Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #72

The Return of the Great Adventure.

Also Known As: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

Country: USA
Language: English (and German, Hebrew, Spanish, Arabic & Nepali)
Runtime: 115 minutes
BBFC: A (1981) | PG (1987)
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 12th June 1981
UK Release: 30th July 1981
First Seen: VHS, c.1991

Stars
Harrison Ford (Star Wars, Witness)
Karen Allen (Animal House, Starman)
Paul Freeman (The Long Good Friday, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie)
Ronald Lacey (Take a Girl Like You, Red Sonja)
John Rhys-Davies (The Naked Civil Servant, The Lord of the Rings)

Director
Steven Spielberg (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn)

Screenwriter
Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, The Bodyguard)

Story by
George Lucas (THX 1138, Return of the Jedi)
Philip Kaufman (The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Right Stuff)

The Story
1936: adventurer Indiana Jones is hired by the US Army to retrieve the mythical Ark of the Covenant, which they believe is on the verge of being uncovered in Egypt, before the Nazis can get their grubby mitts on it.

Our Hero
Professor of archeology, expert on the occult, and obtainer of rare antiquities, Indiana Jones. Good with a whip; not good with snakes.

Our Villains
Dr. René Belloq, essentially the evil Indy: a fellow archeologist with fewer scruples, who often takes credit for Indy’s hard work and is now in bed with the Nazis. They’re most memorably represented by creepy Gestapo agent Toht, played by Ronald Lacey, who was cast because he reminded Spielberg of Peter Lorre.

Best Supporting Character
The daughter of Indy’s mentor, and his one-time love, Marion Ravenwood, who’s roped in because she happens to possess an artefact with a clue to the Ark’s location. Feisty and capable of holding her own (some of the time, anyway), it’s a shame she didn’t appear in the initial sequels — at Lucas’ insistence, apparently (he also kept her out of the spin-off novels). She eventually returns in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the only character from the first three films to be brought back for that adventure (besides Indy, obv.)

Memorable Quote
Sallah: “Indy, why does the floor move?”
Indiana: “Give me your torch… Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”

Memorable Scene
Goodness, where do we start? Well, how about the start! Having made his way safely through a boobytrapped cave, Indy switches a bag of sand for the idol he’s come to retrieve. Unfortunately the trap is not fooled, and Indy has to run out as the place collapses around him and all the traps are triggered — including, most famously, a giant rolling boulder.

Write the Theme Tune…
It’s only one of the greatest movie main themes of all time. Composed by John Williams (of course) it’s technically called The Raiders March, and is a combination of two ideas Williams wrote for Jones’ theme that Spielberg suggested be put together to make one piece.

Technical Wizardry
The film is naturally packed with stunts, one of the most memorable being when Indy is dragged under and out behind a moving truck. To achieve it safely, more clearance was created under the truck by constructing one that was higher than normal and digging out the centre of the road. The shot was filmed at 20fps, lower than the standard 24, so that when played back the truck appeared to be moving faster. The feat was performed by stuntman Terry Leonard, but Harrison Ford was actually dragged behind the truck for some shots. When asked if he was worried, Ford replied, “No. If it really was dangerous, they would have filmed more of the movie first.”

Truly Special Effect
The climax, when the Ark is opened, was a field day for ILM. Techniques used include “animation, a woman to portray a beautiful spirit’s face, rod puppet spirits moved through water to convey a sense of floating, a matte painting of the island, and cloud tank effects to portray clouds.” Plus the villains’ heads melt (a gelatine and plaster model exposed to a heat lamp), collapse (a hollow model with the air sucked out), and explode (which nearly landed the film with an R rating).

Making of
Have you heard the one about the scheduled sword fight and everyone being ill? You have? Oh, okay then.

Next time…
The film was a massive success, so has spawned tonnes of media. Primarily, three direct sequel films, with a fifth set for 2019. Then there’s the three-season TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, 13 adult novels, 33 Young Indiana Jones novels, 11 “choose your own adventure”-style books, eight German novels (which have never been translated into English), numerous comic books, and 19 computer games, including nine with original storylines and two Lego Indiana Jones games. Also, a stunt show at Walt Disney World in Florida based on Raiders that has been running for 27 years. Whew!

