Join the discussion on

" I’ll be monitoring your frequency "
— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

Sponsored links

Dr. Jones makes his first house call on Blu-ray and elegantly makes a case for why his latest adventure is a great movie.

1957: The Crystal Skull

Graced with an absolutely top-notch THX-certified presentation
Graced with an absolutely top-notch THX-certified presentation

Fully acknowledging the passage of time, Crystal Skull picks up with Dr. Henry Walton Jones, Jr., (Harrison Ford, Blade Runner ) 19 years after the events of The Last Crusade . It’s nice to learn, though, that Indy hasn’t taken it easy since he reunited with his father and found the Holy Grail. Far from it. Instead, he’s spent a considerable amount of time working for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II.

Unfortunately for Indy, and fortunately for audiences, while his military career saw him rise to the level of colonel, all that experience counts for nothing when the FBI interrogates him regarding his relationships with a batch of nasty, nasty Reds.

The communists had kidnapped Indy and his pal “Mac” McHale (Ray Winstone, Beowulf ) while they were digging around in Mexico and hauled them up to Nevada to track down a crate in the U.S. government’s possession. The group of commies is led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth ), who’s out to fulfill Stalin’s dream of psychic warfare.

Naturally, the Russians underestimate the integrity and tenacity of Indiana Jones and the opening action plays like gangbusters as Indy escapes their clutches only to stumble his way into a weapons testing lab in the middle of the desert. Yowza!

Eventually making his way back to good ol’ Marshall College, Indy is fired following suspicions of his aiding and abetting the Russians. That merely starts the ball rolling for yet another adventure. Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf, Transformers ) tracks down the good doctor at his mother’s recommendation. He’s the only one who can rescue her and Professor Oxley (John Hurt, Alien ). Oxley’s like a father to Mutt, whose dad died while in the service.

It turns out they’re being held by the same batch of Russian soldiers who made Indy’s life miserable in Nevada. They need him to find a crystal skull which, legend has it, will unlock the awesome power of an ancient Peruvian civilization.

Nuke the Fridge? C’mon!

At some point during the summer, some wiseacres evidently unimpressed by Kingdom of the Crystal Skull thought it’d be clever to try to add “nuke the fridge” to the American lexicon. It’s a reference to a scene early in the movie when Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr., protects himself from a nuclear test detonation by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator and it’s a play on the “jump the shark” phrase that has become shorthand for saying a series has passed its prime, as when Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli jumped a shark while water-skiing on Happy Days midway through its 10-year run.

Well, the argument doesn’t fit.

The refrigerator situation turns into an elaborate setup for a couple jokes. After being scrubbed down, Indy goes through that aforementioned interrogation by a couple hard-nosed federal agents. The punchline comes courtesy of Indy’s friend, General Ross, who enters the scene and says, “Indy, thank God. Don’t you know it’s dangerous to climb into a refrigerator? Those things can be death traps!”

Indy later quips, “What exactly am I being accused of, besides surviving a nuclear blast?”

Apparently the whole idea was a holdover from a screenplay draft by Frank Darabont ( The Shawshank Redemption ). Regardless of who should take credit, director Steven Spielberg and his cohorts, Harrison Ford and George Lucas, once again are winking at the audience.

It’s just like the scene in The Last Crusade where, after Indy and Dad are chased by a Messerschmitt through a tunnel, the plane, clipped of its wings, explodes after it passes them by and Dad says to Junior, “Well, they don’t come any closer than that.” Then BOOM! A bomb from a second plane drops right in front of them and their car crashes, amid a cloud of dirt and dust, into the bomb’s crater.

It’s the exact same humor. The only difference is 19 years.

Saucer Men from Mars

Unlike the Star Wars series, which failed to fully recreate the magic of Episodes IV-VI in Episodes I-III, Indiana Jones has the benefit of Spielberg and Ford to help recalibrate Lucas’ sometimes misguided storytelling compass.

Forming something like a cinematic Beatles, this Fab Four of film has its rugged adventure ( Raiders ), its pulp horror ( Temple of Doom ), its buddy picture ( Last Crusade ), and now Crystal Skull represents pure, glorious pulp sci-fi.

