Wednesday, November 10, 2010

For All My Critiquing, I Cannot Find Fault With Raiders Of The Lost Ark

The Good: Decent acting, Interesting characters, Good plot, Excellent pace
The Bad: No DVD extras
The Basics: While light in DVD extras, Raiders Of The Lost Ark is a wonderful adventure/chase film sure to engage the viewer.

When the Indiana Jones Trilogy was released on DVD as a boxed set and it was instantly one of the most successful DVD releases, I was more than a little surprised. After all, one of the three Indiana Jones movies is usually playing Sunday afternoon on television. I swear, every Sunday afternoon, you can find an Indiana Jones movie playing somewhere on cable or broadcast television. Because of the ease of viewing it for free, I was surprised when the no-frills DVD release was so successful. So, when I sat down and watched (Indiana Jones and the) Raiders of the Lost Ark, on DVD, it was the first time I had given the film real attention since I saw it in the theater as a child.

Indiana Jones, archaeologist and adventurer, returns to his university empty-handed when one of his recovered artifacts is forcibly removed from his possession by rival archaeologist Rene Belloq. Dr. Jones is soon approached by the United States government to find an artifact of limitless power, the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, subject of an exhaustive search by the Nazis in their attempt to harness occult artifacts and powers, is days from being found, so Jones goes in search an artifact that will help him determine the location of the Ark and beat the Nazis to the prize. This leads him to Marion Ravenwood, an ex-lover of Indy's whose father was Indiana's mentor. Marion accompanies Jones to Cairo and on an adventure to find the Ark and keep it from falling into the hands of the Nazis.

Raiders Of The Lost Ark may well be the perfect action-adventure film and part of the reason for that assessment is that it smartly balances the sequences of action with moments of character and a genuine sense of mood. The story is fairly straightforward, but the pace is unrelenting which keeps the film moving constantly. As a result, there is a constant sense of engagement to the movie that is very accessible.

Indiana Jones is an intriguing protagonist with a sense of backstory to him that it uncommon in most movies today. Not as monolithic as, say, a James Bond, Jones is an educated adventurer. While he is principled - he seeks artifacts for museums so that society at large may become educated and edified - he is dedicated to his cause with a single-minded devotion that makes him the ultimate rogue (all the ladies swoon). To that end, he kills - the body count in Raiders Of The Lost Ark is quite high, though not usually all that graphic - and steals and puts Marion in harm's way constantly.

But as a hero or protagonist, Raiders Of The Lost Ark is refreshing in that Jones does not have all of the answers. For example, his assistant in Cairo Sallah makes observations and judgments independent of Indy that save the life of Dr. Jones. So, when Jones is about to make a critical misstep, Sallah is able to intervene and save him. This does not make Jones seem like a buffoon or Sallah smarter, but rather that we're witnessing a field with multiple heroes of various abilities and strengths. Even Belloq is not a generic villain, though he is not quite the equal of Indy.

Similarly, Marion is not a generic damsel in distress. While much can be written about the poor standing of women in films written by George Lucas, Raiders Of The Lost Ark has - at worst - a tolerable balance in Marion of the woman as strong, independent warrior in her own right and damsel in distress. While she spends some time in the movie complaining, crying out for Indiana to help her, and/or being tossed in where the scene is already crowded, Marion also illustrates a strong ability to take care of herself and some of her actions (as opposed to reactions or things done to her) have a significant impact on the direction of the film.

As perhaps the most significant nod, Indy comes to value Marion over the course of the film (or adventure) above all else and that changes the flow when Indy's priorities change. It also keeps the film engaging over multiple viewings. Raiders Of The Lost Ark takes a fairly basic chase movie and makes in intriguing and fun in a way that cinema has not done, possibly since North By Northwest. And because the film is not all about special effects, the movie manages to say something.

Director Steven Spielberg manages not to telegraph the emotions in Raiders Of The Lost Ark which helps to keep it exciting in its own right, not because of directoral tricks that simply choreograph the emotions for the viewer. And Indiana Jones is an interesting character in a heroically ambivalent place somewhere well above anti-hero but not on the moralistic playing field of, say, the StarFleet characters of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The result is a film that's entertaining and enjoyable. It's also the film that illustrated that Harrison Ford could open a movie on his own. Sure, we take that for granted now, but Harrison Ford's role in Star Wars: A New Hope did not guarantee him the superstar status he eventually achieved. Ford is alternately dashing and clever and a simple brute as Indiana Jones and he makes the transition flawlessly and within the reasonable bounds of what the character appears to be. More than that, Ford plays Indiana Jones as something less than invincible, which is reassuring. Ford makes Jones convincingly wounded after extended physical encounters with Nazi thugs. Ford's exhaustion is palpable and difficult to watch in the scenes where he must play the hero well after the adrenalin has worn off.

Karen Allen plays opposite Ford as Marion and she has a surprising amount of on-screen gravitas for an actress I've not seen in anything else. Allen impressive with her ability to do more than shriek. She journeys as an action hero in her own right and her opening scene, where Allen plays Marion as stone-drunk, steals the show. All around, the acting is flawless and it combines with the characters as written to illuminate the screen with some of the most memorable characters in cinematic history.

And now, over twenty-five years since its original release, genre fans and geeks will appreciate some of the little things more, like seeing Alfred Molina in a bit role in the film's opening. On DVD, the release is sparse. It looks and sounds good, but the menu animation is crap and the film lacks so much as an introduction or a commentary track.

Nevertheless, this is one of the gold standards of action-adventure cinema (and a prime argument for the PG-13 rating) and a worthwhile way to spend any Sunday afternoon.

For other films featuring Alfred Molina, please check out my reviews of:
Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time
Wonder Woman


For other film reviews, please check out my index page by clicking here. That will take you to a comprehensive index of all of the movies I've reviewed and it is updated daily!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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