AUSTIN, TX: In 1982, three 11-year-olds in Mississippi started remaking Raiders of the Lost Ark. That sentence, in and of itself, is not exceptional; little kids reenact movies and TV shows and cartoons that they love all the time. What made these kids different was the level of their commitment; their Raiders was a shot-for-shot remake that they put to VHS, complete with (charmingly low-rent) props and costumes and locations. And then they spent the next seven summers finishing it. I spent my summer vacations watching television and eating microwave burritos. How about you?
The story of those three kids — Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb — is told in Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen’s new documentary Raiders!, which premiered over the weekend at the most appropriate venue imaginable: Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, where the film was first screened for an audience beyond family and friends and entered cinephile folklore, almost like an urban legend whispered among movie geeks. “Hey, did you hear the one about the kids who did the shot-for-shot of Raiders?”
Raiders! tells the remarkable story of that seven-year mission, intercut with a new development in the story: after all these years, they’ve decided to go back and shoot the airplane-wing fight scene, the one sequence that always eluded them. They pool their funds, ask for favors, set up a Kickstarter. They ask for time off from work and patience from their families. And they set off one more time to make a movie.
That childlike spirit, of loving a movie so much you have to just become it, pulses through their Raiders adaptation, and through much of the documentary as well. These were very typical kids, raised (almost universally) by divorcing parents who had jobs and priorities and pretty much just left the kids alone to go make their little movie. In a way, the movie project was a diversion, an escape from their real lives, though eventually it birthed some teenage drama of its own. One of the guys gets shut out. The other two have a fight, over (of course) a girl. As they get older, one drifts off and does does a lot of drugs. The other starts a family. They kinda turn out like any group of kids.
The documentary is a bit soggy in sports (it could do with a bit less rapturous endorsement from “celebrity” boosters like Harry Knowles), and is reportedly missing a few juicy stories. But it’s entertaining and structurally clever, hopscotching back and forth between the history and a daily set diary of the new sequence; like any movie, they go over budget and over schedule. Tempers flare. It’s hard to make a movie when you’re an adult, with pride and ego and whatever peccadilloes you’ve accumulated along the way.
And when we finally see what they’ve come up with, it’s a bit of a disappointment. It’s not that the new sequence isn’t well done; quite the opposite. The image (thanks to the considerable advances in video technology since the ’80s) is crisp and cinematic. The action is sharply choreographed and the props are convincing. The adults playing the roles look right for the roles. It looks so good that, ultimately, it looks too good.
After Raiders!, the Drafthouse ran the full remake (dubbed Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation), with the new scene inserted, and the contrast was even more striking. Make no mistake, the film is technically inept: the image is washed out, the VHS is glitchy, the music bends, the production design is laughable, the audio borders on inaudible. And none of that even comes close to dampening the picture’s infectious energy and spirit.
You go along for the ride. And as their heights adjust and baby fat disappears and voices change from scene to scene or even shot to shot, the film plays less like Raiders than like Boyhood: a real-time chronicle of adolescence, but this time with a leather jacket and bullwhip.