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Movies: Indie Indy

For a real thrill, skip Crystal Skull and track down this labor of love instead.

Movie review, May 22, 2008. Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, Directed by Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala

It’s hard to remember what the world was like before Raiders of the Lost Ark. Back in 1981, when George Lucas and Steven Spielberg released their updated Saturday-afternoon cliffhanger, people were still capable of being surprised by a movie that was completely inauthentic. Raiders is a global adventure with no romance, a historical epic with no feeling for the past, a thriller with no trace of real danger. It means nothing, feels like nothing, and carries the implicit message that absolutely nothing matters. No wonder it was such a monster hit.

Raiders is no longer so startling because it’s become the basic template for Hollywood moviemaking. Jaws (1975) is often cited as the movie that created the Hollywood blockbuster mentality, but compared to Raiders, Jaws seems stately, patient, and lavishly atmospheric. Today’s average blockbuster is a Raiders-style mind-wipe. You know going in that there’ll be no culture, no intelligence, no wit (other than a corrosive adolescent jokiness), and no recognizable human emotion—just adrenaline. Because of Raiders, the average Hollywood movie has become indistinguishable from a panic attack.

But when you see Raiders again, after the initial rush of adrenaline has worn off, it turns out to be as dreary and creaky as a roller coaster in winter. That aching black hole in the center of the screen is Harrison Ford’s take on Indiana Jones: not a character, barely a set of attitudes, really nothing more than a hat, a bullwhip, and a smirk. In every scene he’s careful to convey the message that he thinks this whole thing is a joke and there’s nothing at stake. When Indy is in danger—when, for instance, he’s dragged under a truck in one of the movie’s interminable chase scenes—the most Ford can muster in his close-ups is irritation at the crap he’s forced to put up with for the sake of a paycheck.

That’s what makes Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation such a shock. This legendary video is nearly a scene-for-scene, shot-for-shot, line-for-line reimagining of the original movie, made in the 80s by a bunch of teenagers in Mississippi. It’s had a furtive existence over the years, passed around in bootleg copies and occasionally shown at public screenings of dubious legality. But recently it’s been accessible via the file-sharing protocol BitTorrent, so at last you can download a copy for yourself. I’m not telling you to do that, you understand. I’m just passing along the information. The Adaptation may be, as its creators maintain, a devoted fanboy tribute, or it may be, as I suspect, an astonishing, unconscious act of subversion. But mainly it’s a gigantic intellectual property theft.

When I met the two principal creators, Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala, at a local screening of The Adaptation a few years ago, they carefully explained the legal tightrope they’d been walking for the last two decades to keep the copyright lawyers at Paramount Pictures from skinning them alive: they can make no attempt whatever to profit from the video and can allow absolutely no copies to be made. Spielberg had seen and been flattered by The Adaptation, and Lucas, creator of Indiana Jones, had remained silent but was apparently willing to tolerate its existence. (Since then, Paramount has bought the rights to Strompolos and Zala’s story and is purportedly producing a film about the making of The Adaptation; how its availability on the Internet affects their agreement would probably take a Supreme Court decision to elucidate.)

Anyone who’s seen The Adaptation knows it poses no threat to the original in any conventional sense. It certainly won’t cut into Paramount’s profits. In fact it’s hard to say just what its auteurs had in mind. The essential thing about The Adaptation is that it sucks. I don’t mean just that the video quality is cruddy or that the soundtrack is mostly inaudible. I mean nobody involved displays the slightest trace of talent. The Adapation has absolutely nothing going for it other than the kids’ sheer doggedness.

Yet that’s what makes it so mesmerizing. Over the seven years it took them to complete the project, they devised an amazing string of DIY solutions to problems that overtaxed the whole George Lucas special-effects sweatshop. For the famous opening scene in which a gigantic boulder chases Indy out of the jungle temple, they built a fiberglass boulder and rolled it down a hallway; for the fight scene in the Nepalese tavern that ends in flames, they set fire to Zala’s basement.

You keep expecting them to crack, to do what any ordinary kids would do with a video camera pointed at them: start mugging, or giggling, or blurting out moronic jokes. But they never do. At first you’re amused, then you’re impressed, then you’re exhilarated. About halfway through the screening I saw, the audience was cheering wildly. The video catches you up in a daze of metafictional suspense: you’re rooting not for Indiana Jones but for the kids themselves, to somehow keep this thing in the air, to make it all the way through to the opening of the ark and the Nazis getting fried by the supernatural microwave (a particularly good scene, as it turns out, and a worthy climax to the whole venture; the audience’s approval was deafening).

In other words, the making of the video was itself a kind of Indiana Jones adventure. That’s why Raiders was a particularly good choice—it probably would have been a lot tougher to sit through their version of Raging Bull. There are even times when the making-of excitement spills over into the action on-screen, and you find yourself thinking this Raiders is better than the original.

That’s especially true when you compare Spielberg’s version and their version of the scene in which Indy gets dragged under the truck. Strompolos, who plays Indy, has a terror-stricken look that’s totally convincing—because, of course, he isn’t acting. This actually is a kid being dragged under a truck, and he really does think he’s about to die. But the most amazing thing about the scene is that somehow he holds it together; pretending to be Indy seems to give him enough of a psychic charge to get through the shot.

This is what gives The Adaptation its freaky poetry. In that moment, Strompolos is a more convincing Indiana Jones than Ford ever could be. If there were ever anyone like Indiana Jones, he wouldn’t be some Hollywood pretty boy; he’d be some regular, seedy-looking, slightly pudgy kid with nothing going for him but bravado. This Indy would risk his life just for the chance to look cool, the way Strompolos does; he’d be willing to die for the sake of coming off like Indiana Jones.

This authenticity is even more evident in the big love scene. Strompolos has a similar look of terror on his face, and for comparable reasons—as he admitted in a March 2004 Vanity Fair story, this was the first time in his life he’d kissed a girl. But he carries the scene off in style. How could he not? He’s Indiana Jones, and Indy is never at a loss. Isn’t that how he would have acted at his first kiss? Even as a callow teenage virgin he would have been convinced he had a reputation to live up to.

The Adaptation has a curious, inadvertent, Gatsby-like moral: you become who you are by pretending to be that person. You learn to be Indiana Jones by imagining yourself as Indiana Jones; you become a filmmaker by pretending to make Raiders of the Lost Ark. It may be absurdly naive and romantic, but what’s wrong with that? It’s infinitely preferable to the cynical triumphalism of the original, in which Indiana Jones is who he is and wins because he’s Indiana Jones. The Adaptation is the least cynical movie I’ve ever seen. Each shot is a moment of wonder and discovery. Reviewing a biography of Nietzsche, Albert Camus once wrote that you can lead a life of wild adventure without getting up from your desk. These kids proved that you could do it without leaving your backyard.