I should point out, the experience I relay below was not in an IMAX. I was simply walking past a regular theatre when I noticed showtime started in ten minutes…
I wasn’t five minutes into my viewing of Raiders of the Lost Ark that it dawned on me what a new experience this was. Admittedly, it’s been over twenty years since I last witnessed Steven Spielberg’s love sonnet to popular adventure serials of the 30s and 40s (front to back, that is). What I encountered was an experience so richly cinematic, so joyful in its revelry of both its influences and its ability to create a unique iconography all its own, that I felt completely rejuvenated in my love of cinema as I exited the theatre.
I give credit to Paramount and Lucasfilm for doing it right this time. I don’t need to see old favorites reformatted into inflated 3D spectacle. What I do appreciate is having the opportunity to say I witnessed a film like Raiders in a dark room with like-minded peers. The danger in the stunts, the swagger of Ford’s Indy, the sweeping John Williams score: all contained in one singular, theatrical experience without the distractions of an outside world.
It’s not often I gush all over a film, but you already of course know Raiders is something special. And sandwiched between theatre’s showing Resident Evil: Retribution 3D and Resident Evil: Retribution IMAX 3D it occurred to me how rare experiences like this have become. For all the fantasy and pageantry a film like Raiders is capable of, its true success lies in its tangibility – the texture and heightened reality inherent with practicality. This a film that transports you to a time and place away from your own life and without need for green screens or CG overkill – a built with the careful hands of carpenters; with real actors, props, sets all inheriting real space. And, of course, the snakes.
Raiders of the Lost Ark would of course not exist in its current form if it were made today. The threat of seeing Harrison Ford face to face with a live cobra or being dragged from a truck are of course scenes that would have been completed in post. It occurred to me that Spielberg’s own Tintin and Crystal Skulls serve as antitheses to what Raiders so deftly had accomplished. Regardless of your feelings on those films, they show a filmmaker who’s limited no longer by technology but only by imagination. When taken to the furthest extreme, danger and excitement are lessoned by computer wizardry. If Raiders were made today, I fear the draw would exaggeration would be too strong. Why have the snakes be just snakes when we can create 30-foot long serpents? Why drag a stunt double from a truck when we can add him later on in post?
Because it’s movie magic: proof positive that suspension of disbelief is made easier (even downright fascinating) when “How’d they do that?” reenters the conversation.
This disparity is made all the more apparent in Crystal Skulls, where the iconography of Dr. Jones feels displaced against the clean and refined backdrops of the digital world. Yet, in Raiders, when Indy traverses the jungles of Peru, the viewer is there with him – engrossed in the lush reality of the setting and enchanted in the dark playfulness of William’s score. This is blockbuster without disconnect – something made foggier with modern techniques employed by filmmakers who proved how much more is accomplished in the atmosphere of restraint.
Computer-generated imagery of course has its place in cinema. But let Raiders be a reminder that it’s woefully overused. When I spoke to Drew Goddard about his excellent Cabin in the Woods, he stressed the importance of practical effects but also conceded how useful CG can be when you’re shooting on a deadline. His point: if and when something couldn’t be accomplished naturally, they knew they had CG to fall back on. His film, and the special effects in particular, speak for themselves. Still, the marriage of practical and CG doesn’t have to be as one-sided as Hollywood has lead us to believe.
Stepping away from my soap box, I’m not sure Spielberg’s specific brand of direction has ever felt more alive than it does here. This was a director who trusted his audience and took his time setting up beautiful payoffs. I love when Indy discovers the Well of Souls’s permenant residents to be an enclave of snakes. We remember back to the beginning of the film when he discovers a snake in his seaplane getaway. Or the scene where tempestuous Marion and Belloq get tipsy off Belloq’s homeblend. We recall from the Nepal drinking game scene that Marion can handle her liquor better than she’s letting on. Complications that, while simple, are eminently effective.
For me, no moment in the film is more enjoyable than the decidedly small-scale “Bad Dates” scene. Where Indy tempts fate by almost snacking on a date, even as the audience already knows its been poisoned. Spielberg toys with the audience as our hero’s poisonous date consumption gets stifled repeatedly. And just as Indy throws it into his mouth, Sallah intercepts at the last second. Simple, effective, perfectly staged.
I needed this reminder. A memento of what storytellers like Spielberg, Lucas and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan are capable of accomplishing. Even after thirty long years, this film still works. The term blockbuster means something different now – a dynamic, while not lost completely, is now sadly underrepresented in films of a grander scale. That seed of magic where we wonder how a certain instance was accomplished now typically lies dormant. I don’t need actors to be put in real danger (a pane of glass, visible in the film, separated Ford from the cobra): I need to believe my characters are in danger. I don’t typically. I’m thankful to Raiders of the Lost Ark for reminding me of a time when I once did.
In 1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark went on to become the highest grossing film of the year. In 1999 it was added to the United States Library of Congress’ National Film Registry; deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” In 2012 it’s simply the most exciting and satisfying cinematic experience I’ve had in a theatre this year. After all this time, Raiders still had the power to melt my face off.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars