With a title that’s more than a mouthful, Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Madefollows the exploits of a group of boys – now men – who once upon a time set out to make a shot-for-shot remake of Steven Spielberg’s classic, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Starting in the early 1980’s when they were pre-teens, the film took seven years to complete utilizing nothing more than rudimentary home video equipment and a lot of passion. This documentary picks up their story almost thirty years later when a successful Kickstarter bid sees them attempting to film a final scene and finish the project that defined their childhoods.
In an age where Hollywood’s every second release is a remake, I doubt there could be a topic more appropriate than a shot-for-shot remake of a beloved film. Besides the obvious amateur nature of their production, the major difference here is that Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala’s adaptation of their chosen source material was made without a heavy dose of corporate cynicism. This is one of those rare occasions where “remake” is not a dirty word. It was made with love.
That love of the material and passion for their project shone through enough to make it an underground viral hit, being circulated over the years via bootleg VHS tapes, where it found its way into the hands of Eli Roth. Roth gave a copy to Harry Knowles, who finally put it in front of a wider audience. There’s a lot of appeal in the idea that speaks to the fan inside all of us, so it’s no wonder that it transpired people to donate their dollars to the Kickstarter campaign. The main players age throughout the remake as its seven years in the making pass before the audience’s eyes – like a Spielberg-flavored version of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Their remake is a distillation of childhood fandom projected onscreen.
But we’re here to talk about the documentary that tells the story of its making, which hangs its narrative around Strompolos and Zala’s struggles to film the final scene on a limited budget. The rest of the run time is filled out by interviews with their friends and family, and ample clips from the film itself.
There’s a frustration here felt not only by myself, but some of the interviewees as well, that so much creative time and effort was spent on an inferior version of a film that had already been made. Other similar documentaries about low-budget filmmaking (such as “American Movie”) had a much easier job of getting the audience to root for the success of their subjects. As Zala pours more of his own money into finishing the film, it’s hard not to yell at the screen, “Why? Why are you doing this? Make something of your own!”
It’s up to the documentary filmmakers (Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen) to give us an insight into the determination and reasoning behind such a project. For the most part we’re left wondering, although there are a few moments where the surface is scratched and we learn Strompolos’ family life wasn’t exactly ideal. Perhaps the collaborative process of remaking Indiana Jones was the only stable part of his and Zala’s existence? Unfortunately, there’s not as much digging into the psychological reasoning as I would have liked.
There’s also not enough screen time to examine Strompolos and Zala’s friendship. We know they must have been close in their teenage years, but they seem distant in their adulthood. They’re barely on camera together, and this leaves us quetioning why they’re bothering to come back to finish the film. If not to re-ignite their camaraderie and complete this thing that they started together, then why? Are they simple doing it for the money or limited fame that this documentary might bring them? Are they playing it up the camera? Has resurrecting their passion project tainted it with the aforementioned cynicism that plagues big budget modern remakes? The documentary doesn’t go deep enough.
Still, “Raiders!” is a tight and entertaining account. It’s hard to fault Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen’s ability to craft an engaging narrative from what is inherently interesting material not only to fans of Indiana Jones, but also to those with any interest in low-budget filmmaking. It is slightly disappointing that there’s no involvement from Harrison Ford, or George Lucas, or Senor Spielbergo, but it’s hardly surprising.
What IS surprising is that there’s been no litigation from the Disney camp thus far. They seem to be turning a blind eye. In fact, while they’re in a good mood, I’d go so far as to recommend that Disney shortlist Zala and Stompolos for the director’s chair when they inevitably reboot the Indy franchise. I mean, these guys spent almost three decades aping Spielberg. Why not give them a chance? They wouldn’t do a worse job than some of the current mercenary directors handling big name reboots, right?
If the concept of Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made piques your interest at all, then it’s certainly worth your time to check it out. I only wish it had dug deeper into its subjects.