Raiders of the Lost Ark

5 out of 5

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Professor, archeologist, adventurer and ‘obtainer of rare items’ Dr. Indiana Jones may get a little blinded by his pursuits – forgetting to formulate plans that extend much further than “get treasure” – and he may seem to take an awful lot of glee in reckless murder and the ruin of the possessions of the hapless locals who get in his way (we criticize Uncharted’s Drake for his indulgences of the same, even though he’s just learned it from his inspirations…), but the first Jones movie outing, Raiders of the Lost Ark, is a bonafide, start to finish, masterpiece of entertainment.  It’s astonishing how something coming from the same school as Star Wars – sharing a screenwriter (Lawrence Kasdan) with Empire and Jedi and having the George Lucas backing – is leagues ahead of that series, right from the outset; given the legacy he’s since established, we can absolutely credit director Steven Spielberg with that confidence, imbuing Raiders with a sweeping sense of excitement that doesn’t feel incidental.  Whereas Star Wars – noting I quite like the first two movies in that original trilogy – stumbles through clunky setups and characterizations thanks to the imagination of its setting and wide-eyed sensibilities, Raiders of the Lost Ark is all swagger, artfully keeping our hero in shadow until he’s revealed to us with all his cocksure reckless energy barreling him through the first of several wonderfully “what can happen next?” action sequences.  A handful of films into his eventually deep catalogue of hits, Spielberg’s visual language is perfect throughout, never failing to punctuate every scene – chases, dialogue, moments of calm – with memorable beats that keep us immersed or intrigued, and his actors, while certainly fulfilling the roles of stereotypical heroes and villains as demanded of by the pulpy setup, all give their characters just the right doses of humanity (or inhumanity) to make them iconic: they’re believable in the exact right doses for us to cheer and jeer without having to be too notably egged on to do so.  This allows for moments such as what would be, in a lesser film, the requisite sex scene, to get interrupted by a joke instead, and we’re still right there with it.  We never leave the comforts of the film while it’s on.

Comfort doesn’t necessarily mean “safe,” though.  Whether it was the era of the film or just part of its overall quality, Raiders isn’t scared to get scary.  A lot of movies that aim for popcorn appeal (that aren’t outright horror) shy away from this kind of stuff, but again, Spielberg knows what’s needed to get a reaction from his audience, so a few shots that are intended to creep us out – skeletons, corpses with snakes crawling through them – do so.

Raiders of the Lost Ark has Professor Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) reconvening with an old flame (Karen Allen) to find the fabled Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do.  He gets help from Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and is constantly stymied by an arch-nemesis archeologist (Paul Freeman), who’s working with the baddies.  The Nazis are obviously easy to hate, but the film gets a couple of extra bad guy standouts, just in case.

Going back to Star Wars, a recent rewatch made me aware of how much the story skips through in order to get us to big beats.  It made me wonder if all films suffer from that; if we’ve been spoiled by the extended plotting TV allows.  But then I get reminded of what’s possible in movies with something so rich and as well-executed as Raiders of the Lost Ark.