Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Indiana Jones Series Review - Part One: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen

Every time I meet someone, we invariably get into a conversation about what our favorite movies are. When it's my turn, Raiders of the Lost Ark is (without fail) the first film I mention, and about 90% of the time, I follow it with the word "obviously." I watched Raiders again a couple of days ago (my roommate had never seen it), and it didn't miss a beat. There are a lot of movies that lose their gusto as time passes; Raiders is not one of them. I stayed as enthralled with every scene as I was when I watched as a child, and that reason alone is why this series captured the heart of America and continues to mesmerize and excite us 27 years after the first film was released.

Really, though - what did you expect from a teaming of two of the most influential directors of the modern era? Spielberg and Lucas are legendary, and the recent collaborations between Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, and Quentin Tarantino for Sin City and Rodriguez and Tarantino on Grindhouse are the only projects that come close to modern equivalents. But even those fall far below the talent level of combining Spielberg and Lucas. Star Wars, Jaws, Close Encounters, anyone? These guys were ridiculous, and with their powers combined they created the highest grossing movie of 1981 and started a franchise that would become as legendary as they were.

Raiders of the Lost Ark hits on so many levels, they're hard to fit in one article. Adventure, romance, action, car chases, explosions, whip-cracking, simple but effective dialogue, history, religion - I dare you to find something in that list that you don't like. Obviously a throw-back to the cliffhanger adventure serials of the 1930s and 40s, Raiders translated that "Saturday morning cartoon" feeling directly onto the screen without seeming over-the-top or forced, which is a miracle in itself.

The protagonists are easily relatable, and shy away from stereotypes. When Spielberg and Lucas were discussing the character originally, Lucas wanted Indy to be more like James Bond; luckily Spielberg stepped in and said that his persona of professor and adventurer was characterization enough. The combination of Indy's sensitivity and rugged ability to get his hands dirty gives him a distinctly different feel from the slick Bonds of old (although Daniel Craig's interpretation is more comparable in these respects). Marion Ravenwood is as stubborn as they come - she can drink more than anyone in Nepal but take care of Indy's wounds at the same time. No "damsel in distress" stereotypes here - although Indy did have to rescue her at the end, the film didn't portray her as the helpless woman that you so often see in action films.

Belloq was kind of a one-dimensional villain, but I liked the way they played it out in the movie because they used the "intellectual equal" factor that evens the playing field for our hero. I love this kind of villain/hero face off - it generally means the hero is actually threatened and is forced to outsmart his opponent in order to survive instead of just punching him in the face like countless other minions throughout movies like this. Belloq's one-dimensional aspect didn't necessarily hurt the character, but it would have been nice to see him have some other motivation for his actions other than just his own curiosity. And come on: the Nazis are some of the greatest villains one could ever fight - everyone hates them already, so there's no chance that people could be sympathetic to their cause (skinheads notwithstanding). Also, the sidekick characters of Marcus Brody and Sallah are some of my favorite minor characters ever committed to the screen.

The music for this film becomes a character in itself, and John Williams outdid himself when he came up with this one. I'm sure he high-fived whoever was in the room when he finished this masterpiece. It's by far my favorite theme song, and I'm honestly surprised that it hasn't been sampled in a rap song yet.

When we watched the movie, my friend said that the opening scene was one of the best in cinematic history. I balked at this statement, thinking it was a little brazen and that he didn't really think it through before he said it. But after watching it again, I realized that there's no thought necessary - he's right. Better than almost all Bond openings (sorry, Connery - you'll get your Indy lovin' in The Last Crusade review), the opening for Raiders has been parodied so many times that everyone recognizes it whether they've seen the movie or not.

The ending has always been one of my favorite endings because of the breathtaking questions posed by that final shot. But now that I think about it, structurally speaking, it's kind of a weak ending. Indy and company have worked so hard to preserve the legitimacy of a legendary discovery and to keep it pure, and the government comes in and F's it all up by hiding it from everyone. Whatever - it's still one of the coolest ending shots ever filmed.

Little trivia for you: the scene filmed in the desert canyon was filmed in the same location as the Jawa sequence in Star Wars. Also, John Rhys-Davies (Sallah, Indy's Egyptian friend) crapped himself on set in the middle of a shot because most of the crew contracted dysentary in Tunisia due to the unbearable filming conditions. I laughed really hard when I read that, and I'm a bad person because of it.

Every scene in this film is iconic, and if the filmmakers of the upcoming Crystal Skull can recapture two thirds of the magic that Raiders possessed, then I'll be pleased with their effort. Keep your eyes peeled for the next two reviews in this series, Temple of Doom by guest contributor Tyler Branz and The Last Crusade by yours truly. Until next time...


Noah said...

I dont follow the rumors at all, but when you mentioned the ending of Raiders, it got me thinking...
I think there's a good chance that the Ark of the Covenant will be a plot point in Crystal Skull. The preview shows a similar looking warehouse, and Marion Ravenwood is back. Any thoughts/info?

Ben Pearson said...

First off, as always: thanks for reading, Noah.

As far as the plot for the newest film goes, no one really knows Marion's full role other than she supposedly plays Indy's love interest/Shia LaBeouf's mom. But that warehouse sure looks like the same one as the ending of Raiders to me. Unfortunately, I hear they may be bringing aliens into the mix in the newest one with Area 51 playing some sort of role, so I'm hoping this doesn't ruin the movie completely. I'm obviously seeing it regardless, and I'm excited as hell about seeing it.

tee breezy said...

this was awesome...expect temple of doom in the next 2 weeks...and what's with the blog name change?

Ben Pearson said...

Meh - just an effort to increase readership across the board. I figure people who might stumble across the blog randomly might be more apt to come back if they realize that it's more of an open thing instead of them having to know who I am to be interested in the content. It's kind of a "sell-out" thing to do, but whatever - we'll see how it works and if I don't like it I'll change it back in a couple weeks.