The popularization of VHS in the 1980s has a profound effect on a generation of film fans, putting a huge catalog of movies a mere trip to the video store away. Where the previous generation had to wait until films turned up in revival houses — if they were lucky enough to live close to a big city — or on television, ’80s kids could educate themselves about film history with relative ease. A few managed to take it a step further. The popularization of video cameras gave aspiring filmmakers the tools to make movies in their own backyard. True, they might not have looked or sounded all that great, but it was something. And everyone has to start somewhere.
For the budding filmmakers behind what came to be known as Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, that ability became a childhood-consuming obsession. Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala and Jayson Lamb were 11-year-old Mississippi kids when they decided to create a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Steven Spielberg/George Lucas blockbuster that had become a shared obsession, in 1982. The project took seven years to complete — minus one scene — and the results became an underground sensation in the pre-YouTube world of 2002 when director Eli Roth became a fan and brought it to Harry Knowles’ Butt-Numb-a-Thon. As a result of the attention, Strompolos, Zala, and Lamb all met Spielberg himself, who told them what they’d done had inspired him.
It’s a neat human interest story, but there’s more to it. Working from Alan Eisenstock’s book of the same name, Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen’s Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made recounts how the kids’ adaptation came together and its odd, recent footnote. Using Kickstarter, Strompolos and Zala launched a 2014 campaign to finance the one never-filmed scene: Indiana Jones’ elaborate fight scene at a Nazi air base. Reuniting the old team and hiring some new crew members, they attempt to finish what they started.
As odd as this development is, the present-day filmmaking scenes prove to be Raiders‘ least-compelling element. Zala and Strompolos use the money to build an elaborate, and expensive, prop plane then face crew revolts when they run out of funds. Strompolos has to beg, then beg again, for time off work. It’s intriguing enough, but seems forced and ultimately these scenes, apart from one dramatic moment, play like any other depiction of zero-budget indie filmmaking and Raiders! never makes it clear what completing the scene means to the now-grown Indy fans. To paraphrase another Spielberg film, they seem so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.
But the present-day footage serves another purpose, allowing the film to visit the making of the Raiders remake from two different angles. The first is the story of a bunch of lonely, creative, kids of divorce trying to find something to do with their time over the course of seven summers. In the process, they have to get creative about how to imitate their favorite film, working up elaborate storyboards, scrounging up costumes and props, and improvising locations out of back alleys, nearby lakes, and the basements of houses where their families struggled, and sometimes failed, to stay together upstairs. Their inventiveness is sometimes incredible, and sometimes dangerous as they play with fire, literally, and let themselves be dragged along dusty roads in their attempts to recreate the movie.
On the other side are the same kids wondering if those summers were when they were their best and truest selves. Strompolos, Zala, and Lamb all drift apart and back together over the years, and you can see the seeds of future rifts and reconciliations sewn in the past. Lamb, the last to the project and the one responsible for the film’s effects, cinematography, and editing, feels like he doesn’t get enough credit as a teen and that feeling carries over into adulthood. Zala and Strompolos have, respectively, complementary introverted and extroverted personalities, but personal issues keep getting in their way. Late in their high school years, Strompolos makes time with Zala’s girlfriend and the sting of that betrayal takes a while to fade. They reunite as adults in L.A. but their filmmaking dreams start to fade as Zala takes a day job in the gaming industry and Strompolos takes an interest in bad friends and hard drugs.
It’s fun to watch them making a Raiders of the Lost Ark remake that’s far more impressive than it has any right to be, but the brisk but rich Raiders! doubles as a story of how creative partnerships, even those of many years, can fall apart and how childhood dreams can linger deep into adulthood, sometimes making waking life seem like a disappointment. And maybe that’s the best explanation for why compelled to shoot that final scene. They’re men for whom childhood still feels like unfinished business.