Imax Raiders of the Lost Ark

Numbers

Is the original the best of the Indiana Jones' movies? Not sure. Based upon just the box-office numbers, the last foray was the most successful, with Indiana Jones and The Crystal Skull making well over $750 million, beating the original by a half-billion dollars (and every other film released in 2008, except for Chris Nolan's billion-dollar The Dark Knight movie.)

(But in considering Raiders earnings, those numbers do not take into account inflation, and it is worth noting that a $247 million gross in 1981 for Raiders is the equivalent of $626 million dollars in 2012.)

Raiders of the Lost Ark

How does the original hold up as a story?

If you like the Indiana Jones movies (there are four altogether: Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Temple of Doom, The Last Crusade, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) then the first one is likely high in your estimation. Even if you have never seen Raiders, but have seen any number of other adventure films that followed in its wake, you already have seen many of Raiders elements, because pieces of the Lucas/Spielberg movie have been copied a great deal.

But, ironically, part of the initial impact of Raiders in 1981 is that the kid and high school audience that saw it were not familiar with the library of tropes Lucas and Spielberg had copied en masse from old movie serials and various old Hollywood films. The relentless pace of action and the exotic (Hollywood style) look of the movie stood out from other 1981 Hollywood product, but the older audience of the aging World War 2 generation could recognize familiar Hollywood elements amid Lucas and Spielberg's innovations (particularly the ability to combine legitimate story evolution and character development while retaining the pacing of a movie serial, which were hardly noted for good writing, but excelled at keeping the plot shoving its way forward.)

Indiana Jones

Indiana Jones, as a character, seems derived from a variety of movie antecedents, like Alan Quartermain from King Solomon's Mines, Frank Buck from Bring 'Em Back Alive, Alfred Aloysius from Trader Horn, and Mark Brandon from the 1955 Archeology adventure Valley of the Kings. This list is just bits and pieces, but Lucas is a master condenser, packing so much that is old (and old fashioned in 1981) into something different and new. (Writers Laurence Kasdan and Philip Kaufman also worked on the script.)

Harrison Ford is the main element, of course, mumbling sometimes, providing a wry attitude on some lines, usually laid-back and unassuming, and despite the super-human ability of Indiana Jones to endure through every peril, Ford's character somehow brings a lot of physical humor to being on the receiving end of beating after beating from either nazis, mongol bandits, or competing archeologist Dr. Rene Belloq (actor Paul Freeman). (The single-minded focus of Indiana in the film echoes into later Harrison Ford characters, like Dr. Richard Kimble in the 1993 The Fugitive.)

That Ford isn't playing a Han Solo derivative, but something else altogether, shows how Lucas and Spielberg could pivot away from a successful character type (which is hardly the Hollywood way) and develop something even better.

Marion Ravenwood

Karen Allen is beautiful and a worthy companion, and her lack of helplessness suits the film far better than any repeat of a damsel-in-distress from a hundred of other, older Hollywood films. Though other adventure films have presented 'feisty' females who rise to the occasion and toughen up (for example, Deborah Kerr's English lady in King Solomon's Mines) Allen's character is hard-boiled right from the start, and only softens up on an emotional level in a few ways. In an older movie, such a character would have been split in two: a femme fatale (though perhaps equipped with "a-heart-of-gold"), and a "good girl' who was relatively innocent but well-meaning, who might be good for a single violent act (such as shooting a villain at the last minute) but otherwise just heavy baggage. Such triangles have been the center of too many films. None of that in this Spielberg/Lucas movie, Allen's character is throwing punches and fighting the villains, or at the very least, annoying them a great deal.

Youth

The cast looks so young, and of course they were in 1981. The large screen IMAX screening highlights things that are minor in importance but stand out now in a different way: Karen Allen's freckles, Harrison Ford's day-old beard, and the relative youth of everyone else in the cast. After the three sequels and all the other movies this cast has made, the unexpected absence of the wrinkles and the 1981 svelte silhouettes sends the seasoned viewer backwards like a time-machine.

