Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2016)

2016 #162
Tim Skousen & Jeremy Coon | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

You may have heard about this: in 1982, a group of teenagers decided to remake Raiders of the Lost Ark shot for shot, starring themselves. It was a project that ended up filling their whole adolescence, filming scenes here and there every summer for years. Decades later, their amateur recreation (known nowadays as Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation) was uncovered by director Eli Roth, who passed it to Harry Knowles to screen at a film festival he organises, and it began to gain cult notoriety. Eventually, that new appreciation led to the guys reuniting in an attempt to crowdfund production of the one scene they were never able to shoot originally. This documentary tells the stories of both the original production and the attempt to complete it.

It’s a great tale, but unfortunately it’s told in a really sloppily made documentary. The narrative is a complete jumble — it jumps in and out of stories all over the place, getting distracted by something else before looping back around. Exposition and setup are bungled, leaving the viewer constantly playing catch-up and trying to piece things together. It throws in general observations mid-film that really belong in an introduction or conclusion. It goes back and forth in time at will — presumably someone thought they’d structured it to tell the parallel stories of the original project and the 2014 shoot, but the editing isn’t clear enough to support that structure. Interviews are cut to shreds, leaving soundbite-sized snippets that often fade out while the person’s still talking, just moving away without letting them finish.

Some people never grow up...

As a viewer, you endure all of this because the underlying story is so good, but there’s a better film to be made here — one that tells the story more clearly, that better draws out the characters of the people involved, the psychology of what they’re doing, and any latent thematic points too. I mean, what these guys did is extraordinary in its dedication, but it’s also completely bizarre. Why did they start it? What does it say about them, or their lives, or maybe even the human condition? And it does say something, I’d wager — you can almost glimpse it around the edges and in the corners of the documentary, but it rarely comes close to actually exploring it. There is a section on the kids’ shitty home lives — that’s something they all seemed to share — and how the Raiders project was a refuge. At this point the editing calms down and it’s briefly very good. If the whole film had displayed that same clarity, it would merit a higher rating.

As it stands, Raiders! has a brilliant story to tell, meaning it’s worth watching to learn about that, but I yearned for it to be told better.

3 out of 5

Browncoats: Redemption (2010)

2011 #77
Michael C. Dougherty | 84 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English

Browncoats RedemptionIt’s quite understandable if you haven’t heard of Browncoats: Redemption (well, other than for me mentioning it a month ago — pay attention!). In short, it’s an officially-okayed Firefly/Serenity fan film for the benefit of charity. There’s no doubting the enthusiasm and heart of the cast & crew of Redemption — on those factors they score a perfect 5 — but as a film in its own right… well…

It feels wrong to criticise a fan production for charity — it’s like berating a small child who on December 1st excitedly tells mummy what Christmas present she’s getting — but this is a film review blog, and so review it as a film I must.

Set a few months after the end of Serenity, Browncoats deals slightly with the fall out from that film’s revelation of the planet Miranda. Wisely we’re not following re-cast versions of Serenity (the ship)’s crew here, but the all-new crew of the ship Redemption, who get caught up in the Alliance’s desire to make a show of smuggler types in the wake of Mal & co’s actions. There’s also the issue of the murky past of Redemption’s captain…

The story idea is a solid one. It’s nicely spun out of Serenity without forcing an impossible re-cast of that film’s players. It requires knowledge of the film, and to a lesser extent the TV series, but as this is a fan film and therefore made with a fan-only audience in mind, that’s no problem. The main plot is little underdeveloped perhaps, coming across a bit flat in the telling, and it could do with better subplots for the extensive cast. This is a problem that easily blights a film where you have to feature the whole cast of a ship, and in a TV series you can get away with it — if someone’s not in an episode much, their own one is coming soon — but less so in a film. Serenity managed it with aplomb, but then that was created by an experienced TV & film professional rather than a group of fans.

ChessThe characters are, thankfully, not carbon copies of Firefly’s cast — some effort has clearly been made to differentiate the line-up, and that goes beyond inverting most of the genders. They’re surely cut from the same cloth though, but that’s understandable: this isn’t trying to be radical with Whedon’s ‘verse, it’s trying to emulate it for the fans, and the fans like what they’ve already seen. Ironically, despite being the most obviously gender-swapped, it’s Redemption’s female captain who’s most like her Serenity counterpart: Laura is, to be blunt, Mal with breasts. Her backstory is at least completely different, but the end result — the character we meet in the film — is more or less the same. When your leads are too similar it can override how different the rest of the cast may be.

Sadly, the acting is uniformly weak. Occasionally a decent line delivery will emerge, but only now and then. The cast aren’t helped by a script too keen to emulate the highly mannered style of Whedon’s original. The way these actors struggle to wrap themselves around the dialogue just shows how talented the original cast were to make it sound so natural. Even the extras are under-directed — obviously background artists (or whatever they’re officially called these days) shouldn’t be noticeable, but here they sometimes are because of what they’re doing or, more often, not doing.

Chatting in the cargo bayThe rest of Browncoats’s direction is a typical fan film minefield. Dougherty’s work is awkwardly flat: it’s all master shots and few close-ups; some sets are shot from the same two angles (and no more) in every scene; it ignores basic rules, like the 180 degree line; the camera is handheld or mounted indiscriminately; it’s loosely framed and poorly lit. And it’s loosely edited too, with some bits allowed to run indulgently long. There may be some places where it’s not so bad, but generally this is the work of someone who knows how to point a camera and press record, rather than direct.