Screenwriter David Koepp ( Spider-Man ) and Lucas have crafted a fantastic story that is able to fully play off all the various Indy lore, with references to the other cinematic adventures as well as The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV series. Indy has such a wealth of “back story” now, pulling in those different themes and riffs (such as, on the dramatic side, Indy’s mother dying while he was still a young boy and, on the history-meets-fiction side, Indy recalling his fighting with Pancho Villa) helps ground Indy in his own reality.

That’s a really sweet trick.

And, instead of resting on the lofty laurels of its earlier successes, the series once again takes risks , much in the same way Temple of Doom was a big, big risk with its much darker tone and story. While it certainly helps that Spielberg and Lucas were able to so smoothly steer the series away from another mystical, spiritual relic and move in a different direction, the fact that they took the risk to begin with is something that should be applauded rather than derided.

After all, how can people possibly complain about sequels being nothing more but the “same old, same old,” (to quote Dr. Jones in Crystal Skull ), when Indy prefers to take chances and venture off in new territory?

Blu-ray Extras

The first three movies were made in an era which saw the home entertainment market dominated by VHS. It was a time which typically saw only a 45-minute making-of TV special serve as the primary vehicle for behind-the-scenes content. Even their laser disc releases were barebones, but that was a medium that was primarily ruled by Criterion, whose emphasis on top-of-the-line presentation and loads of supplements effectively became the forerunner of the expectations for the DVD format. Needless to say, surely there’s more in the Lucas archives than has so far been released on two different DVD editions of those original adventures.

Given the relatively unspectacular DVD treatment the original three have been given so far, it’s a relief to report this one delivers the goods on Blu-ray. Since Crystal Skull is the first Indy movie actually produced in the era of DVDs and high-definition, the crew had the HD cameras ready and was able to provide plenty of great behind-the-scenes footage that does a good job of giving a sense of how Spielberg, Ford, and Lucas collaborate.

Even better, reflecting the spirit of the movie, the supplemental materials are fun to watch.

But, best of all, the supplements here perform a double service. For fans of the movie, they’re Indy nirvana. But they also make a sound case for why Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a great movie, just like the other three.

Disc 1:

The Return of a Legend – 17 minutes – This is a must-watch for those who rip on the storyline, both from the “space aliens” and the “Russian mind control” aspects. This short is an excellent document that covers the whole concept, right on down to detailing the logic behind the title. It’s not a defense of the story, it’s an explanation of the inspirations behind it. It’s fun to watch Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford talk about how the movie took 19 years to make its way to the theatres and it includes some darn good behind-the-scenes footage. There’s even a surprisingly astute observation from Shia LaBeouf about the name “Mutt.” Yeah, Indy named himself after his dog, but as LaBeouf points out, Mutt’s a nice play on how father figures have been swapped around in his character’s life.

Pre-Production – 12 minutes – This one starts with pre-visualization talks with Spielberg in May 2007  then shifts over to Janusz Kaminski discussing their desire to recreate the same lighting scheme of the first three movies. There’s also a nod to the fact that each one of those original movies took advantage of the incremental advances in filmmaking technology, which is a good point, considering the amount of publicity this production got in setting expectations that very little digital technology would be used. Other topics include costuming (recreating that iconic Indy outfit) and LaBeouf learning the fine points of sword fighting.

Unlike the fairly lackluster supplementals that were included in this spring’s reissue of the first three movies on DVD, which borrowed heavily from the shorts posted on, these new features – and all the other supplementals on Disc 2 – might cherry pick from that early material, but they’re far more in-depth and rewarding.

Oh, and Trailers 2 and 3 are also included. Trailer 1 is conspicuously missing; it’s not even an Easter Egg. Sure, there’s not much difference between Trailer 1 and Trailer 2, but why not slap it on there somewhere?

Disc 2:

The cornerstone of Disc 2 is Production Diary: Making “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , an 81-minute documentary that covers the various locations (New Mexico, New Haven, and Hawaii), the on-set filming, and a great section on Akator. In that portion, it’s highly entertaining to watch the filming of the temple spiral staircase scene and all the mechanics (and wires) involved in the making of the scene. This is also where it’s revealed that, yes, just like in the Well of Souls in Raiders , R2 and 3PO (as well as E.T.) make cameos among the 4,000 tiles in the Skeletons’ temple.

