The Film: 4/5
Over the course of eight summers during the 1980’s, three teenagers from the small Mississippi town of Ocean Springs obsessively worked to complete a feature-length shot-for-shot remake of Steven Spielberg’s classic blockbuster adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark. More than two decades after filming completed, they reunited as full-grown adults to shoot a crucial scene that they weren’t able to realize in their youth, but this time the conditions would be much different.
The documentary Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made focuses on the making of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, the Betamax-shot labor of love that Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb spent a large chunk of their childhood working to finish. Though it was missing a reenactment of the airport fight scene, The Adaptation started to gain a cult following after horror filmmaker Eli Roth’s personal bootleg videotape copy that he obtained as a film school student was screened by Ain’t It Cool News’ webmaster Harry Knowles to a rapturous audience reaction at the 2002 Butt Numb-a-Thon.
The next year Spielberg himself checked out the remake and gave the boys glowing praise. The Adaptation may never be commercially available for a mountain of legal reasons, but it was clear to anyone who watched it that its foolhardy creators had plenty of talent and moxie to compensate for what they lacked in an actual budget and professional resources. In 2014 a Kickstarter campaign was launched to raise funds so the airport fight could finally be filmed. Their target goal reached, Strompolos, Zala, and Lamb reunited in Ocean Springs to finish their amateur epic recreation of an American action masterpiece once and for all.
The documentary charts their difficult journey to shoot the scene with a schedule of nine days, a skilled cinematographer, and a prop plane built to scale that could be blown sky high at the conclusion of the set-piece. Right from the start the boys realize how bizarre it will be for the characters to suddenly age into adulthood for the scene and then go right back to being kids for the remainder of The Adaptation, but they don’t care because this is all that stands between them and finally completing this ambitious effort of their youth. Their hearts are in the right place and they intend to plan the production down to the smallest detail, but some plans don’t always go according to…. plan. Sorry.
Among the scenes documenting the build-up to the production of the airplane sequence and an arduous shoot fraught with problems that would tax even Terry Gilliam’s nerves, directors Tim Skousen and Jeremy Coon (the latter an editor and producer on Napoleon Dynamite) conduct extensive interviews with Strompolos, Zala, Lamb, and many others including members of their family, surviving cast and crew personnel, famous fans of The Adaptation (naturally including Roth and Knowles), and even Indiana Jones’ loyal friend and best digger in all of Egypt Sallah himself, John Rhys-Davies. We learn that Chris received his first kiss during the reenactment of the Indy/Marion love scene, fishing line was used to help a dog perform the Nazi salute, the original shoot’s “adult supervisor” had been one of the mall zombies in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and a botched make-up effect during the grand meltdown finale resulted in a run-in with the local police and a trip to the hospital for Zala. That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Plenty of clips from the original Raiders and The Adaptation are provided, but we’re also treated to some eye-opening personal revelations. I expected Skousen and Coon’s film to be a lighthearted, engaging documentary about the enduring power of independent filmmaking and the sheer thrill of capturing your imagination and committing it to celluloid. What I wasn’t prepared for was how blunt honest the film is about presenting the interview subjects’ lives in a warts-and-all manner that refuses to shy away from the uglier details regarding their lives and relationships. The boys’ friendship started to get frayed and troubled as the years dragged on and the shoot continued to consume their free time. Once it was finished they went their separate ways.
Most of the kids involved with making The Adaptation were conceived by parents who divorced while they were still young and the homemade remake provided a method for them to escape from the pervading darkness of reality they were unprepared to deal with into their wildest cinematic fantasies. As a child of divorce myself, I could certainly relate. The boys’ passionate devotion to recreating every single detail from the original Raiders is stunning; Zala hand-drew the storyboards from memory after one viewing of the film, while Lamb served as the cameraman during the majority of the remake’s filming and created some impressive visual effects for the limited budget the production had at its disposal.
The documentary implies that leaving the Adaptation incomplete affected the boys in painful ways, and coming back to Ocean Springs to film the airfield brawl and explosions represented them finally being able to finish this chapter of their lives and move on. Chris, Eric, and Jayson are such nice, laidback guys who clearly care for their scrappy little remake of Raiders so much that you want to see them succeed regardless of what has to be accomplished in the process. Their enthusiasm for what they do is positively infectious.
The final minutes of Skousen and Coon’s film gives us what we have been waiting for, the completion of the fight scene with a few carefully-planned explosions that could be fatal to anyone who gets too close. There is genuine excitement in these moments where the boys’ long-cherished dream is so close to being fulfilled that the tension is palpable. You want everyone to be safe, but at the same time our heroic filmmakers and their daring crew just want to get the money shot and be done with The Adaptation at long last. It’s the happy ending anyone could ever want.
Drafthouse Films and MVD Visual present Raiders in a healthy 1080p high-definition transfer that represents the documentary as best as possible given the format in which it was filmed and the shifting aspect ratios and film stock. Segments from The Adaptation were shot full-frame in the 1.33:1 ratio on Betamax videotape and scenes from the original Raiders of the Lost Ark are presented in its intended 2.35:1 widescreen ratio, while the bulk of the documentary was shot in the 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio. It appears that the best possible surviving elements from The Adaptation were used here and though they are plagued with inconsistent video and audio they play just fine. The rest of the documentary looks clean and sharp as if had been filmed digitally (which it probably was) but not at the expense of sacrificing texture and detail. Color timing is warm and authentic.
For audio we have our choice of an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track and an English Dolby Digital 2.0 alternate option. Even on standard televisions the 5.1 track is the best way to go, with audible dialogue, a strong presentation of the music, and a pleasurable lack of distortion. Even the scenes from The Adaptation sound quite clear, though a bit muffled due to the age and condition of the worn videotape elements. I wouldn’t call the 2.0 track a total loss, but this Blu-ray didn’t require its presence. English subtitles have also been provided.
Bonus features kick off with two terrific filmmaker audio commentary tracks – the first with the documentary’s directors Tim Skousen and Jeremy Coon and the second with Strompolos and Zala. Each commentary is worth a listen as the participants go deeper into detail on the production of the doc, the making of The Adaptation, and the lives of those responsible for the fan film’s creation. The Strompolos/Zala track is the best though.
Next up we have a hefty collection of deleted scenes (32 minutes) cover the boys sneaking into a theatrical re-release of Raiders to the record the film’s audio, problems during the original filming of the Adaptation, using the editing facilities at a local ABC affiliate owned by Strompolos’ stepfather, Spielberg sending the boys a complimentary letter, and more. Fans of The Adaptation will also enjoy the plentiful outtakes (20 minutes) from the filming that went on throughout the 1980’s.
A Q&A session with Strompolos, Zala, and Lamb following the May 2003 premiere of The Adaptation at the Alamo Drafthouse (41 minutes) is presented, just like the outtakes, in full-frame, and it’s fun to see how an audience packed with the filmmakers’ fellow geeks appreciates the remake. A trailer for the documentary (2 minutes) and bonus Drafthouse Films trailers for 20,000 Days on Earth, A Band Called Death, The Final Member, and I Declare War close out the extras on the Blu-ray.
Drafthouse has also included a DVD copy with a standard-definition presentation of the film and the accompanying supplements, a download code for a digital copy, a collectible booklet featuring reproductions of some of Zala’s original storyboards from The Adaptation, and a nifty reversible cover art sleeve.
Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is a fun, affectionate tribute to a trio of intrepid young talented filmmakers who spent over three decades chasing an impossible dream and finally caught it. It’s one of the most entertaining films of this year and Drafthouse Films’ Blu-ray release supplements this winning documentary with some excellent supplements. Highly recommended.