If you’re a movie geek of my approximate generation, then you probably grew up madly in love with Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, and you’ve probably seen the movie more times than you can count. Odds are you’ve also seen at least some of the enjoyably thorough fan-made Raiders “adaptations” that has been bouncing around on VHS tapes, at the convention circuit, and then online for the past few decades.
Produced over the course of seven years (1986 to 1993) by a bunch of geeky teenagers with more enthusiasm than talent, Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation won a lot of fans because of what it represents: the sort of pure and unfiltered movie love that inspires a group of friends to “remake” a work of art that is near and dear to their collective heart. Coming from a bunch of 15-year-olds, the Raiders “adaptation” is kitschy, cute, and charming– but watching those guys trying to emulate the same magic as 40-year-olds is more than a little irritating.
Fortunately the cool new documentary called Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made seems to understand both of these perspectives. If it seems to lean just a little on the cheerleader side of the equation, co-directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skausen deserve fair credit for at least casting a curious expression towards the now-grown-up fan-filmmakers who do all sorts of obnoxious things in an effort to recapture a piece of nostalgic glory. Or something.
As it turns out, Raiders: The Adaptation director Eric Zala is still haunted by the fact that he was never able to add a key sequence to his film. So now, 23 years later, he’s getting the band back together so they can shoot an emulation of the wonderful fight sequence that involves Indiana Jones, a hulking Nazi, a rolling airplane, a pilot, a gun, a girl, and a huge series of explosions. The fact that these guys almost burned a house down as kids is all but forgotten as “boys being boys” silliness, which is fine, but frankly there’s no excuse for the sort of unsafe, exploitative, and consistently amateurish behavior they display as adults.
Raiders! is certainly diverting enough for movie geeks as it rolls through the history of the kids’ original project, and the interview segments with geek culture luminaries like Ernie Cline, Eli Roth, Harry Knowles, and Tim League add a nice dash of perspective as to why “the adaptation” has managed to avoid obscurity and enjoy a second life — but when we switch back to the contemporary angle, that’s when things get particularly (and maddeningly) fascinating.
I’m not sure if we’re meant to cheer or jeer for the grown-up Eric Zala as he A) screws people out of money, B) pontificates on his high school video project as if it was some sort of cinematic masterpiece, C) repeatedly begs his boss for a few more days off from work, and D) puts numerous people in serious danger because he believes that pretending to be a seasoned filmmaker is the same as being a professional filmmaker.
Pay close attention to how a specific demolitions “expert” almost loses his life so Mr. Zala can complete his opus, and then compare that to the good-natured, movie-lovin’ enthusiasm of the guys’ 1990-era footage. It all makes for pretty fascinating viewing, but one wishes that Raiders! had focused just a little bit less on the fan-filmmakers’ self-congratulatory tone, and a little more on the bad things that can (and often do) happen when grown-ups insist on behaving like children.
Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is half sweet and half sour; it pays homage to a brilliantly influential movie, it illustrates the simple joys of fanboy imitation games, and it shows how honest enthusiasm can gradually transform itself into ego, arrogance, and borderline obsession.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 fan-made burritos
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