THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"RAIDERS! THE STORY OF THE GREATEST FAN FILM EVER MADE"
When it was released in 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark made a huge impact on many of the people who saw it. The movie was fun and exciting in a way that other films of the time weren't. It was a throwback to the cliffhangers of a previous era, yet one that was executed with modernity. Of everyone who was impacted by the film, Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala were likely affected the most. Starting in '82, the 11-year-olds from Mississippi faithfully remade the Steven Spielberg classic shot-for-shot on VHS. Their tale is told in the documentary Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made.
Based on the book of the same name, Raiders! introduces us to Strompolos and Zala, who reminisce about meeting, discovering a mutual obsession with the Indiana Jones adventure, and deciding to create their own version with other kids in the neighborhood. (The process consumed seven summers of their lives, which led to more than a few continuity errors.) There were many challenges, including difficulty finding something to convincingly duplicate the massive boulder from the famous opening sequence. There were dangers, too, like the time they literally set someone on fire to mimic a particular shot. Footage from their production is scattered throughout the documentary. It's impressive how dedicated they were to this mission. The duo took great care to make things as close to the original as possible.
Paralleling this is a current storyline in which the two, having raised funds on Kickstarter, attempt to complete their tribute by finally filming the only scene they couldn't do as kids: the fight between Indy and a hulking goon that ends with a massive airplane explosion. The shoot quickly falls behind schedule, threatening to expend all their money, and Zala has to finish in time so as not to be fired by the boss who's grown impatient with his escapades. Raiders! builds up a surprising amount of suspense on this count, especially in its final moments, when an unexpected and very dramatic event nearly derails the whole thing.
The reason this documentary exists is because, decades later, a copy of the guys' tape fell into the hands of director Eli Roth, who showed it around, helping to generate interest. The story of what these kids did and how they did it is both compelling and entertaining. As one of their mothers points out, they had standards. When, for instance, Chris and Eric recreated the movie's truck chase, they didn't let the fact that neither of them were old enough to drive deter them from jerry-rigging a vehicle and letting Strompolos (as Indy) and others hang out the open door while it moved. Their story continually blows your mind as you not only hear how they accomplished their remake, but also see clips that show how close they came to replicating the source material.
On a deeper level, Raiders! is a movie about escape. Both boys, and many of their friends, came from broken or dysfunctional homes. Spending seven years creating their tribute provided an escape from the harsh realities of their lives, giving them a way to sublimate whatever pain they were going through. Directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen effectively tell the tale of how the tribute was made and how the men try to finish it, but they also take time to engagingly explore why the project was – and is – so important to them at such a profound emotional level.
The documentary also works as a celebration of motion pictures and their power to impact people. Movies, at their best, have the ability to touch viewers on levels no one could ever imagine. They inspire. They stimulate creativity. Raiders! isn't just a love letter to Raiders of the Lost Ark, it's a love letter to all of cinema. No matter what film you love most or how you choose to express that love, it will remind you of that magical feeling a great movie stirs up.
Many of the now-grown cast and crew members also appear on camera to share their memories, which are often hilarious. None of them seem to regret what they did, either. In fact, it's clear that the passion is still there. Strompolos and Zala certainly continue to feel it. Spielberg's picture was more than just a movie to them, it was a dream. Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is an inspiring, endearing look at that how that dream came to fruition.
( 1/2 out of four)
Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, sexual content and brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle editions also available at Amazon.com!