A Note To Readers:

As a point of clarification, this article discusses two different films, which could be a bit disorienting:

Raiders Of The Lost Ark: The Adaptation is a well-loved, kid-crafted, lo-fi 80s remake of Spielberg’s classic film.

Raiders! The Story Of The Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, is a new documentary about the making — and the completion — of that adaptation. Raiders! is currently screening at Fantasia International Film Festival and is the focus of this review.

By now, most film geeks have heard the story, or shreds of it, at least: about a group of kids who created a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders Of The Lost Ark in the 1980s. Armed with little money, lots of heart, a Betamax camera, and plenty of elbow grease, Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, Jayson Lamb, and their friends spent their allowance, birthday and Christmas presents, and seven years of their lives on their labor of love. Our own Victor Pryor highlighted that film as a Cinapse Pick Of The Week.

In April 2013, Raiders: The Adaptation screened at the Kansas City Drafthouse, and I knew I had to check it out. My friend Josh Wille, in addition to being a huge Indy fan, is a film revision and fan culture expert, so I knew he’d want to attend. So along with Josh and his wife Stephi, we took our seats not quite knowing what to expect.

For its part, The Adaptation is a ton of fun. There’s no shortage of ingenuity on display, and despite the epic scale of the source material, the kids really do pull it off. The stunts and effects in particular are incredibly impressive, the pure energy of it more than compensating for the terrible picture quality and amateur acting. The kids’ ages vary noticeably throughout, thanks to the six-year production. It’s all incredibly enjoyable, packing in the thrills of Spielberg’s film along with an entire second meta-layer of rooting for the kids making the film.

Chris Strompolos (“Indy”) did some Q&A after the film, and my own question was, “What about the scene with the airplane?” [Note: Josh recalls that it was he who asked this. Maybe it was.]

As it turns out, this question was one that they heard a lot, and its answer would take on a life of its own. A couple of decades after wrapping on The Adaptation, the gang would reunite to shoot the final missing scene and integrate it into the film.

After the screening, we spent a good while chatting with Chris, and would meet with him again when Josh invited him as a guest presenter to screen the film at the University of Kansas. We took him to dinner and had a great time discussing films of all kinds (he’s a major film buff) and in particular transformative works such as remakes, remixes, fan edits, and the like. Anyway, the point to all this is that while I’m going to give an honest and frank review, that’s my small history with the project for full disclosure.

Raiders! The Story Of The Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is mostly based on the book of the same name which chronicled the turbulent making of the film, and its backdrop of family problems and internal strife. Featuring spots of narration by John Rhys-Davies (the original’s “Sallah”), the film tells the story of the making of the adaptation, and intercuts the modern story of the film’s completion: Now grown up, the “kids” reunite to complete the flying wing scene that was missing from their original cut, with the intention of creating a full-on high quality production with the same now-adult cast, and reinserting it into the childhood narrative. It’s a compelling concept. Both stories present many challenges and obstacles, and the pacing is such that it keeps both timelines engaging.

The modern chapter of the story, told in parallel with the original making, is surprisingly no less full of difficulties and challenges than their childhood project. It might seem that the fame their adaptation had achieved, as well as a successful Kickstarter funding campaign might have smoothed out their challenges, but this was not their experience. Now leading families, holding down jobs, and attending to other adult responsibilities, the team is constantly behind schedule and putting out fires — both literal and metaphorical. With uncooperative weather and other problems, it’s never guaranteed that even this latest venture will be successful.

I would imagine that the original adaptation’s creation is of the greatest interest to most viewers. Without the grown-up considerations that imperil the modern chapter, there’s a sense of childhood purity and audacity which slowly gives way to some of the real life problems that the boys dealt with. Interviews from “the kids”, their parents, and even their teachers are complemented with a ton of vintage footage, not only from the adaptation but from the considerable extra footage, as well as other recordings such as TV news reports. The real meat of it all isn’t so much about the actual creation of the film, but the drama that served as a backdrop to the boys’ project. Besides trouble on the set and filmmaking woes, they also dealt with more serious things like parents divorcing, and growing up without strong father figures — and in the case of Chris, a violent and alcoholic step-father. All this was in addition to growing into teenagers with typical teenage problems like fitting in at school and fighting over girls.

The film describes the drifting and falling out of the kids as they grew up, and the directions their lives took as adults. Raiders! never gives in fully to nostalgia nor to despair. There’s a palpable sense of sadness to the fittingly Spielbergian childhoods that the kids had, but is at its heart an inspiring and hopeful film. Eventually, director Eli Roth got ahold of their tape and introduced it to film geekdom at large, where it made an appearance at Butt-Numb-A-Thon and had the crowd eating out of its hand, leading to even bigger things that the boys could never have imagined. It’s a very touching and inspiring culmination of the “original” story, leading into the modern chapter. Roth, Harry Knowles, and Tim League all pop into Raiders! to talk about the film’s reception. Once this happened, the kids — now adults — were sought out and went on an amazing journey of rediscovery, eventually even teaming up to finish their adaptation’s last incomplete sequence.

There’s plenty here for audiences, particularly those close in age to its protagonists, to love and appreciate. There’s a wide audience for this film. Film fans love films about filmmaking, and this definitely fits that category. But even more generally, the family struggles will certainly strike a chord with anyone who has gone through similar problems, and everyone, and I mean everyone loves Raiders Of The Lost Ark, right?

The film doesn’t try to make any bigger statements about childhood or nostalgia, instead sticking pretty close to just telling the story, which I think will probably please some viewers and disappoint others. I’m not sure which approach would be better, but it seems an honest and straightforward telling, even with some of the uglier parts of the makers’ personal lives.

Both Raiders Of The Lost Ark: The Adaptation and Raiders! are highly recommended and obviously serve as complementary films, though I’d specify that while the original adaptation is absolutely kid-friendly, Raiders! is intended for grown-ups. Given the option, I would suggest watching the adaptation first without the narrative “burden” of the behind-the-scenes story, and then dive deeper with Raiders!. But even if you watch them in the reverse order, I think they would still play well. Either way, watching one will make you want to see the other. I don’t know what sway copyrights — or the expressed approval of Spielberg of the original adaptation — might have, but I can only hope that when Raiders! makes its way to home video, the original adaptation will also be included.

A/V Out.

Previous post LAST KNIGHTS: Syntax Blues
Next post TRUE DETECTIVE Recap: Past is Prologue