Warrior Makeup – 5 minutes – Actually, this one is more interesting than the title implies. Yes, it’s about the Ugha warriors and their makeup, but it turns out quite a bit of effort was involved in making them look so authentic.

Warrior Makeup – 5 minutes – Actually, this one is more interesting than the title implies. Yes, it’s about the Ugha warriors and their makeup, but it turns out quite a bit of effort was involved in making them look so authentic.

The Crystal Skulls – 10 minutes – At one point, Lucas comments about how the story is “rooted in real life.” Given the wildness of the subject matter, it’s a great little, off-the-cuff comment and one that opens the door to noting that some people – including the author of this review – consider the Indy series as great “slice of life” movies that are easy to relate to. The downside here is that the segment focuses on the making of the movie’s Crystal Skulls. It would’ve been nice if it included more about the real skulls that provided the inspiration.

As a side note, the Crystal Skulls segment concludes with “In Memory of Stan Winston,” who died less than a month after the movie’s release. It’s a nice touch in honor of the man whose effects studio helped make the Crystal Skull look so good – and it’s the kind of acknowledgement that was missing on the Iron Man Blu-ray released only one week prior to the Crystal Skull set.

Iconic Props – 10 minutes – There’s a very cool revelation in this one: A replica of Moses’ staff from The Ten Commandments makes a cameo in the opening warehouse sequence. Otherwise, there’s not too much surprising here, but it’s still a fun look at all the goodies in the movie.

The Effects of Indy – 23 minutes – This segment reveals the large amount of digital work used in the production, including a look at the prairie dog opening dissolve. But, thankfully, it wasn’t all CGI. Also put in service were good old-fashioned models, as with the Nevada test community. And there were lots and lots of wires involved.

Adventures in Post Production – 13 minutes – This is another really good one that starts by discussing how unique it is that the movie was shot on film and edited on film . It then moves on to discuss sound effects with Lucas veteran Ben Burtt and John Williams’ inspirations for the score’s new elements, the themes for Irina Spalko and the Crystal Skulls.

Closing: Team Indy – 4 minutes – Of all the featurettes, this one’s the most disposable. Nonetheless, it is what it is. It’s a nice homage to the key talents involved, including everybody from the caterer to the man in the hat himself. The difference here from similar material on other DVD/Blu-ray releases is the amount of sincerity behind it. Through watching all the other supplements, it’s clear there was a sense of camaraderie and teamwork throughout the production and this gives the team straight-on recognition.

Pre-Visualization – This portion features three sequences as imagined in pre-production through computer animation. It’s effectively the modern equivalent to simple, on-paper storyboards. In watching these, one can’t help but wonder if this is where the idea for the animated Clone Wars series had its roots.

The three sequences are Area 51 Escape (4 minutes), Jungle Chase (6 minutes), and Ant Attack (4 minutes). They’re interesting to watch simply to see both how closely the end result follows these early works and also in noting the variations from the final movie. For example, in these excerpts Mac McHale looks a lot like Rene Belloq with a beer belly; he’s wearing white pants, a white shirt, a tie, and a white fedora.

The set is rounded out with a slew of image galleries. The Art Department includes galleries entitled The Adventure Begins and Cemetery and Jungle . The best one is Akator , which offers a really good look at the hieroglyphs in the Crystal Skull’s kingdom.

The Stan Winston Studio section is broken out in sections entitled Corpses, Skeletons & Mummies and Aliens & Crystal Skulls . They’re worth a look if you can’t get enough of those skulls and other props.

There’s also a collection of Production Photographs . One still of Irina hanging off the cliff shows the wire that was digitally removed in the home version of the movie (more on that in the Picture and Sound section).

Finally, there’s an excellent selection of Behind-the-Scenes Photographs .

