The story has made the rounds for years: In 1982, a trio of 11-year-old Mississippi boys — Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala and Jayson Lamb — launched an elaborate attempt to remake “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Over the course of eight years, they more or less completed the task, and the result took on a mythological dimension. Eventually noticed by horror director Eli Roth, the now-adult figures responsible for “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaption” enjoyed newfound appreciation for their accomplishment and eventually landed a meeting with Steven Spielberg himself. However, as Jeremy Coons and Tim Skousen’s enjoyable documentary “Raiders!” makes clear, even then the story wasn’t quite finished: The boys never managed to shoot one crucial scene, and in adulthood, they finally attempted to finish the job.
The missing scene, in which Harrison Ford’s character faces off with a muscular Nazi while propeller plane roars up behind them, calls for a massive set of resources largely cobbled together by a Kickstarter campaign. The plan is at once ridiculous and endearing to watch. With a straightforward approach that often takes on the feel of a behind-the-scenes project, Coons and Skousen shift between contemporary footage of the ambitious new shoot and the lively history of the original project, which garnered some local media attention before the men drifted apart during adulthood.
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It’s this surprisingly dark chapter in their lives that endows the movie with more appeal than the basic facts already out there. Once developed as a fictional project scripted by “Ghost World” author Daniel Clowes, the “Raiders!” story stretches beyond the adorable efforts of aspiring young filmmakers to find them haunted by its legacy. While the documentary’s structure is somewhat uneven, its protagonists remain fascinating subjects whose recollections — along with backstories fleshed out by their wives and parents — include revelations of much greater challenges than the movie itself.
These include Strompolos’ struggles with drug abuse and Zala’s frustrations with a corporate job that takes him away from his passions, as well as the teen spats that ruined their friendship for several years. Only Lamb, the eccentric effects wizard of the group, maintains a relatively smooth ride. Even so, none of them become hugely successful filmmakers, and that outcome hints at a tragic foundation to the narrative. The bleaker details of their plight imbue the present-day attempt to complete their endeavor with a considerable amount of emotional resonance.
Still, the story wouldn’t stand for much if the original project weren’t so impressive in the first place. (As Ain’t It Cool News founder Harry Knowles points out in the documentary, “The Adaptation” is a finer shot-for-shot remake than Gus Van Sant’s similar treatment of “Psycho.”) Despite a certain underlying silliness to the premise, “Raiders!” successfully taps into the practical and personal trials involved in creative risk. Watching the men talk through their intentions, it’s impossible not to get swept up in their desire to finish what they started. Once a playful fan film, “The Adaptation” has taken on a much deeper significance in the lives of its creators, and the movie takes that relationship at face value.
The documentary has a tendency to meander in parts and repeats a lot of the same observations about the personal significance of “The Adaptation” to the men, but its closing moments make the investment worthwhile. Featuring stunning footage of a fiery accident on the set of the final recreation, the new movie has a climax as exciting as any simulated action scene in the Spielberg original. By the end, “Raiders!” both consolidates the appeal of “The Adaptation” saga and helps conclude it.
“Raiders!” premiered this week at the SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.