I'm pretty sure that I've seen Raiders of the Lost Ark more times than any other movie. My grandmother had HBO back in the 1980s when nobody else in my family did and it seemed like Raiders was always on when we'd go over to visit (along with Poltergeist and Cannonball Run II). And as a result, it's one of those movies that is utterly impossible for me to look at objectively - it's part of the bedrock of my internal cinematic landscape. And it's a perfect movie for a kid to watch, because you don't need to be able to follow things like characterization or theme, you just watch the amazingly well-made action sequences and zone out (except for when the bad guys' heads melt, that was freaky for a little kid - in a good way).
Raiders is also probably one of the most shallow great movies ever made - and I don't mean that as a slam, but merely as a description. It's an insanely well-shot and -edited adventure movie that doesn't have a lot to say except that Nazis are bad, you can be a wise-cracking rogue and still want to put artifacts in museums instead of cashing in on them, and that the God of the Old Testament is still lurking around, waiting to unleash some wrath (although apparently His being locked away in a government warehouse kept Him from stopping the Holocaust, whoops). Yeah, the joke involving the no-consequences shooting of the Arab swordsman is a little questionable in the light of the Iranian hostage crisis, but none of that matters when you're five years old. Raiders is beautiful, compulsively watchable, uniquely American (Indy just wants to do the right thing and bust some bad guy heads) and features what might be the best female performance in any Spielberg movie from Karen Allen. Also, can anyone tell me how Indy is supposed to ride the submarine for hundreds of miles to the Nazi base?
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a very uneven movie. The stunts and action scenes are even more mind-blowing than those of Raiders while being marred by an over-reliance on special effects, some of which look like they were never quite finished. The screenplay (from future Howard the Duck auteurs Willard Kuyck and Gloria Katz) is clunkier, the humor is frequently miserably lame, and then there's Kate Capshaw, and I can't think of any Spielberg movie with a moment as shoddy as the dubbed-in screams over shots of crocodiles, somewhere, chewing on leftover costume shreds - it's kind of a mess. Temple of Doom is, however, one of the first instances of Spielberg's more self-conscious side, opening with the lavish "Anything Goes" number in Cantonese on a stage impossibly large to fit within a Shanghai nightclub, the same cinematic side that would years later lead to the subtle self-referentiality and subtexts of A.I. and Minority Report. Anyway, Temple of Doom is guilty of many of the same flaws of 1941 (shrillness, obnoxious humor), but redeemed by Spielberg's raw ability to keep us entertained and Harrison Ford's presence to keep it all grounded.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the least flashy of the three movies, being in a lot of ways a return to safe Raiders territory after the dark fantasies of Temple of Doom, and yet it's also the most richly emotional of the three movies, thanks to perfect interaction between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery (this is the movie Connery should have won his Oscar for, not The Untouchables) and Spielberg's efforts to make a movie that would be more than just a thrill ride. Last Crusade also reaffirms the notion at the end of Raiders, that when faced with our deepest desires, we often need to be willing to do without, to efface what we've told ourselves are our deepest desires. On top of that, the three movies together give us the lesson, 'all major religions are valid', which is an only-in-Hollywood statement to make, that in Tinseltown dream factories, the Gods of the Jews, Hindus, and Christians have equal opportunity to kick bad-guy ass in the third act.
Besides Lucas and Spielberg, a huge amount of credit has to go to John Williams's amazing scores and Michael Kahn's Oscar-winning editing. Watching Harrison Ford in these movies is also interesting, because of how completely he underplays nearly every scene in all three movies, basically mumbling and grimacing in the face of all the beatings and torture that he endures. It's hard to imagine Tom Selleck being willing to so blend into the costume and era as Ford does.
Temple of Doom: 8/10
Last Crusade: 8/10