September 08, 2013

Raiders of the Lost Ark

The template for all the big, overlong adventure films of the past quarter-century, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) still looks impressive, but it's a slightly overrated piece of pop, the product of H. Rider Haggard-inspired boyhood fantasies. It's from a story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, and a screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan. As Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford, the modern-day Allan Quatermain, is an admittedly perfect casting choice: he's the right mixture of intellectual, heel, and romantic, driven by his singular fascination for the Ark of the Covenant. Karen Allen, as his girl Friday, Marion, is one of the spunkier heroines in American adventure films. She's right up there with Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley in her ability to hold her own, and that's a breath of fresh air. (Apparently she had to fight director Steven Spielberg on this; he must have chosen Kate Capshaw for Temple of Doom because he knew she wasn't above screaming and whining for the entire film.)

The creators of this behemoth once again show their inability to restrain themselves, pulling in everything from the Ark of the Covenant to the ancient Egyptians to the Nazis: it's set in 1936, when Hitler was allegedly doing research on the occult, among other things. Thus, Indiana Jones becomes involved in one of those dreary races against time, fighting Nazism, venomous snakes, giant, fast-moving boulders, skilled Egyptian sheiks, and any other potential obstacle that can be put in his way. The film is best when it lets a little levity into the mix, but it's such a busy production that Spielberg and company barely have time for such trivial things as humor.

Ultimately Raiders of the Lost Ark doesn't capture as much of the exotic charm and fascination of Egyptian culture (much of it takes place in Cairo) as it would like, despite good set design and production values. It's too much of a pastiche of other films, mixing some Humphrey Bogart vehicles (The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca come to mind) with King Solomon's Mines. As overblown movies go, Raiders isn't offensive (despite John Williams' overbearing music score, which announces triumph at the drop of a hat); but the fact that its success (along with Jaws and Star Wars) has made modern movies what they are--too big, too long, and too cookie-cutter--is quite offensive indeed. Raiders still manages to be entertaining, with noteworthy scenes including the chase scene in Cairo and a descent into a snake-infested tomb. With Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, Wolf Kahler, and Alfred Molina. ½

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