Review: Why can’t we just smile and enjoy the ‘Raiders’ remake documentary?

There are times where I don't want to write about a film because I know for a fact that publishing my review is going to end up making people I like angry at me, and this is one of those times. But even months after seeing it, I find myself struggling to make sense out of the film Raiders! The Story Of The Greatest Fan Film Ever Made and the enthusiasm people have for it.

I think the film is revealing, certainly, but I wouldn't say I enjoyed it. I also wouldn't call it a celebration of anything. Whether they realize it or not, Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen have given us one of the most searing, ugly portraits of artistic hubris since Overnight. I spent a good portion of my screening at the Drafthouse feeling sick to my stomach, tied in knots by what I was watching instead of elated or moved, which is what I was sort of expecting.

And why not? After all, I was part of the audience at the now-infamous Butt-Numb-A-Thon in 2002 where Eli Roth brought a videotape of the movie along with him and Tim League ended up screening it between the last two films of the event. For those who haven't been or who don't know what BNAT is, it's a 24-hour movie marathon that normally runs at least 25 or 26 hours. By the time you get to that last movie, it's a sort of crazy out-of-body experience. You're fighting consciousness, and everyone around you is doing the same, and even when you're crazy excited about that last film, it can be tough. You need that breakfast just to carb-load and throw some more caffeine in and keep yourself going right to the last frame of the last film. Tim started the Raiders adaptation as background while we were all dealing with breakfast stuff, the house lights turned on. It was just something to play while we waited for the final film of the marathon. We knew it was going to be The Two Towers, and we were all excited to get to it, but as we were eating and that handmade recreation of Raiders Of The Lost Ark started to play out, the dynamic in the room changed. Suddenly, it wasn”t just background noise. It was the film we were watching, and we were all absorbed by it. Part of that was because it was sprung on us with no advance warning. I know that I just kept waiting for the moment where the joke stopped and it was over. And the longer it played, the more engrossed I was. Were they really going to do the whole film? How? And who the hell were these kids?

That screening set off the entire thing, the whole madcap story of how this fan film, made by three childhood friends, eventually ended up in the hands of Steven Spielberg. There was a book published that told the entire story, and it”s a good read. It”s very thorough, and it paints an honest portrait of three guys who became obsessed with pulling off this impossible task. When I first heard there was going to be a documentary, I assumed it would tell the story of the original film. I hadn”t been paying attention, so I didn”t realize they had put together a Kickstarter to shoot the one sequence they had never been able to crack as kids.

That”s where the trouble starts for me.

One of the things that is so charming about the original fan film they made is watching how these kids solved the various problems inherent in trying to tell this story. How are they going to do car stunts? How are they going to handle fire? How will they match these things that took millions of dollars to create in the first place? You see the pure inventive nature of childhood in their fan film and the way they handled each decision and reading the book about the making of the film, it was clear that they approached this in a sweet, naive, very pure way. But what is charming when you are children is negligent to the point of being malicious when you”re an adult, and as a result, I found myself squirming well before the actual moment in the documentary where director Eric Zala appears to kill his pyrotechnics “expert” on-camera.

Let”s back up. There are two competing films in this documentary. The film about the kids would have been enough of a story, and finally telling it on film like this would have been a beautiful complement to the book. But the other film, the one about their attempt to shoot the flying wing scene? It undoes all of the goodwill that the other story built up, and then some. More than anything, it feels like Eric Zala decided he wanted to turn this experience into a professional directing career, which is (and I hate saying this) delusional. It is uncommon for fan films of any type to launch someone into a directing career, but this isn”t just any fan film. It”s a shot-for-shot recreation of someone else”s work. This is not a skill set that the industry particularly values. More than that, though, as the film progresses, we see the high personal price that Zala, in particular, has to pay to try to pull this off, and none of it seems worth it. At this point, this is a 30-year-punchline to a fairly mild-mannered joke, and no matter how they handle the Flying Wing, it”s still just imitation.

What I found most compelling and uncomfortable was watching the dynamic between Zala, Chris Strompolos, and Jayson Lamb, who finds himself on the periphery of things. He suggests using a miniature to shoot the actual explosion of the Flying Wing, and each time he pitches an idea for how to do something, it”s fairly clever and well-intentioned. He”s shot down at every turn by Zala, though, and looking at how the Flying Wing scene actually comes together, it made me wonder just how strong a hand Lamb had in many of the most clever solutions that happened when they were kids. Strompolos appears to have had the hardest road in the years between the childhood project and this weird infamy that landed on them, and he seems like he”s the one who is most mellow about his expectations for this reunion.

Little by little, Zala finds the project eating more of his time and way more money than anyone anticipated. He insists on having a full-sized Flying Wing built, and the guy he hires to handle the actual explosion is completely unqualified. Watching how they approached the production of that final scene, there”s nothing professional about it at all. These are grown men, though. Zala has a family, and a wife, and a mortgage. His responsibilities become inconveniences, and there”s a scene where he has to beg his boss to give him a little bit more time off from his job that is skin-crawling. When I think of the film, though, there is one thing that I think of first, and it sort of haunts me. The explosion does not go off the way it”s supposed to, and the guy in charge of rigging the explosion heads in to check on it. When it goes off at the wrong time, he is knocked flat and for a moment, I was sure he was dead. What sealed it all for me, though, was when Zala”s first response was simply, “Did we get the shot?”

I”ve spent my life in love with movies, and I have plenty of unrealized dreams of my own, but at some point, you have to have some kind of human priorities, and for Zala to be so far off the target over what is still, at most, a fan film, suggests that it might be a terrible idea to put the responsibility of a full feature film on him. No movie, and no shot in any movie, is worth doing harm to another human being, and I have trouble empathizing with someone who cares more about finishing a shot than ensuring the safety of the people working under him. Whatever it was that drove them as kids to work on this project summer after summer is long gone, and their attempt to create a new triumphant coda for the story feels false and craven. Whatever affection I once held for this story was ruined by this documentary, and I hope that these guys are, once and for all, finished with Raiders and remaking it.

I certainly am.

Raiders! The Story Of The Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is in limited release now.