Awards
5 Oscars (Editing, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Sound, Visual Effects, Special Achievement in Sound Effects Editing)
4 Oscar nominations (Picture, Director, Cinematography, Score)
1 BAFTA (Production Design/Art Direction)
6 BAFTA nominations (Film, Supporting Artist (Denholm Elliott), Cinematography, Editing, Music, Sound)
7 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Actor (Harrison Ford), Actress (Karen Allen), Director, Writing, Music, Special Effects)
2 Saturn nominations (Supporting Actor (Paul Freeman), Costumes)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“Yes, it’s as entertaining as you have heard. Maybe more so. Raiders of the Lost Ark is, in fact, about as entertaining as a commercial movie can be. What is it? An adventure film that plays like an old-time 12-part serial that you see all at once, instead of Saturday-to-Saturday. It’s a modern Thief of Baghdad. It’s the kind of movie that first got you excited about movies when you were a kid. (Translation for today’s children: It’s better than anything on TV.)” — Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

Score: 94%

What the Public Say
“Spielberg and George Lucas had, in the same year, rewritten the rules of the science fiction genre; Lucas with Star Wars and Spielberg with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but what could they do together? Greatness, it turns out. Their contribution: Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the best, most exciting, most brilliantly written action movies of all time. It’s fun, it has a great sense of wonder and adventure. It’s scary, it’s bloody, it’s violent but you never come away feeling unclean. It has a hero, Indiana Jones, who is fallible but not a wimp. […] I can talk all day about Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I must simply conclude that the movie is just plain fun” — Jerry, armchaircinema

Verdict

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg teamed up for the first time here, recycled elements from movies beloved in their youth, and produced something new and exciting that is still a reference point for blockbusters 35 years later. (We’re getting homages to homages now, aren’t we? Weird.) It’s pretty much a perfect adventure movie: relentlessly paced, packed with action, lightened with humour, full of likeable heroes, who are brave and competent but also a little bit flawed, and hissable villains, with scene after scene of imaginative situations and fabulously staged derring-do. It’s perfectly distilled pulp adventure, and pure cinematic entertainment.

Many Bothans… died to bring us #73.

Starman (1984)

2016 #14
John Carpenter | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

In this sci-fi romance, an alien intercepts the invitation included on the Voyager 2 space probe and tries to visit Earth, but is shot down. Taking the form of Karen Allen’s recently deceased husband, Jeff Bridges, he forces her to drive him to Arizona, where his people will rescue him in three days — if they can escape the attention of the government agents chasing them, anyway.

Starman can most pithily be summarised as “John Carpenter does Steven Spielberg”. Almost literally, in that it’s like a cross between E.T. and Always: Bridges’ comical alien learns Earth customs while trying to get home, and Allen’s widow deals with her bereavement while her husband is still ‘there’ (sort of). Of course, Always was actually made five years later, but Columbia Pictures in fact turned down the project that would develop into E.T. in favour of this movie. That’d be E.T., the highest-grossing film of all time for 11 years. Oops.

Although it may not have been the same box office hit or developed into the same cultural touchstone, Starman is certainly not a bad movie. Bridges negotiates a fine line between alien and mannered as the titular visitor who speaks faltering English and struggles with our ways, and I’d argue he always comes down on the right side of said line. Oscar voters certainly agreed, rewarding his performance with a Best Actor nomination (he lost to F. Murray Abraham for Amadeus). Allen is an engaging presence also, and between work like this and Raiders of the Lost Ark it’s a wonder she wasn’t a bigger star.

The film is an oddity on director John Carpenter’s CV, which came about due to The Thing being a box office disaster — Carpenter needed to make a very different kind of movie so he could keep getting work in Hollywood. Nonetheless, Carpenter’s horror roots are on display: there are stalking POV shots as the alien arrives at Allen’s house, and then it grows a human body, a sequence in which the ugliest (prosthetic) baby you’ve ever seen stretches and creaks as it grows into an adult in mere minutes. It’s pretty freaky. Indeed, as per the BBFC, Starman “contains mild language, sex, violence and sci-fi horror”, but is rated PG. Ah, the good old days!

