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, being the newest film in the series, looks spectacular, even though all the digital effects and polishing that went into its production result in a shinier, less gritty look than its predecessors, despite having been shot and cut on film.

    As for the soundtracks, all four films have gotten complete remixes supervised by Ben Burtt, the Oscar-winning original sound designer, at Skywalker Sound, and the results are absolutely magnificent. The Blu-ray soundtracks were great, but these are even better. Now, there is always the risk that such remixes will fundamentally alter the soundscape and interfere with our aural memories, but that is not at all the case here, as Burtt has effectively expanded the soundscape and deepened the effects without altering the balance. The soundtracks have excellent dynamic range and consistently impressive and enveloping use of the surround speakers (check out the opening sequence in the South American rainforest in Raiders and notice how well the surrounds create a living ambient environment, or note the intense directionality in the motorcycle chase sequence in The Last Crusade.

    The supplements here are simply a repackaging of those that appeared in the 2012 “Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures” Blu-Ray box set. And, while they are great, one wishes some new material had been included, especially since that set failed to include a bunch of suppelments from the original Crystal Skull Blu-ray and the 2003 Raiders DVD.

    On Set With Raiders of the Lost Ark is a two-part, 60-minute documentary that is comprised entirely of never-before-seen outtakes, alternate takes, deleted scenes, and on-set footage shot during the production and circa-1980 interviews with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Harrison Ford, and several others. The footage is fascinating in that it gives us an unadorned, fly-on-the-wall peek into the creative process, whether it be Spielberg working out the Nepal gunfight with the stunt coordinator, or the construction of the Well of the Souls set. The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark is an hour-long behind-the-scenes documentary from 1981 that has been pulled from the archives and dusted off. We also get three making-of documentaries covering each of the first three films. Together they run a full two-and-a-half-hours, although they are not equal in length. The Raiders documentary is the longest at almost an hour, while The Last Crusade is the shortest at just over half an hour. They are all excellent documentaries featuring all-new interviews with everyone involved in the films, including Spielberg, Lucas, Ford, Karen Allen, Kate Capshaw, Lawrence Kasdan, John Williams, and a host of others. Sprinkled throughout the docs are storyboards, outtakes, and behind-the-scenes footage, as well as many revealing tidbits in the interviews. From the Crystal Skull Blu-Ray we have a much shortened version of the making-of documentary, trimmed down from 80 minutes to about half an hour.

    A number of shorter behind-the-scenes featurettes from previous DVD box sets are also included. From the 2003 set we get four featurettes that focus on specific aspects of the films’ production: “The Light and Magic of Indiana Jones,” “The Sound of Indiana Jones,” “The Stunts of Indiana Jones,” and “The Music of Indiana Jones,” each of which runs 10 to 15 minutes in length. There are also a number of featurettes from the 2008 “Indiana Jones: The Adventure Collection” box set. The 9-minute featurette “The Melting Face!” looks at the special effects involved in the gory climax of Raiders and features interviews with Spielberg, make-up effects maestro Chris Walas, and visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund. It also includes a recreation of the effect using all the same techniques. There are also two featurettes, both of which you can watch with or without pop-up trivia. “Creepy Crawlies” (12 min.) is about the use of snakes, insects, spiders, rats, and other skin-crawling vermin in the films (it features interviews with members of the cast and crew, although the most interesting part is a brief glimpse of an ill-fated attempt to use mechanical snakes for Raiders). “Travels With Indy” (11 min.) looks at all the various locations used in the Indiana Jones movies. “Indy’s Women,” includes nine minutes of excerpts from a 2003 interview with Karen Allen, Kate Capshaw, and Allison Doody that was convened by the American Film Institute in honor of the original trilogy being released on DVD. “Indy’s Friends and Enemies” is an 11-minute featurette that looks at the most memorable characters in the series (love interests, villains, and sidekicks) and features interviews with Spielberg, Lucas, producer Frank Marshall, and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan, Willard Huyck, and Gloria Katz.

    Finally, we have three featurettes that originally appeared on the Crystal Skull Blu-Ray. “Iconic Props” (10 min.) is hosted by property master Doug Harlocker, who actually spends more time talking about specific props made for that film than the “iconic props” like Indy’s whip. “The Effects of Indy” (23 min.) explores the film’s visual effects, both practical and digital, which includes everything from the miniature town built for atomic destruction, to the complex use of computer programs to create tens of thousands of ants (although, not surprisingly, there is no mention of that awful, awful monkey sequence in the jungle—perhaps they were too embarrassed to discuss it). “Adventures in Post-Production” (13 min.) features interviews with composer John Williams, sound designer Ben Burtt, and editor Michael Kahn, who actually edited the entire film on film, rather than digitally.

    Each disc includes a teaser trailer and theatrical trailer for its respective film, while Raiders also includes a re-issue trailer.

    Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (4)




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