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Entries in Raiders of the Lost Ark [1981] (1)

Friday
Nov252011

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Kingdom of the Crystal Skill

Two days ago, I attended a 30th Anniversary screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark at Chicago's Music Box Theatre. Among the crowd in the not-quite-packed house were several children, which I found encouraging. I explained to a friend that exposing this generation's kids to the classics is the only thing that will keep our favorite movies relevant after us old fanboys have passed on.*

I've seen Raiders a handful of times in my life, with each viewing separated by several years. It's a great litmus test for where my head's at. As a child, it was the cool, creepy adventure film with the big rolling ball and melting faces. As a teenager, it was a goofy ride whose polish had faded due to a couple of lackluster sequels. In my twenties, I was distracted by the cute girl sitting a few seats down in the theatre (Hi, honey!). Today, I look at Steven Spielberg's masterpiece as a shining example of what so many modern filmmakers try and fail to accomplish every year: create a blockbuster cultural icon that plays to audience nostalgia while forging its own lasting identity.

The globe-trotting adventures of Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) are an homage to the cliffhanger serials of the 30s and 40s. Raiders, in particular, is very episodic, with Indy swiping a gold idol** and evading natives in South America before teaming up with ex-girlfriend Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) in Nepal, and finally battling Nazis in Egypt. Even these chunks are broken up into mini-adventures that thrill the audience while at the same time filling in the rich history of characters we've never met before.

Raiders is a triumph of exposition that can be enjoyed by kids who just need to know that Nazis are evil and want to dig up a magic lightning box, as well as adults who love the intricate back-story of how a biblical relic has been secreted away for centuries, bringing misfortune and death to all who encounter it. An early scene in which Indy and his colleague, Marcus (Denholm Elliott), explain the ark's mystery to a pair of government officials is a master class in downloading lots of important information in a way that doesn't involve characters simply talking to each other. They use their environment and enthusiasm for the material to make us understand what's at stake.

Co-writers Spielberg and Lawrence Kasdan succeed, too, in giving us a wide mental canvas with which to fill in Indy's past adventures, which involve stealing his mentor's daughter's heart and constantly dodging rival French archaeologist, René Belloq (Paul Freeman). The movie feels like the twenty-ninth installment in cinema's longest-running adventure series, one that still rides high on wit and new dangers. A lot of this has to do with the actors' chemistry and their ability to play the material as if they've lived with these characters for a long, long time.

One thing I hadn't picked up on until the other night is the importance of John Williams' score. That sounds like a no-brainer, but imagine watching the map room scene with the sound off. In this long sequence, Indy lowers himself into a room, sets up a staff, searches meticulously for the right slot in a grid of slots marked by hieroglyphics, and then waits for the sun to catch a crystal in the staff at just the right moment. But accompanied by music that builds from eerie intimacy to foreboding, crashing seriousness, the moment becomes a fate-of-the-planet revelation where God points to the hidden ark and says to Indy, "Go there!"

So, what makes the movie as thrilling today as it was three decades ago? For one thing, unlike most actioners of the last decade, the peril in Raiders feels like it's happening to real people in real locations. The only evident uses of green screen involve a shot of characters standing against nasty storm clouds and the ark's final resting place. Everything else is done practically, with actors chasing each other around spinning planes with whirring propellers, swinging across open chasms, and playing hide-and-seek in crowded desert marketplaces. I'm not suggesting that creating virtual environments and compositing actors into them is easy, but it rarely looks as realistic as the filmmakers would like to think we think they are.

Raiders is also extremely bold for a supposed family film. Its PG rating belies the speared-through corpse of a young Alfred Molina or the aforementioned melting faces, which are accompanied by skull-faced harpies ripping through Nazi soldiers and exploding evildoers' heads. Most adventures today are soft, wacky affairs that substitute set-pieces for substance. Raiders has it both ways and, despite being potentially traumatizing to younger viewers, is the kind of exciting cerebral nourishment that has sparked a generation of artists and thrill-seekers.

One need look no further than 2008's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to see what a bludgeoned, defeated franchise looks like. That film is a heartbreaker of sloppy call-backs, ridiculous CGI stunts, and a leading man whose tired expression is not so easily explained away by his character's alleged world-weariness.*** Sadly, after Raiders, the Indiana Jones franchise became a focus-grouped nightmare, a goofy, kiddie-pandering marketing machine that turned every adult into a cartoon character with fleeting moments of heart (I know everyone loves Short Round, but he's the Jar Jar Binks of this series).

But as long as families keep coming out to honor great cinema, we'll always have Raiders. If you can catch this limited theatrical run, do yourself a favor and rediscover it on the big screen. Trust me.

*This reminded me of a sad-'cause-it's-true joke from A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas in which a lippy teenager sings the praises of of the "only" Karate Kid movie--starring Jayden Smith and Jackie Chan.

**By the way, have you ever looked at that idol? I used to think it was just a scary man with giant teeth. But it's actually a woman with a smaller person emerging from her gaping vagina. Behold, the magic of digital restoration!

***If you need proof of this, ask yourself which film springs to mind when you think "Indiana Jones". Then consider that the only time anyone refers to Crystal Skull is by mockingly invoking the phrase "Nuke the 'Fridge"--a contemporary update of "Jump the Shark".