Worse is the audio quality, which is simply appalling. Dialogue clarity and volume varies across a single line, never mind scene — there are several instances where you can hear the actor turn away from the microphone. There’s no sound effects work to speak of — we’re talking basic stuff like punches in a fight or papers dropping on a table (the lack of sound in space, on the other hand, is a Firefly-derived artistic choice). Music is indiscriminately applied and often drowns dialogue out. The wholly-original score is very professional and appropriately emulates the music of the series and movie, but it feels slapped on just so there’s some sound and doesn’t always fit the scene.

The supporting technical elements are all very good, however. As well as the solid score there’s an array of appropriate costumes, a surprisingly proficient spaceship set (considering the production’s scale & budget — it’s not going to rival professional work), good location work, and the handful of CG shots are above regular direct-to-DVD standards. Indeed, while much of Browncoats is below the level of even The Asylum’s work, its CGI puts theirs to shame.

Speechy villainI’ve seen many people online flat-out slag Browncoats off, which is patently unfair. Maybe it’s a generational thing: having been a Doctor Who fan during The Wilderness Years, I was aware of fan films long before anyone could realistically edit video on their computer, never mind use them to add CGI effects or upload it to the internet or film it in HD or master a Blu-ray release. Those who look at the trailer expecting something that looks like a bang-on continuation of Firefly and Serenity are plain foolish. In fan film terms, there are better and more professional examples than Browncoats, but the vast majority are a lot worse. As a super low budget independent film (another label the makers (less often) attach to it), it’s hard to deny that it looks amateurish. Comparisons to super-cheap productions like El Mariachi or Primer do have it coming up short. But then, we don’t see the surely hundreds (if not more) of similarly-budgeted independent features that are so poorly made — and lacking an in-built fanbase — to receive wider distribution than local friends-and-family screenings. It’s the exceptional ones that break through; and while it does mean that, yes, you can make a “proper film” for that kind of money, and so Browncoats’ makers could have done better, this is still (as a fan film) a respectable effort.

Undoubtedly the greatest thing about this project — fans coming together to celebrate and recreate something they love in aid of charity — is down to producer Dougherty’s thought and organisation. Sadly, the worst things about it — the writing and direction — are also his responsibility. We must be forgiving — it is made by amateurs, and for charity — but it’s a shame someone(s) more proficient weren’t found for the important creative roles.

Redemption flies onIf I scored films for effort, or for heart-in-the-right-place-ness, then this would be an easy 5/5. I just hope no one involved is hoping they can launch a career in ‘real’ film or TV off the back of it, because it doesn’t make that grade. (They’re trying the same thing again, at least, this time with an original zombie movie (because there aren’t enough of those) called Z*Con.) But as a for-the-fans nostalgia-driven charity project… well, it’s raised over $113,000. Shiny.

2 out of 5

This was originally posted on the sixth anniversary of Serenity being released in the UK (crikey, time flies).

August 2011

Dear fans of Firefly and Serenity,

[The following was all irrelevant soon after I posted it, never mind now in 2015. But hey-ho, the repostathon rolls on…]

In case you’ve not heard of it, I just want to quickly draw your attention to Browncoats: Redemption, a fan film about a bunch of original characters in the ‘verse that takes place in the wake of the events of Serenity. What makes this one notable is that it’s been officially sanctioned by creator Joss Whedon and the appropriate Firefly/Serenity rightsholders to be sold on DVD and Blu-ray in aid of charity. But only until September 1st, which (as the handy countdown on the website tells us) means it will only ever be available for order for another 29 hours*.

I’d meant to review the film sooner to give it a proper push, but me being me I only just watched it. I’ll still aim to get a review up sometime, obviously, but for what it’s worth I’ll be giving it 2 out of 5. Hardly a glowing promotion I know, but I’m scoring this next to all the other films I’ve watched and, honestly, it’s a fan film and it plays like one. That said, as examples go it’s a pretty well-made one. Though the acting, screenplay and direction would be kindly described as “well-meaning”, some of the production values are surprisingly good: there’s a decent spaceship set, well-realised location work, solid costumes, decent fight choreography, professional music, some good-quality CGI, and so on. It’s no Serenity 2, and considering the “proper movie” quality of some zero-budget films (like, say, Primer or El Mariachi (both of which cost less)) it’s obviously a labour of love rather than of emerging talent. But for die-hard, sympathetic fans of Whedon’s series, it’s a passable little trip back to the ‘verse. Full marks for effort, at least.

Plus, if you’re interested in this kind of thing, the DVD & Blu-ray versions come with a host of extras: an audio commentary by the writer/director/producer, the best part of an hour on the making of Redemption, over an hour and a half of interviews with cast and crew from Firefly and Serenity, and a full soundtrack CD.

More importantly than all of that, and why I’m mentioning it despite my rating, is that all profits go to five charities supported by Firefly/Serenity cast & crew: Equality Now, Kids Need to Read, the Dyslexia Foundation, the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center, and the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation. With just 29 hours left to be able to own the film (unless you’re attending Dragon*Con, anyway), I thought that was worth a mention.


* at the time of posting, hence why this round-up is about 24 hours earlier than normal.


Now back to your regularly scheduled monthly round-up…

After that, I’ll just get on with it. Should I watch anything else in the next 24 hours I’ll sneak it on the end later.

#72 Sucker Punch: Extended Cut (2011)
#73 Source Code (2011)
#74 Glorious 39 (2009)
#75 Nirvana (1997)
#76 The House on 92nd Street (1945)
#77 Browncoats: Redemption (2010)


Next time on the all-new 100 Films in a Year monthly update…

September marks the final third of the year. With under a quarter of films to go, that’s not too shabby… even if I’m still not getting very far with posting reviews.

But hey, tomorrow is another day…