In absentia

Len Wiseman’s Total Recall remake perfectly epitomizes the bland prosaicness of summer 2012.

You may or may not have noticed a conspicuous lack of blog entries since I took former film-master Ridley Scott to task for his dreadful Prometheus. There are a number of reasons (or excuses) for this. In the end, I think I grew weary of writing how woefully inadequate movies have become. This summer’s disappointing inventory began with the over-acclaimed Avengers and continued for the next several weeks with Men in Black III, Snow White and the Huntsman, Brave, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Savages, The Amazing Spider-Man, Ice Age: Continental Drift (penance for taking my wife to see Prometheus), The Dark Knight Rises, Total Recall, Hope Springs, The Bourne Legacy, ParaNorman, The Expendables 2, Premium Rush, and Lawless. None of these films were bad films, per se (Ice Age and Prometheus notwithstanding), and that’s what makes them so ironically lackluster. There was a marked absence of risk-taking in most, if not all, of these films. There hasn’t been a summer slate of movies this unimpressive since 1990 (which, coincidentally, is the year the first Total Recall was released). I’m not suggesting summer films should all be The Godfather. On the contrary. Last summer had some real surprises and some exhilarating fluff. Fast Five alone proved you could make an impressive action film out of unabashed superficiality. If pressed, I could single out August’s ParaNorman for its impressive production design (and it does make a lovely addition to the Halloween movie season) but it suffers from too many unnecessary lapses in logic that are played for empty slapstick. The overall impression this summer’s films left on me was a shrug of my shoulders, a dissatisfied, “eh” and a dismissive, “What’s next?”

It says something about the current state of Hollywood summer movie fare that “what’s next” turned out to be a thirty-old adventure that was the most interesting and enjoyable piece of entertainment in the last four months. Raiders of the Lost Ark arrived this past Friday for a one-week IMAX engagement in a classic instance of the grizzled old veteran showing the young upstarts how it’s done. In a move geared toward marketing the upcoming Blu-ray set of the Indiana Jones series, Paramount has released a cleaned-up digital print that is perhaps the sharpest and crispest this film has looked since it first premiered in 1981.

A typical day in the life of an archaeologist.

Having seen Raiders countless times on HBO, VHS and DVD, and given my sometime propensity for nitpicking, it seems natural that the first thing I noticed was how good the picture looked in digital projection. Right off the bat, Raiders maintains its film grain look, which will be a relief to those who fear the dreaded soap opera effect that is the bane of HDTV and is currently plaguing Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. The picture itself is beautifully crisp. Details popped out that I never before noticed: the gorgeous design of Marion’s blouse in Nepal; the scar on Colonel Dietrich’s face (I never knew it was there!); The dirt stains on Captain Katanga’s white sweater. There is so much detail, in fact, that it highlights the flaws in the original negative. I never realized before what a focus challenge this film presented for cinematographer Douglas Slocombe. There are more than a few instances where focus is lost. In earlier scenes, there was some noticeable shimmering where this occurred. After that, I could detect no digital artifacts.

What really stands out is the superb IMAX audio: nice, crisp sound through every channel and dynamic range, even at its loudest, including the bass. There was no distortion even with the pyrotechnics: from fuse to ignition to detonation to explosion, each sound was detectable. Ben Burtt’s sound design was a revolution in 1981. Every punch was a boom. Every gunshot an explosion unto itself. Yet nothing overwhelms the soundtrack. In the current bass-obsessed climate, filmmakers could learn something from Burtt’s relative restraint. On top of it all, John Williams’ score remains as masterly as ever, following the action well without veering off into generic bombast.

Admittedly it’s been over a decade since I’ve attended a movie in an authentic IMAX auditorium and since then I have not been a big proponent of the format. My experience in recent years has been in the popularly termed LieMAX auditoriums that carry the IMAX name but lack the giant screens for which they have become known. Still, the AMC Mission Valley screen, at least, is considerably larger than most, if not all, of the standard screens in San Diego. And as Raiders of the Lost Ark was not filmed in IMAX, you won’t be missing anything vertically.

For a shameless dose of nostalgia, or even as an experiment in quality film presentation, Raiders of the Lost Ark is an enjoyable experience that marks an upbeat conclusion to a decidedly downbeat summer.

Raiders of the Lost Ark plays through Thursday at several San Diego IMAX locations.

Disagree? That’s fine by me. Share your thoughts below.