It’s interesting to note that the documentaries start by talking about how the code name chosen by Spielberg for the project during filming was “Genre.” Then, in sifting through these galleries, it’s neat to see so many of the art documents and sketches labeled as “Genre Project.” It’s kind of like being let in on a little secret, albeit after the fact.

The galleries are surprisingly enjoyable and a large part of that enjoyment stems from the beautiful quality of the images in high-definition.

Blu-ray Exclusives

All of the supplements are in full HD, which, in all honesty, really should be the expectation rather than the exception for all the studios going forward. Paramount has done a commendable job so far in that regard.

But, that aside, at first blush it seemed like this Blu-ray release was primed for disappointment. There’s no BD Live connectivity, no in-movie experience, such as a trivia track, and the only exclusive is a little option called “ Indiana Jones Timelines.”

Well, as it turns out, those timelines are an absolute jewel. There are three: History, Production, and Story.

The History Timeline (1548, Francisco de Orellana – 1968, Chariots of the Gods ) is nothing short of terrific and it’s similar to the interactive journal found on the DVD-ROM disc of the Young Indiana Jones DVD sets. This one goes through and details the key historical elements referenced in the movie (as a disclaimer notes, this history is for “entertainment purposes” only, so writing a thesis based on the material might not be a good idea). On tap are Francisco de Orellana, Milton, Thomas Stearns, the House Un-American Activities Committee, OSS, Roswell, and more. The timeline features historical photos, drawings, vintage news clips, and related segments of the movie. It is goose bump-inducing, giddy fun and in presenting all these historical aspects, it proves Crystal Skull is really a remarkable piece of storytelling.

The Production Timeline (December 1992 - April 29, 2008) goes through the entire cycle, from initial rumblings in 1992 to striking prints in 2008, with loads of behind-the-scenes clips (some in what seems to be standard definition) along the way.

The Story Timeline is fairly clever in its own way. It goes back and, via select scenes, presents everything in a strictly chronological order, moving from de Orellana’s death in Peru (as hypothesized by Indy in Francisco’s tomb) to Indy calling off his wedding to Marion; the birth of Mutt; Indy meeting Mac in the OSS; and so on. What would’ve really put this one over the top is if they had actually attached specific dates to the events being explained. But, as it stands, there is one really nice touch: The opportunity to get a good look at an enlarged version of the letter Oxley wrote to Marion, the one with the sketches of the Crystal Skull and other artifacts.

The mix of navigation options, with cross-reference links to related material in the other timelines, as well as previous/next and a main quick-view option, are well-executed.

This is really great stuff, George, so now go back and give the original three movies the same treatment! (Pleaseā€¦ And throw in audio commentaries with you, Spielberg and Ford. You know that’s what everybody wants.)

Picture and Sound

The movie is graced with an absolutely top-notch THX-certified presentation. It’s simply gorgeous all around. The magnificent picture and the superb Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio both reveal fine details missed in the theatre. The one shame, though, is that there’s no DTS-HD Master Audio option.

It has to be pointed out that, like the original three when they were first released on DVD, there’s been some digital cleanup here. One particularly notable touchup involves the scene in which Irina Spalko is hanging off a cliff following the ant attack sequence. In the theatre, a cable could be seen in clear view – in addition to the rope Cate Blanchett was holding. That cable’s gone now. As tracked by those who track such things, Crystal Skull was possibly the most gaffe-ridden movie of the summer. But they’re the kind of gaffes that tend to go unnoticed until somebody of such anal upbringing points them out. Rest assured, though, that the mustard and ketchup bottles in the malt shop still do their magical one-second-they’re-knocked-down, next-second-they’re-standing trick.

In terms of audio, right from the beginning and the faint buzz of a faulty Atomic Café neon sign through the antsy antics in the jungle and the delicious sounds of Marion driving a submersible off a cliff and onto a tree, there’s a lot to savor sonically.

The audio options on the feature are English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital and subtitles are available in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

On the supplements, subtitles are available in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

How to Use This Disc

If you’re skeptical and not concerned about spoilers, then watch The Return of a Legend featurette on Disc 1 then watch the movie; for those concerned about spoilers, reverse that order. After that, do not miss the History Timeline. It’s a real treat.