Friday, June 6, 2014

FlashBack Friday: Raiders of the Lost Ark

It's Friday, and for a while I've been meaning to revisit some old favorites by introducing my weekly "FlashBack Friday" feature! I thought about beginning this series with the Spider-Man or the X-Men series to coincide with the new installments of their respective franchises, but each of those releases came and went before I could get around to acting on my desire to review them. So why am I doing an Indiana Jones retrospective when there's not another film in the foreseeable future? Well, it's not just because that it's one of my favorite film series of all time (I dress up as him for Halloween almost every year), but my wife and I also just returned from Disneyland a few weeks ago. I've had some bad luck with the Indiana Jones Adventure being closed during my previous visits, but this year we took full advantage of the attraction, riding it as many times as we possibly could. When we got back home I still had the Indiana Jones bug and immediately watched Raiders of the Lost Ark just for the heck of it.

I'll forego my usual plot summary on this one, since I'm pretty sure anyone who's reading this post will have already seen the film. If not, I have to ask... what is wrong with you?! We know Indiana Jones as one of the most recognizable icons in film history, but it's interesting to think of what the public perception of this film was before it was released. Sure, it combines the selling power of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas (as you can see on the poster above), but I'm sure it wasn't a guarantee that this movie was going to be a hit, let alone a cultural touchstone. Thankfully, audiences embraced the film and it's been not only commercially successful, but has also won several Academy Awards and was featured on numerous lists of the best films ever made.

I get giddy from the opening shot of the Paramount logo turning into a real-life mountain in Peru where we see the iconic silhouette of everyone's favorite archaeologist. The slow, deliberate pace leading up to the booby-trapped cavern he's about to enter is tremendous, with John Williams' mysterious score perfectly complementing our excitement to see Indiana Jones in action. It's just a masterful opening, with Indy casually brushing off massive tarantulas from his guide's back and perfectly anticipating each death trap he comes against.

We know from this first scene that Indiana Jones is the man, and that there's a reason people will later try to recruit him for their secret mission. I can't tell you how excited I got when Indy thinks he's getting away with the idol and the bag of sand slowly sinks into the pedestal, causing all hell to break loose. Throwing caution to the winds, he sprints through the chamber with arrows flying past him, then he jumps over a pit and barely manages to roll beneath a stone door as it slides to the ground. Just when he thinks the worst is behind him, however, Indy hears an ominous rumble and turns to see a massive boulder rolling towards him. It might be the most iconic shot of any Indiana Jones film, and possibly of any movie in general.

This review could get incredibly lengthy if I try to go through Raiders of the Lost Ark scene-by-scene, so I'll shut that down for now. It's just so easy for me to completely geek out about every awesome moment in this film. Each time the hero appears on screen I get a huge grin on my face. I love the use of shadows throughout the movie, which only adds to Indy's iconography by creating an instantly recognizable silhouette. Not only is his wardrobe one of the coolest (and admittedly most sparse) in film history, but it also helps that everything around him lives up to the high standards of its main character. Indiana Jones is hired to find the Ark of the Covenant, one of the best macguffins in film history, before the Nazis can recover the artifact and use it to take over the world.

Raiders is a tremendously fun and campy adventure, but perhaps the most important ingredient in this movie is John Williams' score, which allows us to take this fantastical plot seriously while also enjoying the entire experience. While most people will point to the Indiana Jones march, I think my favorite musical aspect of the film might be the insanely ominous and creepy tune any time the Ark is mentioned or when Indy is coming closer to discovering its location (you can see what I'm talking about here). It just sets such a great mood, and I wasn't at all surprised to hear how much it was used on the Indiana Jones attraction as well.

Another trademark of Indiana Jones films are the action set pieces, of which there are many in this opening installment. From an awesome bar-fight in Nepal, a great kidnapping scene in Cairo, a tense fist-fight next to a airplane propeller, to an exhilarating car chase on a dusty cliff-side, this movie never fails to excite its audience. Some of the special effects are obviously dated, but the action is no less enjoyable throughout these spectacular antics as Indy attempts to regain control of the Ark.

I love the way this movie builds and builds, with subtle hints at the cataclysmic ending the movie will eventually reach. One of my favorite visual representations of this is a scene where the Ark is sitting in a storage compartment of a ship. The wooden box containing it is marked with the Nazi swastika, which is slowly scorched as the power of the Ark appears to be bubbling to the surface. We know that something big is coming and this is a perfect way to convey the dangerous forces the Nazis are meddling with. It's also just innately satisfying to see Nazis get their butts handed to them in any way possible, whether it be Indy punching them in the face or simply the visual of a charred Nazi symbol.

There's also a subtle character arc (no pun intended) for Indiana Jones in this film, for though he has great respect for historical artifacts, he tends to dismiss religion as mysticism when he's first recruited by the CIA. As the movie progresses, however, he definitely starts taking it more seriously, risking his life to prevent this power from getting into the wrong hands. Though he may not attend his local church, some could see him as a sort of defender of all that is holy, as we'll see again in a future Indy adventure. But I'll come back to that topic in a couple of weeks.

Eventually everything comes together and culminates at an island in the Aegean Sea, where the Nazis plan to unveil the divine power they've unearthed before presenting it to their leader. A vast group of soldiers gather around the casket, some recording the momentous occasion while others simply look on in anticipation. Indy and Marion are tied up, but refrain from looking as the Ark is opened to reveal the remains of the ten commandments turned to dust. Initially stunned with disappointment, the Nazi leaders are awestruck when ghostly beings begin to emerge from the Ark and horizontal bolts of lightning impale the onlookers for their Tower of Babel-like disrespect for the power of God. The main villains either have their faces melted with a gloriously old-school effect, and one's head even explodes (or has his mind blown... am I right?) by what they're seeing. One of the coolest practical effects of the film is the lid of the Ark twisting down to the earth before landing with a thud on the dormant casket. It's one of those images that has always stuck with me, and Spielberg has a knack for creating memorable visuals like this in almost every frame.

I don't know how I've gone this long without mentioning the star of the film. Perhaps it's because I don't really think of the character as being played by an actor, but as a separate person entirely. Whenever Harrison Ford is in costume as Dr. Jones I get completely lost in the adventure, which is something he was also able to do with his performance as Han Solo in the Star Wars films (which I might love even more than his performance here). He's so charismatic that nobody questions the decision to make him both Indiana Jones AND Han Solo within the span of two years. Perhaps only he could have done such a thing, and it's that innate likability that makes him perhaps my all-time favorite actor.

This is one of the strongest recommends I've ever given, and for a film that I don't watch nearly often enough. Raiders of the Lost Ark was a ground-breaking achievement and a cinematic phenomenon that would serve as a template for future adventure blockbusters like the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Not only might this be my favorite Indy film, but it may even be my favorite Spielberg film. I'll revisit that question at the end of this series, but suffice it to say that I freaking love this movie and give it an extremely strong four stars.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is rated PG (though it should probably be PG-13 by today's standards)

**How much do you love Raiders of the Lost Ark? Is it your favorite in the series or do you think it's overrated? Let me know in the comments section below!**