Raiders! is a fascinating illustration of the power of film and why movies can be magical, making a statement about why the art form is important.
Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is a documentary that chronicles the production of the well known fan-film Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. After seeing Steven Spielberg's seminal action/adventure blockbuster and falling in love with Indiana Jones, childhood friends Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala organized a team and set forth to film a shot-for-shot remake of the movie. Beginning in 1982, the project consumed seven years of their lives as they painstakingly recreated the sophisticated sequences to the best of their ability. The group wrapped in 1989, completing every single scene except one: the famous plane battle on the landing pad.
Years later as adults, Strompolos and Zala put together a Kickstarter campaign to raise funding so they could go back and finish what they started as pre-teens. In 2014, they attempted to pull the plane sequence off, looking to overcome the various obstacles life (and nature) threw their way out of a labor of love.
Like most documentaries, Raiders! is tailor made for a very specific audience: cinephiles and Indiana Jones fans. That said, Raiders! is a fascinating illustration of the power of film and why movies can be magical, making a statement about why the art form is important. Directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen use Strompolos and Zala's nearly 35 year odyssey to show how films can bring people together - even when things fall apart in truly devastating ways - and why it's always worthwhile to fulfill dreams.
Focusing primarily on Strompolos and Zala (fellow cohort Jayson Lamb is also predominantly featured), the documentary's greatest strength is providing the viewer with insight into the filmmakers. Detailing troubled youths underscored by divorces (several of the kids' parents separated in the 1980s), it becomes apparent why the team was so dedicated and committed to working on their Raiders remake. They used film as a means of escapism and refuge, throwing themselves in a fun fantasy where the only concern was how to nail a stunt just right. There were plenty of sacrifices made along the way (see: a brief segment on birthday and Christmas gifts), but Raiders! does a fantastic job of highlighting the sense of camaraderie as the group of outcasts banded together to make their dream a reality. The documentary has a nice emotional hook that carries the audience through to a conclusion that proves to be rewarding.
The interview bits are interspersed with a behind-the-scenes look at how the plane fight came together. It's here where Strompolos and Zala's undying passion for the project is most prevalent, as they choose to go all out to make the final scene look as great as possible (with a full scale plane blowing up). There's a palpable "will they or won't they?" sense of tension as the shoot turns into a torturous affair marred by inclement weather and mounting personal pressures. The uninitiated may not understand why someone like Zala would be so willing to literally risk his job for the sake of finishing a fan film, but those along for the ride will thoroughly enjoy these sections and root for the team to get the job done. Aspiring filmmakers will recognize Strompolos and Zala as kindred spirits passionate about their vision who won't rest until they've achieved what they set out to do. There's something inspiring about these portions, showcasing everyday people making one final push to accomplish their wildest goals.
Raiders! actually has an intriguing arc that arguably follows the classic three act structure of a narrative film. There's an interesting juxtaposition when Coon and Skousen move to when the Raiders remake achieved cult status on the bootleg video market. As the fan film reached new heights of popularity (in large part because of a screening at Harry Knowles' "Butt-numb-a-thon"), the friendships of the people behind it had splintered due to a variety of circumstances. After years separated, Strompolos, Zala, and Lamb are reunited at a premiere event at the Alamo Drafthouse, spearheaded by Knowles and director Eli Roth. The surrealism of watching a home movie turn into a phenomenon that made its way to Spielberg is perhaps the best highlight of the documentary's underlying themes and message. Because of this project, old friends were able to reconnect and bury the past as they reflected on an incredible journey.
As stated earlier, Raiders! is designed with a certain audience in mind, making it difficult to recommend the documentary for viewers who aren't film buffs. Those who have no attachment to the Indiana Jones franchise or filmmaking in general may find it hard to see the appeal. While the underlying point of the documentary (people should pursue their dreams) is universal, the execution of the documentary probably pushes it into a niche corner where it won't resonate with everyone. That said, it's a minor quibble that ultimately doesn't undercut Raiders!. Evan a casual fan of the "official" Raiders of the Lost Ark should get a kick out of seeing ambitious kids act out many famous moments and discovering how the whole idea came together back in 1982.
In the end, Raiders! is a strong documentary covering the blood, sweat, and tears that were put into making a touchstone of fan culture. Coon and Skousen deserve a lot of credit for allowing the audience to learn who Strompolos and Zala are as people, making them as relatable and sympathetic as protagonists in a Hollywood film. It's a must-see for someone with even a passing interest in the Indiana Jones series or hopes of making their own films one day. Spielberg has made a career out of touching viewers with genuine movie magic, so it's only fitting that a documentary about a group of self-described Goonies remaking one of his most famous efforts can leave the same impact.
Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is now playing in select theaters and is available on VOD.