Saturday, November 27, 2010

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Year: 1981
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 66
Writer: Lawrence Kasdan
Director: Steven Spielberg
Star: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman

There are dozens of ways you could rightly criticize “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but that’s before you insert what I call “the awesome factor.” Little or no characterization? Bah. No trace of an interesting storyline? Who cares? At some point every critic has to just put down their little book of notes and criticisms and just go with it. This movie aims to be nothing more than fun, and succeeds brilliantly. The following things appear in the movie: snakes, poison darts, gold idols, evil Nazis, eviler Nazis, melting faces, plane propellers chopping up Nazis, cliffs, perfectly round boulders, planes, auto chases and drinking games. If that list doesn’t immediately make all your little hairs stand up then, my friend, you don’t probably don’t like sunshine or ponies either.

We learn just about everything we need to know about our characters from their introductions. No one gains any depth as the film hums along, and there are no shocking double crosses. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is introduced as a he-man of an adventurer. He’s really smart, doesn’t deal with emotions and isn’t afraid of anything but snakes. His girl is Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), and what a name she has. That’s the kind of name only a really drunk screenwriter could come up with. Marion is quite a broad. She’s first introduced winning at a drinking game over a very burly, frightening man/woman, and almost immediately decks Indy in the jaw after meeting him. But, of course, she’s in love with him. The villains are a bunch of interchangeable Nazis and Indy’s main rival Belloq (Paul Freeman), whose main characterization comes with his first line to Jones: “Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away.”

That’s all you need to know. Oh, and also that they are hunting the Ark of the Covenant. Now you can probably figure the rest out quite easily.

Ford and Allen deserve one hell of a lot of credit for being able to keep straight faces throughout all of this, and their screen charisma and easy chemistry with one another are the main reason the movie succeeds. If you can tell they are mugging for the camera or not taking what is going on as seriously as death, then the movie will not work.

Though I’m sure if you used a hammer, mallet and chisel you could probably somehow squeeze “Raiders of the Lost Ark” into the rigid three-act structure almost all mainstream movies adhere to, but even then you’d be cheating. There’s no real stakes that continue to be raised. What happens is that screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and director Steven Spielberg simply move Ford and Allen from one big, memorable set-piece to another with little-to-no lag time in the middle. A single beat, that the Ark will be possessed by the Nazis, is repeated probably a dozen times, the only difference being the location. The end of the second act, which should represent the lowest point for our main characters, is no different than any of the other shenanigans they’d gotten themselves into.

But what shenanigans, eh? My favorite is the actual recovery of the Ark in a tomb, with Indy and Marion subsequently trapped inside surrounded by snakes. But it could just as easily be the car chase along a cliffside and through a forest. Or the opening sequence involving the golden idol. Or…you get the idea. Each set-piece consistently builds until it reaches the point of unbelievability, then takes it a step further. Look at the tomb sequence. Indy enters a tomb full of thousands of poisonous snakes (his one weakness). Then Indy recovers ark, but it is immediately stolen by the Nazis. Then Marion is thrown into the tomb. Then the tomb is closed. Then their torches are about to go out. Then Indy rides an ancient statue into a wall (point of unbelievability) to facilitate their escape. Then they find their way out through a convenient loose rock.

Yes, here is a movie that says “Why not?” instead of “Why?” Let’s give Indiana Jones a whip! Why not? Let’s have one of the Nazis burn his hand on an ancient artifact and then use it as a map! Why not? Of course, much of this is madness, and the only reason it works is because Spielberg is a genius at staging, pacing and wowing the audience. But even he has trouble from time to time, as when the aforementioned Nazi burns his hand. The editing seems speeded up as the Nazi runs outside to thrust his hand into snow, giving the moment a “Three Stooges” feeling.

Filmmakers have bent over backwards attempting to replicate the same energy and rock-em-sock-em attitude. Every summer studios march out at least a dozen films with the same barely-interconnected set-pieces created more because of the evolution of special effects and less because they are just plain enjoyable. Perhaps they may soon realize that they have reached the creative point of diminishing returns. After all, how many summer tentpoles are as just plain fun as “Raiders”? Okay, its three sequels are great, and I’d throw in “Jurassic Park,” but what else? The “Mission: Impossible” films? “Iron Man”? “The Mummy” remake? Perhaps it’s a good sign that our summer tentpoles are becoming darker and more story-driven (the Harry Potter films, “The Dark Knight”), but sometimes don’t you just wish movies were fun again?

Another part of the fun is looking at the now horribly outdated special effects. Even though they were cutting edge at the time of the movie’s release, many of them still look pretty phony. There is something about seeing the miniatures and matte paintings that is more enjoyable and more rewarding than watching a perfectly-created CGI army of trolls attacking a castle. And there are actual stunts involved here, not CG characters doing impossible things! Who would’a thunk it?

I grew up with “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the Indiana Jones franchise, and its great to know that as I mature the films have lost none of their spark and vigor. It is still just as pleasurable to watch now as it was when I was ten. And how many other films can you say that about?

My Score (out of 5): *****

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