Classic Films in 4K/HDR Keep the Blu-Ray Boat Afloat

We've fretted a lot (or at least some of us have) over the growth of streaming because it threatens the survival of packaged media—having your favorite films readily available on Blu-ray or UltraHD Blu-ray, at the highest possible consumer quality, sitting on your bookshelf where no tools from a streaming service with cancellation orders can barge in and carry them away (at least not yet!).

But the death of packaged media may have been prematurely reported. Not only do new titles continue to be released, but classic films are now turning up with increasing frequency in 4K, as studios recognize that selling us our existing discs all over again is still a viable concept. Eeven Criterion is rumored to be planning 4K releases. The fact that 4K Blu-rays are region free, making them playable all over the world and thereby vastly increasing the market for them without the need for mastering and stocking multiple versions, is icing on the cake. Ever notice that some 4K releases, including those to be reviewed here, offer more than a dozen languages?

Throw in the fact that some world regions are poorly served by streaming, plus the resistance by some buyers to sign up for a growing list of for-pay streaming services (adding up to more than the cable charges they were seeking to avoid!) and you have an new marketing plan for packaged media.

Many of the new 4K releases combine multiple titles sold together. But tastes vary, and while I might pine for a 4K HDR boxed set of 20th Century Fox's mid '50s CinemaScope sword and sandal epics (The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, and The Egyptian—the latter a personal favorite), other buyers will prefer collections of MGM musicals, or perhaps a Rocky film collection.

But this multiple disc set policy can be a drag as well, when a single gem you can't (as yet) purchase separately is packaged together with several titles you're not interested in. Looking at you, Sony, and the 4-movie Columbia set that includes Lawrence of Arabia! Despite my reservations about two of the four movies in the new Indiana Jones 4-Movie Collection, however, as a whole the series represents some of the best fantasy work of director Steven Spielberg's wide-ranging career—a high bar to clear. Featuring Harrison Ford's archeological action hero of the title, it's well worth having unless you simply don't like the films.

The two dubious titles in the package are Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Temple of Doom is impressive to look at and listen to, but between its yucky banquet scene (kids will find it hilarious as adults toss their popcorn!), its creepy crawlies, (ditto), its annoying child actor, its grim Thuggee sacrifices, and its child slavery, it's just not good family fare. For me the most fun in the movie is the opening dance number in, and the escape from, Shanghai's Club Obi Wan.

The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the entry that followed the original trilogy, but nearly 20 years later. There's clearly more wear and tear here on the old hat and whip, though Indy thunders on gallantly nevertheless. But his efforts are undone by the plot, overdone effects, and the infamous Indy-in-a refrigerator scene from which the film never really recovers. The sound is good (the bass is more powerful than in the older movies) but the photography and resulting video, while generally fine, aren't close to the level of the other films. That's likely because the other three entries were produced using practical (live on set) effects without CGI, which in the '80s wasn't yet good enough. Without CGI, which even today is done in 2K because of the processing power involved, those early Indy films could be scanned in full 4K from beginning to end rather than using full or partial upconversions for the 4K discs. Crystal Skull is a CGI festival—which is both a blessing and a curse.

All of the films here are widescreen and make good use of their new HDR scans,. And overall the two best films are themselves easily worth the price of the boxed set. The first, originally titled simply Raiders of the Lost Ark well before its lead character became iconic, is a platinum-plated classic looking gorgeous in its new 4K HDR togs. While parts of the opening sequence look a little soft, and the characters all have slightly ruddy tans, the film has never looked or sounded better (apart from some looped and canned-sounding dialogue in the opening minutes that's clearly out of whack with the environment).

I first saw Raiders in Los Angeles on its original theatrical release in 70mm with a six-track analog soundtrack. I'm certain it didn't look as good even then as this disc does today, though I wasn't as critical at the time and the huge theater screen was part of the fun.

The Dolby Atmos sound on the disc is even more amazing than the video. While there was surround sound in 1981, there was no Atmos. Sounds can now come from anywhere and everywhere—the twittering of birds above you, the sharp crack of Indy's whip, noisy crowds, and much more. I'm not sure they even attempt sound mixes both as elaborate and subtle as this today, when sheer bombast is the current trend. But the contribution of classic sound designer Ben Burtt to Raiders (and the other films) certainly had something to do with the exceptional results.

Even more impressive is the film's music mix. The blare of the brass, the hushed sound of a choir, and the rest of John Williams' score, one of his best, all come through beautifully. Yes, sometimes the music is steered a bit too much to the surrounds for my taste, but this produced a rich, ambient bubble of sound that filled my room.

While some may justifiably point to the ending, when the Ark is finally opened, as their favorite scene, my favorite takes place in the map room where Indy discovers the location of the Well of Souls where the Ark is later found. The mix here of images, editing, sound effects, and music in this scene combine to produce some of the best work that director Steve Spielberg's team has ever done.

But Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, helped immensely by Shaun Connery as Indy's father is, for me, the best film in the series. It brings with it an audio/video experience every bit as impressive as in the first film (more actually), as Indy searches for the most sought after relic of them all: the Holy Grail. Both Raiders and Crusade have religious overtones (how could they not, given the artifacts in question) though they aren't basically religious films in the way of The Ten Commandments or The Robe. But The Last Crusade, while providing plenty of action (there's a tank chase here that's the best action set piece of the entire series) also generates deeper emotions, particularly in its father and son interplay and striking final act. It's in the latter that John Williams works much of his magic, transitioning between inspirational and the final bass flourish of the main Indiana Jones theme as our heroes ride off into the sunset.

The fifth disc in the collection is loaded with uneven extras. The videos covering the making of the early films is rough and of poor SDR quality—clearly shot on camcorders in the standard definition 480i, 1980s, when special features for use in a home video format were barely given any consideration. They were probably intended for an in-house, cast wrap party. A few brief gems can be found later in the disc, though not enough to prompt watching them again. While there are extras on each individual disc, they're limited to trailers.

You don't acquire this boxed set for the extras. If you buy it for the films themselves, particularly the first and third, you will have chosen wisely.

COMMENTS
Bosshog7_2000's picture

I agree 100% that physical media is better quality than streaming (currently). That said, I am more than a little tired of the same movies being released in yet another format....VHS-DVD-HD-DVD/Blu Ray-4k Blu Ray...8k Blu Ray???

In contrast I bought some of my movies on Apple years ago even though they were only 1080P. Apple has upgraded the majority of those to 4k at no additional charge...plus I don't have physical media cluttering my room.

I still prefer 4k Blu Ray but I am SUPER selective about what I buy now. If Apple and others would step up the audio quality I don't know if I would ever buy a disc again.

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