Tuesday, July 30, 2013

'80s Action Week: Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)

Yes, it’s still good. Steven Spielberg’s 1981 masterpiece hasn’t dated one bit, in part because it was already something of a throwback – a blend of cutting-edge effects and technique with a defiantly old-fashioned sensibility. Spielberg took the template of the action serial – those corny, disposable, cliff-hangery pieces of escapist pulp from the ‘30s and ‘40s – and crafted something whose speed, narrative shorthand, and element of surprise were very much of the moment. Its hero, wisecracking archeologist adventurer Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) was a combination of Buster Crabbe, Clark Gable, and, well, Harrison Ford himself, whose cynical cool had just made Han Solo one of the most iconic heroes in movie history. In a sense, this is what Spielberg has always done. (Heck, he did something similar in Lincoln – mixing a post-Nixonian study of the infernal American political machine with an earnest, Capraesque belief that men of good will can still accomplish great things.)

But forget about positioning and context for a second. I think there are a couple of specific reasons why Raiders of the Lost Ark still sings to us, and why it remains one of the most influential blockbusters of all time. To begin with, for a film that at first seems so cartoonish, it’s surprisingly dark: Scary, gory, elemental. Remember, this is a film that essentially ends with a bunch of Nazis experiencing something akin to a reverse-Holocaust -- a climax that still hasn't been topped by any other action movie, in part because of its simultaneously ironic and poetic sense of catastrophe.

Secondly, Raiders is a setpiece-fueled dynamo. That is to say, the film builds its energy and its power through its own internal one-upsmanship: Each scene is more indelible than the last -- conceived, written, shot, acted, edited, and scored in such a way that the damned thing just winds you up tighter and tighter as it moves along. But, unlike its many imitators, Raiders’ setpieces themselves work because they have a strong backbone of character. While most filmmakers are content to let people take a backseat to the action – using their actors more like toy figures amid all the pyrotechnics – Spielberg uses action to explore and enhance his characters. Witness the shifting alliances between Indiana Jones and the treacherous Satipo (Alfred Molina) in the opening scenes in the South American jungle temple. Or Indy’s increasing desperation during the footchase through the Cairo bazaar, when he loses Marion (Karen Allen) – seemingly, he thinks, for good.

Or consider my favorite set of details: the clever back and forth between Indy and the various German soldiers he has to plow through to seize the truck carrying the Ark of the Covenant during the film’s unforgettable extended desert truck chase sequence. They seem like throwaway bits – grace notes, if you will – but they’re actually the building blocks of the sequence itself. No amount of pyrotechnics and effects can make up for that. (If you don’t believe me, track down that homemade, shot-for-shot remake, Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, that a bunch of kids made in the 1980s. It’s silly and low-fi and goofy, yes, but fundamentally, it still works, because the film’s armature remains so wrong.)

Additionally, Spielberg, his producer George Lucas, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan understood (and, to some extent, helped define) what makes an action movie character truly relatable: Not just that we watch him experience the action, but that we experience the action through him. This is a lesson that later movies like Die Hard and Speed would take to the bank. But never was it more palpable – never more breathtaking and unforgettable -- than it was here. This is still the best film any of them -- Kasdan, Spielberg, Lucas, Ford -- were involved with.

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