‘Raiders!’ documents an eight-year labor of cinematic love

The airplane explodes for the final scene in " Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made."  CREDIT: Drafthouse Films

Hollywood thrillers promise a few hours of escapist adventure. But that pales in comparison to the long and arduous adventure of growing up.

In “Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made,” directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen tell the story of a group of boys who spent eight summers creating a shot-for-shot remake of Steven Spielberg’s 1981 blockbuster “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” In essence, the documentary celebrates a home movie – one made by fans as an homage to a hit film – that became a cult hit of its own. But as the now-adult crew reunites to attempt to shoot the one scene that they couldn’t pull off as kids, their childhood dream begins to look like a grown-up nightmare.

The enterprise began when the boys were between 10 and 12 years old. Eric Zala, the project’s director, was the driving force, able to create storyboards from memory after one viewing. (This was long before home video would enable infinite re-watching.) His friend Chris Strompolos played Indiana Jones, while another boy, Jayson Lamb, brought a knack for creating special effects on a shoestring budget.

As Zala’s son notes, Spielberg spent $20 million to make his movie, while Zala and his friends used only their allowance – supplemented by in-kind contributions of Indy’s signature leather jacket and other crucial items, which the boys requested for birthday presents. The teenagers’ film lacks slick production values and continuity. Characters grow incongruously older and younger throughout, a result of the fact that it was not shot in chronological order. It feels like a shuffled, homemade version of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.”

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Eight years after the project began, Zala and his filmmaking friends put away their childish folly and drifted apart. But years later, their 1989 adaptation started making the bootleg video rounds, landing in the hands of filmmaker Eli Roth, who arranged to have part of the film shown at Austin’s 2002 Butt-Numb-A-Thon film festival. The viral success inspired the crew to try and recreate a complicated airplane scene that had eluded their youthful ingenuity. They raised $58,000 on Kickstarter.

“Raiders!” jumps from back and forth between the tale of the original production and the effort to shoot the missing scene. Despite an adult-size budget and film crew, Zala struggles with time and money constraints, as well as the elements. The production loses days of shooting when it is beset by relentless storms.

The story of the contemporary shoot is meant to be inspirational – a look at a childhood dream deferred and then fulfilled. But the professionalism of the grown-up effort stands in marked contrast to the enthusiasm of the teenage amateurs that made their efforts so endearing.

“Raiders!” celebrates the obsessions of childhood, suggesting that, in this case, they may have arisen out of a desperate need to escape broken homes. All of the now-adult participants reflect on their parents’ divorces. “It’s what parents did back then,” Lamb says, matter-of-factly. Strompolos struggled more than the others, not just with a physically abusive stepfather, but – after an adolescence spent conquering movie Nazis – with his own drug abuse.

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In the 1981 film, the holy grail for adventurer Indiana Jones was the Ark of the Covenant. For the boys who devoted their childhoods to remaking “Raiders,” it may have been a happy home. Fortunately, this seems to have become a reality. The film’s most profound subject matter may simply be the passage of time.

Two and one-half stars. Unrated. Contains brief pixelated nudity and low-budget gore. 95 minutes.

Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.

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Raiders! will be playing at the Richardson Alamo Drafthouse this weekend: