Fun with Franchises: Final Thoughts on Raiders of the Lost Ark
All right… we’ve watched the film, talked about it, had fun with it, and then we went and listed our favorite images from the film yesterday. Now all that’s left is to finish up with what we actually thought about the film as a whole.
This is our space to go over what we liked and didn’t like about each film we watch for Fun with Franchises. We talk about specific things as we get to them during the articles, and we’ll mention our general thoughts during them, but we don’t really ever get to sit and do broad strokes during the articles. So this is why we do these Final Thoughts. We get to take a step back and talk about the films as a whole, rather than discussing specific scenes or images. We’ll talk about how we felt about the film, how we liked it as a film, how we liked it as a member of its franchise, and where we think it falls within that franchise.
Again, it’s not very complicated, but it is a place to find out what we actually thought about certain movies, since, while we’re having fun with them in the articles, it may get difficult to tell sometimes. Because we’ll just rip things to shreds for fun, even if we love them.
So here are our final thoughts on Raiders of the Lost Ark:
Final Thoughts on Raiders of the Lost Ark:
Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the few movies that we’ve covered that I truly love. I usually break franchises into two categories: those based on other media and those that were developed out of thin air. So far, only Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Matrix have been the original only ones that we’ve covered that were developed independently of other media, and among them, only Star Wars was produced on a low budget. But look at what happened here: George Lucas had ideas that he bounced off some smart people and then put to film on a shoestring budget. We end up with Indiana Jones and Star Wars. Kasdan should really take a lot of the credit here, too, because if we’re honest, Empire Strikes Back is the best of the Star Wars movies, and this is the best of the Indiana Jones movies. And then he DIDN’T do Temple of Doom. So that should tell you something.
You can see that restraint on the part of the filmmakers ended up making it better than it would be otherwise. Not a lot of takes, nothing too over the top, no technological mumbo-jumbo – just the basics. It’s just a classic adventure serial, and it introduced our generation to that genre.
Technically, this movie came out 8 years before I was born, so by the time I was watching it, it was already more than a decade old. But seeing it in that context as a teeny child, I put Indiana Jones in the same category as James Bond, the way a lot of people group Star Trek with Star Wars. They’re obviously different, but most people prefer one or the other. For the record, I prefer Bond, but viewing these two franchises as dichotomous doesn’t detract from my fondness for either.
Harrison Ford does something unique with this character that I appreciate. He isn’t entirely pigheaded like Han Solo, and he isn’t the Bond-like playboy, either. What we get is something in the middle that has now become the trope: the smart guy who can also do action and defy the odds to defeat evil and save the day. Translating ancient texts and punching out Nazis never went together before, but now they do. And that’s an accomplishment.
Think about this movie. There’s almost NO down time, and what little there is gets spent advancing the plot, quickly and effectively. It’s like playing Resident Evil, with brief cut scenes between stages. Once we get to Nepal, BAM, it’s a bar fight on fire. Then we get to Cairo and there’s a street chase and a truck explodes. Then booze. Then he gets to the dig site and finds the Ark while Marion pretends to get drunk with Ivan Ooze. Then they’re in the Well of Souls for a tense few moments, and then there’s a fight on top of a flying wing which then explodes and leads us into my favorite part of the movie, the truck chase. Holy shit, the truck chase. Then we get a little down time on the ship before Marion has to cover her titties cause Germans are boarding, and then it’s all U-Boats and RPGs and face melting AND THEN THE MOVIE IS OVER. In other words, this movie’s progression is basically: ACT I, ACT IV, ACT IV, ACT IV, ACT V. It’s ALL badass.
That may be why I like it so much. This movie never lets up, gives us solid, consistent pacing, and the action scenes are tight, limited to basically one location and two characters at most. The best way to demonstrate why this works is to put it against Crystal Skull. They both have vehicle chases in an exotic locale – you know that the jungle chase was trying to be the Raiders truck chase 2.0. The truck chase begins with him on a horse and jumping onto the truck. The entire scene that follows takes place IN, ON, UNDER, or BEHIND the truck. There are bad guys, but there’s no super-villain swordfighting someone, no monkeys, no comic relief, no dialogue, and no CGI. The most outlandish thing we get is the Nazi car going off the cliff. MAYBE when the Egyptian builder lands on the hood and Ford chuckles about it with the Nazi driver for a second before punching him out. That’s flavor. I think Lucas and Spielberg were able to come off with something great because they were practicing micro filmmaking here – where you use every conceivable part of the buffalo location and set pieces before moving onto something new. In later, worse films, they spend seconds in a single location before shifting the action to somewhere else. So yes, something as cheap and simple as a five-ton transport truck is INFINITELY more memorable than the random jet sled from Crystal Skull that required hundreds of man hours in CGI and mock-ups to yield only 15 seconds of tepid excitement. This is also why Rope, with only one confined location and not a single explosion, thrilled me more than The Avengers could. I wish more people recognized that versatility is almost invariably preferable to multiplicity when it comes to creative media.
For all the times that I say, “Screw you, George,” and, “Really, Spielberg?” there’s this movie keeping me grounded in the truth that these guys know how to make a movie. What is immediately apparent is that their success was their own undoing; this sort of film can only be made with creative freedom and budgetary limitations, whether self-imposed or circumstantial. And you can usually only make something great when you don’t quite know what it’s supposed to be just yet. Empire might be the exception to that rule, and Last Crusade makes a case for strong comebacks, but it’s movies like Raiders that have convinced me that most franchises should never be franchises.
