Drafthouse Films (March 14 2015), MVD Entertainment/Drafthouse Films (August 16 2016), Blu-ray plus DVD, 93 mins plus supplements, 1080p high-definition widescreen 1.78:1, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Rated, Retail: $34.95
In 1982, as Indiana Jones blazed across the screen in a reissue of his first adventure, a bunch of kids attempted to make a shot-for-shot recreation of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. This is their story…
The Sweatbox Review:
Following their DVD release of behind-the-masks documentary Elstree 1976 and an upcoming standard definition disc issue of the Back To The Future tribute piece Back In Time in a few weeks, it seems MVD is becoming the go-to label of choice for documentaries of a certain bent: that of feature-length films that take a considerable look at the filmmakers and fans of recognisably iconic blockbuster franchisees by way of uniquely slanted “making ofs” or retrospective appreciations. In one fell swoop, their latest release, Raiders! The Story Of The Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, manages to be both – a behind the scenes of a fan film itself!
But this isn’t just any old fan film. Arguably it could be said to be the very first of any real significance or renown for, in the summer of 1982 two friends set out to make a near shot-for-shot (or at least scene by scene!) recreation of the previous year’s biggest blockbuster, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, their version later being subtitled The Adaptation. In part, I guess the idea was to prolong their experience of seeing the film for the first time, and as a way to not only relive Indy’s adventures for themselves but then be able to revisit the film in future, at a time when it wasn’t routine for a movie to get released for viewing in a home format.
Before home video made instant playback available (although ironically, Raiders proved to be one of the very first “priced to own” titles to be released on VHS in the spring of 1984 as part of promotions for its follow-up prequel Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom) and armed only with a tape recorder smuggled into the theater in order to capture the soundtrack so as to be able to recreate the script, these intrepid adventurers set out to put their take on film – well, VHS video at least – in a project that was supposed to be done by the end of summer but ended up consuming the next seven summers of their lives, the result being a completed film, shot out of sequence, in which the cast zip back and forth in age throughout.
But it turns out The Adaptation wasn’t ever quite complete, and although great kudos must go to a bunch of kids who managed to pull off such grandiose set-pieces as rolling boulders, truck chases and melting faces – think of it like the Bugsy Malone of Indiana Jones movies! – there was still one scene that proved too costly and elaborate to emulate. With renewed interest in The Adaptation thanks to its discovery on the geek circuit, Raiders! not only tells the story of the making of this “greatest fan film ever made” but also reunites the guys and their original cast to produce that last outstanding scene and finally complete their film.
This is both Raiders! greatest achievement and, to be honest, its biggest setback. The story itself, of the kids’ struggle to make their dream a reality coupled with copious amounts of footage from their finished film, is enough to engage and hold our attention, and when we’re hearing the stories and reasons behind the whys and hows (a great deal of additional footage was shot that is utilized here for behind the scenes purposes), Raiders! really delivers. We find ourselves willing the guys on, and being thrilled when they pull off both the small and big moments with either aplomb or ingenuity, in a style that suggests the legend of this attempt might have prompted Garth Jennings’ charming British feature Son Of Rambow (the title from which you can guess which film was being remade there).
The reunion, and stories behind why everyone lost contact, are golden moments in themselves, too (some very briefly touched on darker personal choices aside), but too much time is spent setting up the new shoot for the final scene, interweaving it throughout the narrative until Raiders! somewhat shifts focus from the real story and becomes a making of for this final scene; a final scene that is admittedly ambitious in scope (and fun how they all came back to recreate it) but also too slick. With their Kickstarter-raised budget and a host of real movie equipment to shoot in digital widescreen, it doesn’t matter that the now adult ages won’t exactly match up but, for me, it’s that the fuzzy, multi-generational VHS dubs will switch to professional movie values for this one moment.
I’d have had to insist on using era-authentic equipment, at least shooting in the same 4:3 aspect ratio, and continuing the project in the same style, going on memories of the film rather than being able to perfectly match-cut each shot (a later comparison shows just how frame accurate things are) from easily available DVDs. It does look great, of course, especially with all the set-dressing and pyrotechnics of an exploding plane (there, that’s given it away, hasn’t it?) being done for real, but it somewhat loses the rough edges and, effectively, charm of the original endeavor, even if it is cool that their Adaptation is complete.
