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Review: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Premise: The original Indiana Jones film. Dr. Jones races with the Nazis and a rival archeologist (Paul Freeman) to find the Ark of the Covenant, an ancient Jewish artifact that could be used as the ultimate weapon.

What Works: Raiders of the Lost Ark is a classic adventure film and one of the first pictures to consciously engage in nostalgia for a previous era of cinema, paving the way for filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino. Like the original Star Wars, Raiders is based upon the adventure serials of the 1940s but combines that sense of fun with contemporary filmmaking techniques and styles. The film strings together action set pieces, some of which have become iconic moments in cinema, with a plotline that is lean but completely coherent. Aside from the thrilling action scenes, what keeps Raiders such an impressive film nearly thirty years after its original release is its characters. Harrison Ford stars as Indiana Jones and Ford sets the tone for the entire picture, creating a hero who is very human. Indy is brave but also fallible; he gets injured, makes mistakes, and has some complicated interpersonal relationships. Like John McClane of Die Hard, Indiana Jones is an ordinary man doing extraordinary things and that everyman quality makes him an engaging hero and lifts the tensions in the action scenes. The supporting cast of Raiders is also very strong. Karen Allen plays Marion Ravenwood, Indy’s love interest, and the character is a prime example of the film balancing between allusions to the adventure stories of a previous era and contemporary sensibilities. Marion fulfills a classic function as a damsel in distress but she is also a strong, modern female character. Paul Freeman stars as Belloq, a charming archeologist who is the ying to Jones’ yang, and he is by far the most compelling villain in the entire series. Ronald Lacy and John Rhys-Davies round out the cast as an evil Nazi and Indiana’s Egyptian ally, both contributing humor and color to the film, as well as some of the most memorable lines.

What Doesn’t: The ending of Raiders is a supernatural special effects extravaganza, but although it is a satisfying comeuppance for the villains and a thrilling climax, the conclusion nags as a deux ex machina ending. Instead of relying of Indiana’s heroism and ingenuity, the powers of God intervene to save day. It’s a cop out even though, like Spielberg’s ending to Jaws and Jurassic Park, the finale successfully trumps showmanship over narrative principles or logic.

DVD Extras: Photos, featurettes, storyboards.

Bottom Line: Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the great pieces of cinematic entertainment. Even if the movie is not very deep it is a whole lot of fun. Although film technology has advanced to the point at which flashier films are now possible, Raiders overshadows the competition with its sense of humor, great characters, and classic set pieces.

Episode: #192 (June 1, 2008)