If you’re a child of the ’80s, we don’t have to tell you the plot to 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. You know it. For many, Raiders is a pivotal moment in their pop-culture existence, right up there with Star Wars or Jaws, and it’s so ingrained in their lives that when the triumphant triumvirate behind the Indiana Jones series, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford, released 2008’s disastrous Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, some even went so far as to say that the film ruined their childhood. Grossly hyperbolic, yes, but indicative of the impact that Raiders of the Lost Ark had on many.
Take for instance, Ocean Springs, Miss. pre-teens Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb. Their love for Raiders was so strong that they set out to make a shot-for-shot remake of the film. Their adventure begins in 1982.
Since video rentals were still a rarity at that time, the trio relied on articles from magazines, the published screenplay, storybooks, action figures, and audio recordings of the film — thanks to the tape recorder they snuck into movie theater showings — to craft their remake. In 1989, their film, Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, was mostly finished — one crucial scene was missing — and they celebrated it by having a hometown premiere in a local Coca-Cola plant.
Fast forward to 2002, after years of languishing in obscurity, the film gained a new life thanks to a screening at the Butt-Numb-A-Thon film festival in Austin, Texas. Before long, what was once a local sensation was now getting the attention of film geeks worldwide. Ultimately, it led to a book, a long-gestating biopic (that has yet to be made), and, now, Tim Skousen and Jeremy Coon’s documentary Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made.
I saw a bootleg of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation a few years back. It works so well because of the enthusiasm shown by Strompolos, Zala, and Lamb and their willingness to do whatever it takes to match the look of the original film, from filling the scenes with neighborhood kids, creating the giant boulder in the film’s opening segment, lighting a basement on fire in an attempt to emulate the Himalayan bar fight, and even re-staging the chase scene in which Indy (Strompolos) is dragged behind a truck filled with Nazis. Part of the charm of The Adaptation is that you’re essentially watching a home movie in which the actors randomly grow older and younger throughout, a result of the fact that the film was not shot in chronological order. Furthermore, the behind-the-scenes drama — the kids using film fandom as an escape from the pains of divorce, fraying friendships, and raging hormones, give The Adaptation a rich Spielbergian subtext so prevalent in ’80s era productions like The Goonies and E.T.
The alternate storyline that the film cuts back to, while intriguing, has less pull. As the adaptation gained notice from film nerd elites like Alamo Drafthouse owner Tim League, director Eli Roth (Hostel, Cabin Fever), and Aint It Cool News’ Harry Knowles, it ultimately inspired Lamb and Zala to film the one scene they never got to, Indiana Jones’s epic — and explosive — airport tarmac brawl. The middle-aged drama of family and a boss threatening to fire you take a backseat to Zala and Strompolos’ passion to complete this one scene involving pyrotechnics and a lot more crew members than those shoots in the ’80s. Old tensions arise when we learn Lamb was sidelined in the wake of the film’s 1989 premiere and is virtually ignored during the course of the tarmac shoot. While the passion of Zala is engaging, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that we were witnessing an exercise in unchecked egotism, all in the pursuit of a manufactured post-script meant to extend the film an additional 15 minutes.
While fanboys are currently raging over the all-female Ghostbusters remake and the much-maligned Batman v Superman, it’s refreshing to see that passion in a positive light. Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made ultimately sweeps the audience into its joyful pull.