Movie Review — “Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made”

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If you’re a film fanatic you’ve seen or heard of them — “fan films,” homages, remakes of or tributes to movies that fans are so crazy for that they want to put themselves into the experience of that world and try to recreate it on the screen.

They tackle “Star Wars” with fast food toys as the stars, recreate the bridge of this or that starship in their house, and act-out and videotape their efforts at playing their favorite characters and recreating their favorite filmic universe.

“Son of Rambow” was a decently-budgeted indie film about British kids making such a movie — (“Rambo”), “First Blood.”

As a film critic, I’ve seen a few of these enthusiastically cheesy efforts over the years. I recall one that a bunch of Orlando area theme park employees — set builders — made in a guy’s house, styrofoaming every room into a different corner of a space ship. At least the sets were impressive. They made a documentary about their filming this back in the ’80s. But an hour’s dogged research and memory crunching have failed to turn up that title, or the title of any other fan films I’ve checked out over the years. They’re forgotten because, well, they’re forgettable.

“Raiders! The Adaptation” got itself billed as “The Greatest Fan Ever Made” in the capital city of geekdom — Austin, Texas. It was a  1980s attempt by a bunch of Mississippi kids to do a shot-by-shot remake of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Think for a minute what that would require. No wonder it took them seven years to complete it. Or almost complete it.

Steven Spielberg’s film, based on a story dreamed up by Philip Kaufman and George Lucas, hit little boys where they live. I remember some college friends dressing up as Indy and running around doing semi-dangerous stunts — sneaking into an unclimbable  bell tower on a college campus — videotaping their derring do.

Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala  and Jayson Lamb were 11 and 12 year olds who set out in 1982 to recreate not just the movie, not just every scene, but every SHOT Spielberg & Co. created. The  storyboards alone, detailing hundreds and hundreds of camera set-ups, angles and edits, were as thick as a Manhattan phonebook.

Their goal was to film it, using up every summer vacation from school to do it, then show it to Spielberg, and maybe jump start careers in the movies with it. They dream big in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

The boys, and the girl they talked into playing Marion Ravenswood (Angela Rodriguez), shot in their parents’ homes, setting up DIY SFX (special effects) that could have injured them or burned down those houses.  Yeah, they were unsupervised, and there are outtakes of every accident.

They saved their allowances and made every Christmas and every birthday about the movie. Please, Santa, bring me a Stetson fedora? A bullwhip? A leather jacket? Money to buy an old truck without an engine that I can turn into a 1930s German Army Mercedes?

And they kept at it. For seven years. They shot out of sequence. They outgrew costumes. They turned into teenagers on camera. They never quite finished. How DO you fake the big fight in front of a Nazi Flying Wing?

But their project got discovered and championed by Eli Roth, made its way to Austin and online film geek Harry Knowles’ film festival. And Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen made this documentary about the guys, 30 years later, raising money to shoot that last 124 shot, six minute sequence.With a flying wing.

“Raiders!” is a movie with a better back story than finished product. Kids did this. That’s the hook. The kids fell out, and only reunited, decades later, for the finishing scene. Things went wrong when back then. Things go wrong today. That happens on amateur movie shoots. And life got personally messy in the intervening decades.

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Yeah, the kids weren’t ordinary. One’s mom was a local TV anchor married to the owner of a TV station. None of them, not one, has or had (back then) a Southern accent. They apparently had one black friend, cast as the the friendly ship captain who helped Indy. The “personal struggles” anecdotes pale in comparison to the obvious advantages they had that allowed them to do this. Indulgent, distracted parents were a help.

Lamb, the effects guy and cinematographer back in the ’80s, comes off as cocky and geekish, with a hint of bitterness. Zala is the committed, organized one (he directed) and Strompolos the one with an arrogant edge, a well-off but unhappy childhood, followed by a lot of indulged child’s problems as an adult.

But “Raiders!” will make any movie buff laugh out loud at the sheer chutzpah and kiddie problem-solving that it took to, for instance, recreate that boulder chasing Indy out of a South American temple.

Getting permission to show the original footage, side by side, with their “adaptation” of it was a coup. So was getting John Rhys-Davies –Sallah, in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — to sit for an interview about their passion, then and now.

But in keeping with this little boy’s attempt at movie-making, it takes a kid to put it all in perspective. Zala’s kids are around, watching Dad finish up his dream project, and his son gets off the movie’s best line.

“Why did Steven Spielberg need $20 million to make ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’? My dad only needed his allowance.”

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MPAA Rating: unrated, with violence, profanity, drug abuse discussions

Cast: Chris Strompolos,  Eric Zala, Jayson Lamb, John Rhys-Davies, Eli Roth, Harry Knowles
Credits: Directed by Jeremy Coon, Tim Skousen.  A Drafthouse release.

Running time: 1:35

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