Steven Soderbergh has been one of modern American cinema’s most restless and forward-thinking artists for just about the entire length of his career (and his short-lived retirement), starting with “Sex, Lies & Videotape” and only venturing deeper into the vanguard from there. When the film industry began flirting with day-and-date releases, Soderbergh was on the frontlines. When iPhones became viable professional-grade movie cameras, Soderbergh unburdened himself of the Hollywood apparatus like an itchy little kid peeling off his suit after church on Sunday. And when a pandemic brought the world to a standstill, it turned out that Soderbergh had made the definitive film about 2020 almost 10 years earlier with “Contagion.” For better or worse, the agile indie godhead has been ahead of the curve.
And yet you never get the sense that he’s more interested in breaking shit than he is in making the movies better, and less compromised by the business around them. It’s the difference between “Mosaic” and Quibi. At the end of the day, Soderbergh loves cinema with an Erin Brockovich-like passion, and he just wants to cut through the noise that can make it harder for the art to shine through.
Usually that means forging a new path into the future. But every once in a while — maybe during that interminable, Sartre-esque long night of the soul between finishing post-production on one film and starting pre-production on another the next morning — Soderbergh is compelled to look in the rear-view mirror and show people what made him obsess about movies in the first place.
Which brings us to Soderbergh’s “Raiders,” his 2014 recut of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” that drains all of the color out of Steven Spielberg’s whip-cracking adventure classic and replaces its sound with a thick, messy, and deliberately obstructive wall of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross tracks from “The Social Network” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Keep in mind that he isn’t trying to improve Indiana Jones’ iconic debut. This isn’t like the time that he assembled an 108-minute “Butcher’s Cut” of “Heaven’s Gate” in order to streamline Michael Cimino’s epic fiasco into something more palatable. It isn’t even like when he seamlessly edited Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho” into the original; that experiment had an additive bent to it, while “Raiders” is all about stripping away Spielberg’s upholstery so that it’s easier to appreciate the incredible craftsmanship underneath.
The main thing that Soderbergh wants people to look at with fresh eyes is Spielberg’s impeccable command of cinematic space. Like that one film professor you had in college who (correctly?) insisted that you can learn as much about editing from Tony Scott as you can from Sergei Eisenstein, Soderbergh slips into a tweed blazer and transforms the highest-grossing movie of 1981 into a hypnotic masterclass of movement and time. “I want you to watch this movie and think only about staging, how the shots are built and laid out, what the cutting patterns are,” Soderbergh wrote alongside his post of the edit. “See if you can reproduce the thought process that resulted in these choices.”
“Raiders” certainly makes that easier to try.The fractal-like bleeps and bloops that Fincher commissioned for “The Social Network” are so obviously for the soundtrack from the moment the movie begins that it severs the relationship between sound and image and segregates every aspect of the film into its own discrete element. You’ll wince at the “Music by John Williams” title card, but there’s a method to this madness. And then there’s the lack of color, which heightens the contrasts in Douglas Slocombe’s lustrous cinematography and turns every shadow into a signal for where to look, like a glowing weak spot in a video game boss fight.
The effect is rather extreme, even for those of us who have always gotten drunk off the kinetic grace of Spielberg’s direction. Stripped of their expositional utility, the famous opening sequence of Indy’s first adventure suddenly calls new (or at least far more pronounced) attention to the unrepentant movieness of it all — to the sheer unreality of how Spielberg shoots his way into this story.
The New Hollywood wunderkind was raised on motion pictures in a way that taught him to look at the world through the lens of a camera, and he naturally conveys even the most basic information with an eye towards how it can better contextualize his characters; in a Spielberg film, everything that you see (and how you’re allowed to see it) exists in the service of a single purpose, because — unlike in real life — it can be. So when Indy and Satipo pause in the foreground of a shot and strategize about how to grab the glistening idol from the far side of the chamber, the small gold statue can be seen in the space between them, seducing them both in soft focus and anticipating the conflict to come. When Indy stands up, the forced perspective of Spielberg’s framing makes it appear as if the archaeologist’s hand is eagerly hovering over the treasure.
It’s a bit of a cheat that just about everyone who watches “Raiders” will come to it with a working knowledge of the source material, but it’s still remarkable to see just how lucid and articulate the film’s prologue is without a word of dialogue. The camera tells you everything you need to know about Indy and Satipo; their banter is really just a dollop of flavorful dressing on top. In fact, the silent cinema purity of Spielberg’s direction only grows more pronounced whenever anyone starts voicelessly flapping their gums in black-and-white. Harrison Ford isn’t really known for being over-expressive, but his panicked reaction to the snake on his plane would feel at home in a Harold Lloyd comedy.
That bit is followed shortly thereafter by the longest dialogue scene in the film, as army officials drop by Marshall College to tell Indy about some no-good Nazi hijinks. It’s the rare stretch of “Raiders” that’s narratively incomprehensible without dialogue — and that’s edited into any kind of recognizable shot/reverse-shot pattern — and yet Soderbergh’s version stresses the simple ways that Spielberg establishes the tension between Indy and his visitors from the government. The academic stands, and the agents sit. Indy looks down at them from his ivory tower, and the army guys look up at him from their place in the gutters of government work. The shots get tighter as the urgency builds, and everyone meets in the middle and gathers around the table between them when the conversation turns biblical; you know something’s serious if archeologists and army officials are equally worried about it.
It’s a scene about Nazi sorcerers that’s blocked and cut like a sequence from “Citizen Kane,” and sprinkled with Spielbergian playfulness for good measure. Not only does that sequence now seem like it was ripped out of a Fritz Lang movie, but Soderbergh’s version underlines how Spielberg uses movement to infuse even the film’s smallest action sequence with the kinetic energy of its climax.
You can see it in the bit where Indy asks Marion to hand him a glass bottle, as Spielberg pans between both characters and the prop to establish the spatial relationship between them and add breathless tension to a simple gesture. You can see it in the way the line of fire blazes across the bar to make it feel like Indy got out of the way in the nick of time. And you can definitely see it in the shot that starts with Indy shooting at off-screen shadows, watches him exit frame right, and then follows the bad guy as he runs left and hides behind a burning table. Not only does such fluid staging allow us to keep track of where everyone is in relation to each other, it stresses the well-choreographed chaos of them all being trapped there together.
Spielberg composes every shot like it’s a full-throated celebration of what movies can do. Whether it’s the crane shot that happens upon Indy and his rocket launcher up on the ridge, or the bit where our hero’s eyes bug out after he sees Nazis on his tail in the rear-view mirror (a gag so good Spielberg repurposed it to even greater effect in “Jurassic Park”), the whole picture is designed around the joy of its motion.
There’s no denying that Soderbergh’s geeky experiment has a whiff of “you should be watching this in film school or not at all.” But the longer you stick with it, the more hypnotic it becomes. Accept the terms of Soderbergh’s experiment, and you’ll be rewarded with a love letter to a priceless Hollywood artifact arranged with the musicality of a Beethoven symphony. “Raiders” effectively pops the hood on a movie you’ve watched a million times in order to show you why you should happily watch it a million more.