A film review by Craig J. Koban July 15, 2016

RAIDERS! THE STORY OF THE GREATEST FAN FILM EVER MADE jjj
½

2016, No MPAA Rating, 105 mins.

A documentary directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen 

The title of this documentary is not engaging in any type of false advertising.  

To quote it fully, RAIDERS! THE STORY OF THE GREATEST FAN FILM EVER MADE does indeed chronicle the making of the single greatest Indiana Jones fan film – if not greatest fan film…period – ever attempted.  It tells the seemingly impossible, but positively true story of a group of Mississippian boys that spent seven summers during the early to late 1980’s making a slavishly faithful, shot for shot remake of Steven Spielberg’s 1981 action adventure masterpiece RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.  These kids just didn’t love the film (as a whole generation of eighties children did), they obsessed over it, so much so that they wanted to become one with the globe-trotting exploits of the most famous archaeologist ever committed to celluloid.  

And boy, did they ever. 

The kids in question were Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb, who decided when they were fairly inexperienced 12-year-old filmmakers to remake RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK as meticulously as possible, going to fanatical extremes to recreate all of the film’s characters, dialogue exchanges, action beats, props, costumes, settings…you name it.  Since they clearly didn't live in an age of readily available online content or even home video releases, the lads forged ahead with their remake by re-envisioning shots from Spielberg’s film…from complete memory.  Their fan film was shot out of sequence, primarily out of necessity, which subsequently meant that the actors appeared at different ages throughout the production.  Through a lot of perseverance – and some awfully considerate and understating parents – Strompolos, Zala and Lamb finished their film…minus one scene that proved to be far too elaborate and difficult to shoot.  Nevertheless, they did have a friends/family screening in 1989 upon the film’s completion, but then the boys went their separate ways (which was prompted by a love triangle that was forming between Strompolos, Zala, and their attractive female co-star), went to college, had families, and that…was it. 

Or…was it? 

 

 

Director Eli Roth managed to obtain a low-grade copy of the RAIDERS fan film, which he loved and shared with Ain’t It Cool News’ Harry Knowles, who did an impromptu and unadvertised screening of it at his Butt-Numb-Athon – just before a late print of the then released THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS made its arrival to the festival – and the overwhelmingly strong audience reaction to the fan film convinced Roth and Knowles that they had something special on their hands.  This led to Roth desperately trying to find a way to locate the children (now adults) and he eventually did, letting them know that an official screening of their work would occur at the Alamo Drafthouse in Texas in 2003.  Word of the fan film eventually made its way to Spielberg himself, who was so overcome with joy and appreciation for what the boys achieved during what ostensibly was their entire adolescence that he invited them for a meet-up.  

Holy.  Crap. 

RAIDERS! does an impeccable job of covering this remarkable story.  Directors Tom Skousen and Jeremy Coon (the later who was a producer on NAPOLEON DYNAMITE) are equal to the task of enthusiastically relaying the particulars of the fan film production in question, but the real tantalizing hook and arc of their doc is not only its surprisingly candid examination of what happened to Strompolos, Zala, and Lamb after their fan film wrapped, but also in its exploration of their desires to return to their film – now men in their forties with multiple adult responsibilities – raise money, and finally shoot the aforementioned missing scene that they weren’t able to nearly thirty years ago.  The scene in particular is the bravura action sequence pitting Indy against a gigantic hulking Nazi near a flying wing.  Not only do they want to fully recreate the plane from scratch, but they also want to duplicate every punch, kick, gunshot, gory propeller blade kill, and explosion from this sequence.  In a way, these men are returning to the pleasures of their youth. 

RAIDERS! is presented in an obligatory talking heads documentary approach that doesn’t reinvent the genre wheel, but it serves its purposes expeditiously and rather well here.  Through various interviews with Zala, Strompolos, Lamb, the many other child actors, and their parents, Skousen and Coon create an infectious tapestry of endless fascination: We learn of the inherent – and obvious – problems that permeated the original production, and some of the beyond obvious dangers therein as well.  The mothers of the boys speak openly and honestly about the perils of, for example, setting their living rooms on fire (often unsupervised) to capture key scenes from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.  When it becomes shockingly apparent that these kids have luckily escaped serious injury multiple times, the parents decide to enforce adult supervision during the shoot, which leads to the doc’s unintentionally hilarious reveal that the man in question proved to be arguably less responsible than even the kids. 

One comes out of RAIDERS! with an incredible sense of respect and appreciation for the kids’ artistic drives and limitless ambition, to be sure, but the doc also never shies away from evoking the inherent craziness of their filmmaking aspirations; there's one piece of footage that shows a young actor narrowly escaping being driven over by a large truck while shooting one of RAIDERS’ key chase sequences, which left me a bit uneasy at the thought of what could have happened.  Then there’s the whole thorny nature of Zala’s and Strompolos’ feverish drives to finish their film via any means necessary.  They do secure funds and donations and create commendably spot-on airplane props for their sequence, all rigged up to explode with planted and controlled C4, but when constant rain shuts down production for days (leading to Strompolos’ employer threatening termination if he doesn’t promptly return to work) and one ill timed explosion during one good shooting day that nearly killed one of the crew…you start to pose questions regarding these men’s mental states.  Is what they’re doing really worth it?

RAIDERS! makes an impassioned case for yes.  Rather astutely, the doc never goes out of its way to paint these highly determined fan filmmakers as pure saints either.  Zala in particular hit rock bottom during his post-RAIDERS young adult life, turning towards a chronic drug addiction and hanging out with the decidedly wrong type of people that nearly ruined him.  The makers' childhood lives were also not especially rosy, seeing as many of them came from painful periods of divorce in their respective families, which, in many ways, manifested itself into Strompolos and company fleeing to their fan film as a form of cathartic release from their emotional strife.  Oddly enough, watching RAIDERS! reminded me considerably of the recently released SING STREET.  That film dealt with economically impoverished mid-80’s Dublin youth trying to escape from the harsh socio-economic truths of their time by pouring their energies into music making.  By direct comparison, RAIDERS! also concerns 80’s youth that use the arts as a form of soul cleansing therapy…and that’s what ultimately makes the doc a genuinely uplifting underdog story of overcoming emotional and logistical obstacles. 

RAIDERS! emerges as a love ballad to youthful exuberance and artistic imagination…not to mention that it’s a poignant and frequently moving testament to the inseparable bond that geeks have with pop culture, one that can be used as an agent of positive change in one’s life.  Very few films – documentary or not – focus on the limitlessly dense microcosm and minutia of passionate fandom as well as this one does, and it does so with a refreshingly democratic viewfinder that’s neither sarcastically judgmental or pathetically empathetic.  It also highlights how creative innovation is oftentimes born out of resource-starved necessity.  I’m sure there were days when Spielberg knew that his relatively scant-for-its-time $18 million budget forced him to find inventive solutions to complicated filmmaking conundrums on the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK shoot.  He didn’t have it nearly as tough as the greenhorn teenage makers of its subsequent fan film.  

Not.  At.  All.

 

  H O M E