As someone who spent much of their own childhood making VHS blockbusters themselves (although rather than create remakes, we used to produce pastiche pictures based more on overall genres and original material) it’s really in the backstories, reasons and experiences of making their film that Raiders! may really hit home for any film geek who has ever tried their hand at making their own movie, and it’s fun to see the guys, both likeable in their own ways, revisit their locations, production notes and childhood. Also in the mix are a host of friends, family, colleagues and famous fans – including Raiders‘ Sallah himself, John Rhys-Davies – who all bring additional contextual layers to the making of the guys’ original adventure.
However, while it is great that the plane sequence finally means their adaptation is complete, the prolonged lead-up and associated issues with its shooting feels somewhat forced, perhaps as a way to bring some sort of drama to this particular film, but in many ways I’m not sure I really cared. Yes, it illustrates well the camaraderie between these remakers, but they’re not naive kids any longer, and rather than attempting to produce their own version of a scene, the Kickstarter campaign and growing ambitions sees them, as adults, wanting to basically recreate things for real, which was never in danger of happening from their original footage – even if we see that even in professional circumstances things still don’t always go to plan.
One discarded suggestion of using a miniature plane actually seems more in keeping with their earlier “how do we get around this?” approach, but the intention here is much more grand and, even if it’s very cool, eventually lacks the magic of spontaneity and, somewhat, a deserving to be included in the final film. Yes, that may come off a little harsh, and on the flipside we do now see how the crew, as not entirely poverty stricken adults, may have approached the same kind of effort with years more experience and, essentially, money and resources behind them. Although they are the same people, these aren’t the kids that often evoke the feeling of their own Amblin-style story (The Goonies is appropriately referenced, although one can also find the seeds for the more recent Super 8).
In many ways, the nostalgia of recreating the final scene is infectious, but it also really does take up too much of the documentary’s time, especially when there seem to be many more anecdotes from the original film shoots and what we really want to see, and what Raiders! The Making Of The Greatest Fan Film Ever Made‘s title promises, is more of this footage, especially much more of the final result, which seems to be under some kind of embargo given that we actually only glimpse very little of The Adaptation itself. But when the stories emerge and we do see the results, the very magic of childhood comes alive, and the power and inspiration of the movies has never proven to be more potent.
Is This Thing Loaded?
As opposed to MVD’s usual barebones standard definition DVD titles (where BD-Rs have been available direct from the filmmakers), Raiders! The Story Of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made comes not from a Kickstarter or associated kind of self-financed campaign but from the Drafthouse outfit, meaning that a fully-featured Blu-ray disc is on offer this time around, and a pretty nifty affair it is too. I’ve belabored my point on the documentary’s choice to split its focus between the original shoot and the new one for the recreated scene above, and with good reason because here we get to see much more of the good stuff in a lengthy series of Deleted Scenes, over a half hour of additional and alternate moments that touch more on the personal relationships and stories behind the recreation, as well as the reason why the guys wanted to make the new plane scene as good as it could be. While it would add to the running time, there’s a good deal that should have been retained here (including contact from Spielberg himself) instead of the focus on the new shoot and, although there’s more on that as well, these are worth catching.
In lieu of being able to view the entire film itself, a selection of Outtakes From The Adaptation gives us some idea of the finished result, although this is more of the behind the scenes variety and not completed scenes from the final version. Running a near 20 minutes, it’s fun to see the kids making their movie in this juvenile “making of” footage (mostly of the central truck chase), though again much of it really should have been included in the documentary. To see it at all, though, only goes to making to making this set feel all the more comprehensive, even if it does only whet our appetites to see the final Adaptation all the more. Again as only briefly touched on in the doc itself, The Adaptation‘s eventual discovery and official public unveiling is marked by a 40-minute post-screening Alamo Drafthouse Premiere Q & A Session with the filmmakers, with each question handily chapter indexed. Many more stories and “how we did its” are revealed, in an impromptu and sometimes hilariously candid back-and-forth that easily transcends the washed out technical quality of the vintage VHS recording.