Though it may not quite be a genre classic, the recently-announced remake from Shawn Levy, director of Night at the Museum, Date Night, and Real Steel (not to mention the lambasted Pink Panther reboot) seems ill-advised. While I liked the two of his movies I’ve seen well enough, Levy is a long way from being a John Carpenter, and I don’t envy whoever gets the lead role — copy Bridges and you’ll likely be a pale imitation; do something different and you’ve got to measure up to a very effective take on alienness.

On the bright side, maybe it will shine more attention on this half-forgotten original. I only watched it because I was on a bit of a Carpenter kick and it was available on Netflix, but I’m glad I stumbled across it.

4 out of 5

Starman is on Film4 at 6:45pm today.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

2008 #32
Steven Spielberg | 122 mins | cinema | 12A / PG-13

This review contains major spoilers.
For a spoiler-free view, see my initial thoughts.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal SkullI’ve grown up with Indiana Jones around. Not in the way Harry Knowles may have (apparently if you weren’t old enough to see the original trilogy in the cinema, at precisely the right age, then this film isn’t for you), but they’ve always been there. I was so young when I first saw Last Crusade (on video) that, even though it can only have been two years old at most, it was a film that had Always Existed as far as I was concerned (much like Ghostbusters and Back to the Future, or so many other ’80s movies that I love). I remember directing a recreation of Last Crusade in the playground (with me as Indy, of course, and one of my best friends hating me for days because he’d been Brody and I’d melted him at the end, my 6-year-old memory having confused the character with Donovan); loving Young Indiana Jones whenever they showed it on BBC Two; visiting the absolutely fantastic stunt show at DisneyWorld Florida; churning through a couple of the tie-in novels (carefully selected from the gift shop based on their blurbs); having the Raiders poster on my door for at least a decade; running around with my Indy hat and Nazi cap gun (wow, we must’ve bought a lot in that gift shop); wishing there were action figures for me to play with (and appropriating an Alan Grant from Jurassic Park for the task, because he had a vaguely similar hat)… There are many more Indy memories locked away in my head, but I think those examples will more than suffice.

And so, about 17 years or so since I first encountered Dr Henry Jones Jr, I finally get to see him in the cinema. I don’t think I’m one to be easily suckered in by that thrill factor, however. I wasn’t one of the people who came out of Phantom Menace extolling it’s virtues only to later realise how disappointing it was; heck, I came out of Two Towers not with the feeling that after a whole year (wow!) of waiting Lord of the Rings was back and wasn’t it great — I thought it dragged for at least the first half and found Helm’s Deep somehow anticlimactic. I say this in defence of the fact that I enjoyed Crystal Skull and think it’s a good film, an opinion that seems oddly rare at the minute. I suspect this will change with time.

That’s not to say the film isn’t flawed, mind. The opening’s a bit slow for my liking, there are few lines that are as funny or as quotable as in the other films, and some moments push things a bit too far — I’m thinking specifically of Indy escaping a nuclear test in a lead-lined fridge. It’s not as bad as Bond surfing the wave from a melting ice shelf in Die Another Day, but it’s not really in-keeping either. Another oft-cited problem is the amount of material the film awards to some of its starry cast members. Actors of the calibre of John Hurt, Jim Broadbent and… well, most people say Ray Winstone, but I think he’s overrated as an actor… still, they don’t get a great deal to do. The problem here is that they’re John Hurt, Jim Broadbent and Ray Winstone — replace them with unknowns and far fewer people would whinge about the size and point of their roles. Quite why an actor like John Hurt would accept such a small, almost one-note role (while there may be more depth to the character, it’s all revealed in Mutt’s memories rather than Hurt’s performance) is a different issue, but he does play the part well.

