Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Raiders of a Lost Art

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), an adventure movie inspired by the movie serials my dad went to see in theatres as a kid, appeared in theatres when I was ten years old. It was nominated for a bunch of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, because it was a beautifully-made movie with an excellent script by Lawrence Kasdan. It inspired well-known sequels that never rose to its level of quality, and a TV show I never watched. Notably, Kasdan did not work on any of them.

Watching the sequels as they have come out have only reminded me of how great the original movie was. The sequels are entertaining, but highly campy. In the first movie, we are asked to suspend our disbelief just far enough - the near misses and spine-chilling stunts stay within a reasonable distance of reality. In Raiders, Indiana Jones is mortal - he even sustains a gunshot wound that requires treatment and care.

In all of the sequels - The Temple of Doom (1984), The Last Crusade (1989), and the brand-new Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (still in theatres, summer 2008) - that suspension of disbelief is exploded into the realm of camp. We are shown runaway rail cars that jump the tracks, hurl through the air, and land perfectly on another set of tracks; three people parachuting from an airplane using an inflated lifeboat that rights itself in time for their safe landing; a man surviving a nuclear blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator. We do not thrill at such stunts so much as laugh at them.

The humor in Raiders emerges from well-written and well-portrayed characters: adventurer-professor Indiana Jones, his fiery true love Marion, the obsessive French archaeologist determined to wield power he doesn't understand, all played by high quality actors with intelligence and wit, supported by a well-written script. The third film, which introduces Indiana Jones's father (played memorably by Sean Connery), makes gestures back in this direction. Yet for the most part, the follow-up movies rely on campy humor, on getting us to laugh at more and more unbelievable escapes and stunts.

By the time this new movie, which follows a death-defying adventure of Indiana Jones as a senior citizen, reunites Indy with his true love Marion (not seen since Raiders) and they play a prickly game of catch-up, there is scarcely a sad echo of the quality and the wit of their characters in that very first film 27 years ago. Lawrence Kasdan, the writer who united them in their first movie, is long gone, and there is no time to explore their prickly romance. There are giant computer-animated ants and gigantic underground temples that move around and always bigger louder, more-unbelievable-than-ever THINGS going on. Run! Duck! Cover your ears!

Oh, I had fun; but I forgot most of the movie by the time we left the theatre and tossed our popcorn bucket in the trash. I don't remember the last time I watched Raiders but I can still describe it scene by scene and recite most of the dialogue - just as I could at the age of ten.


Pam said...

While, for the most part, I do agree with you, I did enjoy the latest installment.

It was my boys' first leap into the adventure and they loved it. So much so that we now have purchased the original as well as several of the sequels.

Connor did make the comment the other day that he liked the young Indy in the first movie the best.

I laughed and said, "What? You can't see Pammy doing those stunts?"

Needless to say he hooted and told me I was too old .

Point taken. :)

Kelly said...

I loved the first movie!

I'm pretty sure I saw the first sequel, but have no memory of the other one. We'll check out the latest at some point... just not in the theater.