If we need any more context and background information on the guys and their film, a pair of feature-length Audio Commentaries, the first with the writer/producer/directors and the second with the Raiders Adaptation guys themselves, both of which bring their own unique slants to the resulting documentary. Lastly, a Theatrical Trailer for the release of the Raiders! documentary is included amongst a handful of similar previews for other Drafthouse films. While it would of course have been neat to also include The Adaptation itself, the likelihood is that it’s entangled in a myriad of rights with original distributors Paramount and, now adding to the mix, new Indy owners Disney, or that the boys want to keep the film back for the many special screenings hosted around the country. A DVD is available from their own website, and so surely there’s a market for a combined set with this doc, but my guess is that there’s a bigger rights issue at play.
Adding to the cachet of a full Blu-ray release is Raiders! sleeve, housed in a clear Criterion-style BD case. The sleeve – specifically the front poster style artwork – is excellent, created as a tongue-in-cheek Indiana Jones design (and featuring the young filmmakers in their movie roles) while also reflecting the ambition of their film itself and this documentary. Legendary poster artist Drew Struzan would be proud: this not only looks authentic, but pulls off the aim of any piece of key art, which is to convey everything about a film in one image, with both the fan movie and behind the scenes aspects clearly illustrated.
A nice touch is an alternate Mondo-style line-art cover on the reverse, although it’s a little more sterilised and avant-garde for this title when the preferred Indy-style theming does so much to portray those clear visual associations, which also nicely carry over to the disc art inside, where you’ll also find a 16-page booklet that reproduces the guys’ storyboard sketches and a similarly themed download code card for a Digital HD copy. Presented in the full-height case that, also Criterion style, labels Raiders! as #39 in the Drafthouse series, this is a very smart looking package.
Ink And Paint:
Shot on home video and dubbed between VHS tapes in editing, the reproduced Raiders Adaptation is never going to look like Spielberg’s original in terms of production or technical quality, but thankfully The Story Of The Greatest Fan Film Ever Made‘s hi-def talking heads and new scene recreation footage is exactly as crisp as one would hope and expect.
Having been involved in regrading archive VHS footage in the past, I do know that much better results can be achieved than what we do see of The Adaptation, but again I guess for aesthetic reasons there’s a need to portray it as the fuzzy, composite, color-bleeding VHS tape that it is, but should it ever come to disc, I do hope better care is taken to restore the image better than we see here. That’s not to say the image on everything else here is not up to standard: this is a pro-shot and mastered feature in ever way.
Without being able to use John Williams’ iconic Raiders score, the music choices manage to create the same feel, from orchestral pastiche to a typically 1980s beat that brings to mind something that might have played on any number of documentaries about the emergence of computer generated imagery (“Or, C.G.I.”) of the time. Voices are the main priority here, and even in a 5.1 mix it’s all clear and mostly front-centred.
As I elaborated upon in my review for the recent documentary Elstree 1976, my Dad worked at the Elstree Studios where the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies were shot and I, as a young lad, was lucky enough to visit many of the sets. On Raiders Of The Lost Ark, I remember the supposed accounts – true or not – about the snakes from the Well Of The Souls escaping into the sewer system (prompting many scare stories about checking the toilet basin before using it!) and discovering movie magic at play in how fake the sets looked once one took a few steps back to see the plywood backing.
So it was with a big dose of my own childhood involvement with the film that I was eager to catch up with these similarly aged filmmakers and their incredibly crazy story. Their achievement speakers for itself and, while Raiders! The Story Of The Greatest Fan Film Ever Made does a fair job of bringing this story to the wider public, there’s still a feeling that there’s much more to discover. Thankfully, Drafhouse’s extras manage to fill in a lot of gaps and, taken as a complete package rather than just the documentary, this is a very fine paean to an ultimate tribute, and the power of believing in a dream and seeing it through to the sometimes bitter end.