The Remastered Indiana Jones Original

Seeing this film in an IMAX theater brought out so much visual detail that the success (and failures) of the remastering are relatively easy to see. Colors are bright and particularly any sunlit scenes are clear and sharp in a way that is remarkable (and I don't recall it being this precise on original release). The Blu-ray disks should contain this level of sharp detail (and amazon.com would be delighted to sell you a copy). This movie has probably not looked this good for a very long time, and possibly with the IMAX work, is actually superior to the original in certain ways.

The drawbacks are the shadowy scenes where digital breakup in black areas and a lack of clarity in the same show off the difficulties of real film (and digital) for catching detail when there's not good light. For example, in dark scenes the shadows around star Karen Allen's face narrow and fill in around her cheekbones, the same for perennially semi-bearded Harrison Ford. They each have dark hair and so shadows fill-in and 'blacken' detail. But these are items few people will pay attention to or bother with spotting, and have nothing really to do with deficiencies with Raiders of the Lost Ark, but with deficiencies of film in general, and problems that can be seen in a thousand other movies that bother to shoot on locations, instead of multi-lit Hollywood sets.

Raiders Karen Allen and Harrison Ford

Sound is sharp and clear, and the bass sound effects (the heavy thudding noises and other effects during action sequences) makes me ask: was this a new idea in 1981, to bring together those low, low bass effects synchronized with onscreen events?

Summary

When I saw this film as a high school student in 1981, I afterward came home in a state of amazement, and when my father asked how the movie was, I announced it was the greatest movie ever made (which made him chuckle).

To my eyes at the time, schooled in black-and-white television showings of movies old and new, the big-screen dramatics of Indiana Jones was a revelation.

Since then, circumspection requires a different evaluation. Raiders of the Lost Ark only attempts to perform certain tasks, one of them being a marriage of movie serial's roller-coaster action with a 1981 sense of character. It also provides an ode to Hollywood heroics, and Harrison Ford presents that so effortlessly (reminding me of Spencer Tracy in its simplicity), and without the cynicism and second-guessing of so many 1970s movies, which was the immediate (Hollywood) environment of the 1981 release.

There are many other fine elements in the film, and the heavily caricatured Nazis (for that matter, the FBI agents, too) all fits together for a movie that runs almost like a machine, though one with a great sense of humor and a cast embellishing the screen to wonderful effect.

More Numbers, All Four Indiana Jones Movies

Earnings of the four Indiana Jones movies:

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

Released June 24, 1981

Domestic USA: $247,249,671

Foreign: $141,766,000

Worldwide total: $389,015,671

IMAX reissue September 7, 2012: $2,215,313 (first Week)
Extended release to additional digital theaters: $3,054,000


Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Released May 24, 1984

Domestic USA: $179,870,271

Foreign: $153,237,000

Worldwide total: $333,107,271


Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Released May 24, 1989

Domestic USA: $197,171,806

Foreign: $277,000,000

Worldwide total: $474,171,806


Indiana Jones the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Released May 22, 2008

Domestic USA: $317,101,119 40.3%

Foreign: $469,534,914 59.7%

Worldwide: $786,636,033

Sources: boxofficemojo.com and Deadline Hollywood


Sept 2012:

Remastered IMAX Raiders of the Lost Ark in Theaters

Raider sof the Lost Ark

One week run in theaters before the remastered Blu-Ray collection of all the Indian Jones movies comes out amazon.com

Harrison Ford comes full circle from Raiders to Crystal Skull in the box set Blu-Ray. Raiders was the film that completely broke Ford free from the chains of Han Solo identification and pushed him forward into a long Hollywood career. How well will the film hold up with high-resolution IMAX screenings, not to mention a wake of many imitators having used up (over and over) much of the good material in this Spielberg/Lucas production in many a lesser film. That creates the unfortunate situation of even if you have never sat through Raiders, you probably have seen much of it already.


September 3, 2012 | Updated Sept 22, 2012
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