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November 23, 2011

‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’: Is the Spielberg classic overrated?

Posted in: Movies

Hero Complex readers know how we feel about “Raiders of the Lost Ark” after our 30th anniversary screening  with Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford and the memorable mash note we published from guest essayist Damon Lindelof. We thought pretty much everyone loved the 1981 adventure film but now we bring you an opposing view from Michael Phillips, the Chicago Tribune’s fine film critic, and this essay, which will appear in Thursday’s print edition of the Los Angeles Times.  

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All eyes are on the Chachapoyan Fertility Idol on the set of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” (Lucasfilm)

We hold the movies we love very closely, like a royal flush in poker, and to many people an attack on an adored, endlessly rewatched picture goes beyond fighting words into something like heresy.

Take a movie some people would legally marry if they could, so intense is their devotion. I speak of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” director Steven Spielberg’s 1981 blockbuster, back in a 30th anniversary digitally restored edition. (A shined-up Blu-ray version, according to Spielberg, should be available in 2012.) The angriest, most voluminous emails I ever got on a single review came like thunder and angry bolts of face-melting lightning from God himself after I wrote the following sentence in a review of the fourth and latest Indiana Jones picture, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

“Indiana Jones — let’s be honest — never was a memorable movie character.”

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Steven Spielberg directs Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones on the set of "Raiders of the Lost Ark.” (Lucasfilm)

That “let’s be honest” bit made it worse, of course. Several million people do consider Indiana Jones a memorable movie character. Millions grew up with “Raiders,” so maligning it is tantamount to maligning millions of childhoods. Millions more, meanwhile, of various ages, are crazy about it, and happily give in to its relentless, overpowering action, its intense revenge-on-the-Nazis satisfactions and the climactic reminder that what happens in the Ark of the Covenant should stay in the Ark of the Covenant.

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Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in a scene from "Raiders of the Lost Ark." (Lucasfilm)

For decades, I’ve puzzled through my own resistance to this Spielberg film in relation to the Spielberg films I love, the ones I saw multiple times as a teenager and revere still, and not simply for the enormous impact they made on the younger me. Those films are “Jaws” (1975) and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), very different but complementary in their maker’s masterly ability to enrapture an audience, whether in fear or in wonder.

Audiences worldwide flipped over “Raiders” the way they flipped over the first “Star Wars” picture (released in 1977) because both Spielberg and George Lucas found a way to reprocess their own childhood Saturday morning serial moviegoing hours into tightly packed, feature-length products with up-to-date effects, which now look “period.” Quaint. Younger viewers, then and now, don’t come to “Raiders” with any sense of the modest serials that inspired it. They only know that it’s a movie that doesn’t quit, though compared with a Michael Bay “Transformers” film, “Raiders” offers the occasional pause, the odd bit of exposition, and plenty of pulse-pounding reminders of the dynamic popular entertainer behind the camera.

Until recently, I hadn’t seen “Raiders” all the way through since I was in college. Back then, the more brutal combat sequences (the fistfight, with wrenches and implied beheadings, underneath the Nazi plane; the protracted truck chase and vicious pummelings) seemed to go on an awfully long time. Second time through, they still do. The picture’s spirit strikes me as a little harsh for maximum enjoyment. This is why my favorite bit is the quickest, and cheapest, and funniest: Indy, faced with the Cairo street thug with the enormous sword, wearily pulling out his pistol and shooting the adversary dead. Heartless, perfectly timed, a sight gag that works.

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Indiana Jones imitators gather in Hollywood for the opening of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" in May 1984. (Los Angeles Times)

Pauline Kael’s New Yorker review struck a chord with me back in ’81. “The opening sequence, set in South America, with Indy Jones entering a forbidden temple and fending off traps, snares, poisoned darts, tarantulas, stone doors with metal teeth, and the biggest damn boulder you’ve ever seen, is so thrill-packed you don’t have time to breathe — or to enjoy yourself much, either .… Seeing ‘Raiders’ is like being put through a Cuisinart — something has been done to us, but not to our benefit.”

Dave Kehr, former Chicago Tribune film critic and regular, invaluable New York Times contributor, never liked it either. “Spielberg … knows a lot about action cutting but nothing about narrative rhythm: this 1981 film travels fast and straight down a linear plot, and the ceaseless rush quickly becomes monotonous,” Kehr wrote for the Chicago Reader. In the Tribune, meanwhile, Gene Siskel called it what many others did: “about as entertaining as a commercial movie can be.”

Those in the minority, who found “Raiders” to be too much, were saying what others said a few years earlier about “Jaws,” a film widely credited and blamed for inventing the all-encompassing mass-market summer blockbuster. The difference to me is this: “Jaws” mixes its shocks, thrills, laughs and silences in such a way as to disinvite hackneyed comparisons to things like “thrill rides” and roller coasters. It’s not a one-speed picture. It’s a shark of a film, stealthy, swift but cagey. And the people, the characters, in it really register.

Harrison Ford makes a fine, photogenic action hero. He has enormous relatability and a wry sense of humor. The “Raiders” fans feel the same way about “Raiders.” I’d love to hear from a few of them — from longtime fans, and from those on the younger side who may be seeing Spielberg’s film for the first time.

– Michael Phillips

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‘Raiders’ stuntman looks back, 30 years later

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