The rest of the cast fare better: Shia LaBeouf continues to be a star on the rise, here blessed with a teen rebel who isn’t also incredibly irritating. Mutt has a heart, and we don’t have to suffer a two-hour ‘emotional journey’ to find it. He pairs well with Harrison Ford too, and one can see why George Lucas suggests a future for the franchise that emulates the father-son dynamic from Last Crusade. That said, Ford gets his best partner in Karen Allen’s Marion. She was always the best ‘Indy girl’, and while her return may be as surprising as Indy wearing that hat and carrying a whip (not just because we’ve seen her in all the trailers, but who else is it going to be when Mutt first mentions a Marion in the diner?) she plays a vital role in injecting some verbal humour and banter into proceedings. The only other noteworthy female cast member is Cate Blanchett as a villainous Russian psychic (maybe). She’s clearly having bags of fun with the part, and is rewarded primarily with a death scene that is pleasingly in line with those in the rest of the series. This is another moment some reviewers have whined about, saying we’ve seen it before, but personally I’d’ve been disappointed with anything less from an Indy film.

Of course, this is all without really mentioning the man himself. Make no mistake, Harrison Ford is still Indiana Jones. The hair may be grey, the face covered in more lines, but the attitude and humour is still there. This is an older Indy, of course — he’s not only aged nearly two decades since we last encountered him, he’s also lived through the Second World War. The snippets of dialogue that explain what he’s been up to since we last saw him are all very nice for fans too, I think, but are pleasingly not dwelt upon for too long — this is a film that will work just fine for anyone who somehow hasn’t seen the first three. Ford can still hold his own in the action stakes too, running, swinging and punching his way through a variety of thrilling sequences. The screenplay could have used his age as a crutch, leaving him with some comedy running away while the much younger Mutt got stuck in; this isn’t the case, and that’s great.

As for those action sequences, they’re a lot of fun. The best by far is an extended chase through the jungle, including a fantastically conceived sword fight on the back of two moving vehicles. There’s a good deal of silliness in it — Mutt’s Tarzan-like vine swinging, or Marion’s use of a handily-placed tree to get their car into a river — but this is a franchise explicitly inspired by the B-movie thrills of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, in which context these things are more than acceptable. It’s a little daft, but it’s all such fun that if you’re worrying about the realism you’re not entering into the spirit of things. More disappointing is some lacklustre CGI, which is used far more often than Spielberg might have liked us to believe. There’s also a bit with some large ants that may be a little too close to the use of beetles in The Mummy, but as that’s basically an Indiana Jones rip-off it seems only fair to return the favour.

Finally, there’s the MacGuffin: the eponymous Crystal Skull (the “Kingdom of the” prefix isn’t really needed). It’s alien, as long-rumoured, which has undoubtedly angered some fans. Personally, I don’t find it any sillier than the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, equally unreal items (in fact, less real — maybe the aliens are too likely to be true for some viewers?) with equally fantastical powers. It also fits with the mid-50s setting, post-Roswell and heading into the Space Race. The design of the aliens and their saucer is pleasingly retro, though obviously achieved with CGI, and it does tie to theories that ancient monuments and civilisations had contact with aliens (again, true or not, they’re no worse than the religious artefacts of the other films). Like everything else about the film, the MacGuffin may not be quite as good as the equivalent elements in Raiders and Last Crusade, but it pushes close enough.

Speaking of which, it’s worth quickly mentioning the UK rating. For some reason, Crystal Skull is a 12A while Raiders and Last Crusade are both only PG. I swear there’s nothing worse in this film than those; in fact, I’m sure there’s nothing here that’s as likely to be traumatising for youngsters as Donovan melting at the end of the third film. I expect it says more about our variable rating system than it does about the films themselves, but in the unlikely event anyone reading this is wondering about its suitability for a younger audience, there’s my thoughts.

As I mentioned earlier, reaction to the film, both from critics and the general viewing audience, has been somewhat mixed. It seems plenty of fans have left their rose-tinted glasses with their DVD box set and viewed Crystal Skull with the all-too-critical eye of one who isn’t aware they don said goggles to watch the older films. Crystal Skull is a suitable return to the Indiana Jones series — full of fun and excitement, and a good chance to be reacquainted with old friends. It can’t beat Raiders because that came first, automatically embedding itself as the best in the minds of many; and it can’t beat Last Crusade, partly because it lacks the wonderful dynamic between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, and partly because I just love that film. But, crucially, it is in the same league as them, and that’s fine by me.

4 out of 5

My initial reactions to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull can be read here.