My Final Thoughts:
This movie, for what it is, wanted to be, and should have been, is perfect. Call it whatever you want — Spielberg deciding to go back to basics, or whatever (since this was clearly a response to his experience with 1941, where he shot every frame of the film, and in essence, over-directed it. And wanted to do something more pure and for smaller money so as not to potentially kill his career), but whatever it is that led him to this movie changed cinema forever. Spielberg already had Jaws under his belt. Which was great, but it’s not this kind of level of filmmaking. And then Close Encounters was also great. And 1941 was overdone. But this movie — this is, in a way, his Raging Bull.
And when I say that, I don’t mean that it’s his unquestionable masterpiece and the best thing he’s ever done. You might argue that (I might even argue that), but I mean it in the sense that — based on previous films, he felt, in some way, that he had to prove himself on this one, and he put everything he had into it, and really just went for broke and didn’t get too fancy with it. And the result is probably the best pure filmmaking he’s ever done.
The shot choices in this movie are so perfect. If you really want to see what I mean, Steven Soderbergh did a thing where he put the movie online, in black and white, with all the sound and dialogue cut out, just so you could focus on the staging and shot choices. And you really end up paying attention to how brilliantly Spielberg shot this film. A lot of it we went over in the shots list, and honestly, that’s really what my final thoughts are leaning toward, because I really forgot how well the staging and shot choices were chosen here. And that’s what impressed me more than anything.
To me, the movie is all about Spielberg. The way he allows the movie to be loose and rough and shot the way the 30s serials would have been. He leaves the tiny mistakes in to give the movie a sense of spontaneity without making it seem poorly made. And he doesn’t let his story get too crazy until the climax, when you’re allowed to go for broke if you want.
Plus, the idea of an adventure serial is just incredible. Hero, adventures, not connected to anything, with only motifs and gags repeated to connect the tissue. This is real action movie stuff, not that bullshit superhero stuff they have now.
And the movie also does this nice structuring thing, where we always move to a fresh location and the action sequences keep coming, but are always varied enough so it doesn’t feel like the same thing over and over again. Think about it — open on the whole temple security and boulder chase. Then he’s running from natives. Then Nepal, and the barfight. Then the market fight and chase. Then they do the great thing where they have him and his adversary just sit and talk without action. Which is great! Then (sort of) the poison date, which is more of a tension scene that breaks up the rest of the exposition they throw out there. And then we get the digging and all that, leading to him and her being trapped and having to escape (and the snakes). Leading to the airplane fight, and the truck chase. And then the U-Boat stuff, and then the climax, where the hero actually doesn’t do anything. Each of those is so different, it doesn’t feel like a Marvel movie, where it’s essentially the same scene over and over and over again, leading to a climax where an entire city is destroyed.
Oh, and did I mention — all the sets and stunts and action sequences are really done. Which adds a whole other element of entertainment to this movie, because you can see these things happening before your eyes, rather than what is clearly trick photography or CGI.
What they do here that makes this work better than every other movie in this franchise — and most action movies in general — is what Colin said. They put you in a location, and get every single thing they can out of that location before leaving it. Rather than going, “Let’s randomly do exposition by a waterfall, and then we can put them along this jungle road, and then the guys can just show up, and they can fight, but then when the cars crash, we’ll be in the middle of an oasis.” And you’re like, “What?” Watch the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull chase. It makes no goddamn sense. Or even the beginning of that movie. The place where we are at the end of this movie is supposed to be a few miles from where they test NUCLEAR BOMBS. They put no thought into locations and are focusing only on the macro. Whereas here, they’re thinking like independent filmmakers. “Okay, we only have $30 million. So let’s use this truck as much as we can.” So they change it up. People climb on the truck, he gets dragged, people get thrown through windshields, we run the truck into stuff. The key with action movies really is to act like you have no money and figure out how to maximize what you have without just adding money. Action movies really are where innovation is key, and you only think creatively when you don’t have enough toys to do everything you want.
I started with “this movie is perfect,” and I’m ending with it as well. Because we know it’s perfect. My favorite movies are 30s and 40s movies. This is a clear throwback to that — guy who teaches class by day and pillages ancient temples by… well, on the weekends. Or really whenever he wants. Motherfucker goes back to class one day and is like, “Give me two grand to go to Marrakesh.” And he sleeps with a lot of women, has friends everywhere, and is banging a chick who owns a bar and stops to drink in the middle of a barfight. This is fun shit.
Maybe the key with franchise movies is to act as though each one is the only movie in the series. Story-wise. Or maybe you act as though it’s a standalone, and then the only references you make are to character elements. Maybe that would keep people honest. I don’t know. But either way, this movie is amazing, and we all know it, and the two most underrated elements of it are Spielberg’s direction and, of course, all of Harrison Ford’s ridiculous facial expressions. No one talks about how insane and over the top he gets with those expressions. It’s amazing.
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Tomorrow we start Temple of Doom. To prepare, we’re going to rip the heart out of a homeless person with the aid of a small Asian child.