Re-evaluating the "Raiders of the Lost Ark"
By Dan Cava
September 14, 2012
Dan Cava is an independent filmmaker and a dependent freelance writer and musician. Dan's directorial work can be seen at Vimeo and his Twitter work at @danjcava. He writes film reviews for RELEVANT magazine.
In what I believe to be a clear fulfillment of prophecy, Raiders of the Lost Ark and I were released in the same year, 1981.
In the three decades that have followed, 300 million Americans just like me have had ample time to watch and re-watch Steven Spielberg’s action extravaganza. Raiders has never fallen too far from the public mind, and it’s now a well-known and beloved classic. The New York Times film critic Vincent Camby has called it “one of the most deliriously funny, ingenious, and stylish American adventure movies ever made,” and, quite frankly, there wouldn’t be much to add to that if producer/cinematic-recyclist George Lucas hadn’t revamped the movie for limited release in IMAX in preparation for its Blu-ray release this month.
While some might be put off by the money grab, I was thrilled to participate in the one essential Indy experience that has always eluded me—an option that was unavailable to me at age 0. At long last, I got to see Raiders of the Lost Ark not just on a big screen, but on the biggest and best screen of all.
Rather than a typical review, I’d like offer a few thoughts made possible by the new presentation format, by the passing of 30 years and by the fact that I have thoughts on Raiders of the Lost Ark. So, here we go, with each thought preceded by an appropriate quote from the movie
“It’s not the years; it’s the mileage.”
Surprisingly, Raiders of the Lost Ark in IMAX is a chance to see an even better movie than the one originally released. The filmmakers seem have put the original 35mm source materials where they were meant to be: in the much larger and clearer 70mm format. According to Spielberg in a recent interview, Raiders looks better now than it did in 1981.
Of course, the sonic upgrade is the other big advantage of the new format. Dialogue is crystal clear, and body blows and explosions thunder with well-defined bass notes. Indiana Jones’ gun sounds like a bomb going off—as it should. All in all, Raiders in IMAX is the movie we all love presented in a way Indy fans have heretofore only dreamed about. To quote my friend Jenny, “The snakes were a lot hissier, the whip lash was a lot whippier, but that guy’s face melted off exactly as we remembered.” Awesome.
“Come on! Show a little backbone, will ya?”
After seeing this glorious IMAX enhancement of the one that started it all, it’s tough not to feel even worse about the heartbreakingly sub-par fourth Indy movie that came out in 2008. I’m a big fan of the first two sequels, and especially the joyous third movie, but The Kingdom of Crystal Skull seems even more like a mistake under the shadow of its timeless great-great-grandfather.
Almost everything that makes Raiders a success is missing or compromised in Crystal Skull. Raiders is genuinely funny because its humor is character-based, emanating from the details of a perfect cast’s excellent ensemble performance: Indy’s weary smile, Marion’s spitfire personality, Belloq’s inability to hold his liquor and Sallah’s boisterous joie de vivre.
The most important feature of the first three movies, and the thing that Raiders has in spades, is a sense of real danger. Indy goes through hell in the original trilogy, surviving knife wounds, brutal beatings, poisonings and strangulations by the skin of his teeth. At one point during the legendary aforementioned truck chase, Indy takes a point-blank bullet to the shoulder. That’s Indy’s blood on the windshield, folks.
The fourth movie’s dopey slapstick, CGI monkeys and nuked fridge nearly ruin the entire legacy. While watching Raiders of the Lost Ark in IMAX, I laughed, gasped, cringed and held my breath more times than I ever had before. During Crystal Skull, I just cringed.
“An army that carries the ark before it is invincible.”
Everyone who knows better than to look for good theology in an action movie, please raise your hand.
Okay, I think that’s everyone.
Subtler and more interesting, however, is the ark’s biblically based propensity to protect itself when needed. In a fascinating mixture of judgment and mercy, the film's finale features God saving Indy and instead of Indy saving the ark. When the Nazis sacrilegiously lift the lid, the wrath of God pours out. The entire party of evildoers is horrifically melted and incinerated, then spectacularly (and rather tidily) disposed of in a celestial pillar of fire.
While such gimmickry never appears in the Old Testament, there are many stories of God protecting the ark from falling into the wrongs hands. In 1 and 2 Samuel, a disrespectful handler is killed, a false god is decapitated, three Philistine towns are inflicted with a deadly plague and, most pertinently to Raiders, 70 Israelites are put to death for peeking under the hood. I’d say “put to death” is a pretty apt description for what happens to the Nazis at the end of Raiders.
“See you tomorrow, Indiana Jones!”
Raiders of the Lost Ark in IMAX is an unparalleled cinematic experience. It’s just better. Better than it’s ever looked. Better than it’s ever sounded. Better than we remembered. Better than just about everything that came before it (including itself), and better than just about everything that’s come after it. We still have a few months to go, but so far 1981’s biggest movie is the best movie of 2012.