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A review of "Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made" (2015)

Good news for film nerds - Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made started streaming on Netflix earlier this month.  It's a documentary about one of the most fantastical movie productions of the last forty years: the tale of some kids in the suburbs who made a shot-for-shot VHS remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I heard the story the same way most geeks do, passed along in the cafeteria at school during the pre-Internet days and then expounded upon further in various chat rooms and message boards later.  The tale has always had an aura of mystery and intrigue.  Is it real?  How did they do it?  Why did they do it?

It's the kind of story that escalated to the level of mythology.  Much like The Day the Clown Cried or the troubled production of The Cobbler and the Thief, the exact details of the film transformed from history and literary analysis to an incalculable emotion.  I was never able to see the movie or talk to the people who made it, so it was just some vague, but powerful, legend.

Fast forward to 2016.  The Cobbler and the Thief and its myriad edits are available to watch online, a fair chunk of The Day the Clown Cried has been leaked on Youtube and it's fairly easy to find a copy of the script, and there's now a feature length documentary on that Raiders re-shoot.  The Internet kills a lot of romanticism.

The death of romanticism will be something of a theme today.

The documentary, which I'll from now on call Docu-Raiders in order to distinguish it from the fan-film, which I'll call Fan-Raiders, in order to distinguish it from the original Raiders, is overall an enjoyable, polished, well-made film.  It delves into enough back story on the kids' upbringing and the mechanics of how they made their film that you'll scratch that urban legend itch.  I came away feeling more informed than I went in, which is a pretty good litmus test for documentaries.

...but it's not a perfect experience.  A fair chunk of the film - perhaps a little more than half - is dedicated to showing the kids' efforts as adults to finish their movie.  They were never able to film the airplane fight scene due to its complicated logistics, and Docu-Raiders opens shortly after their Kickstarter campaign to fund one last shoot.

This fundamentally changes the type of documentary that we're watching, and I'm on the fence about whether it works or not.

It's not that the adults' modern exploits aren't interesting - they certainly are, and the appeal of their mission is hauntingly relatable.  These guys are trying to relive a dream they had as kids, a vision of not just playing a game of Indiana Jones, but actually being Indiana Jones.  Your heart swells at the thought.  You think perhaps of your own dreams from childhood, the things you said you'd do and never did.  What would you give to go back, knowing what you know now, and take them to the finish line?

Here's the thing about dreams.  A dream is a drive, an urge, an aspiration that lives in your core.  It never dies, it never goes away.  It stays with you all your life and compels you to act.  But at the end of the day, it's kind of a trick.  Achieving a dream means that you put out the fire - your drive is gone.  It's not happiness, it's just the end.  If you want to feel fulfilled, you need to take it a step further.  You need to grow.  A dream is only as good as its evolution.  And Docu-Raiders never satisfyingly shows me that evolution.

Sure, there's a little title card at the end (spoiler alert?) that shows that the guys have quit their full-time jobs to form a production company, Rolling Boulder, LLC.  And that would seem to imply a happy ending.  Hooray!  They finally achieved their dreams and became filmmakers!

Except that Rolling Boulder, LLC hasn't released anything yet, other than possibly Fan-Raiders.  Despite what the title card says, the company was incorporated almost a decade ago.  If you go to their website, you'll find a simple placeholder with an email address and a link to a Youtube channel with almost no content and only a few dozen subscribers.

I'm not trying to pick on the guys by pointing this out.  I say this because I want them to succeed.  I want the happy story where they dedicate their lives full time to film.  I want to hear how they've started producing an original film that they've been planning for months and years.  But we're not there yet.  Docu-Raiders was made too soon - it's too early to tell if Fan-Raiders will just be an oddity or if it will be a true affirmation of the human spirit.

The result is heartbreaking.  Now what?  We never hear about the next step.  We never hear about the other screenplays they wrote or the other movies they tried to make as kids.  We don't need to see them become smash successes, but we do need to see them grow.  We need some sense that they've found their way.  You can't omit that information and call it a complete story.

I'm torn.  I either want a little more or a little less.  Either cull the modern day conflicts the guys have and keep the story more focused, or sit on your documentary until they've established themselves better.  Ending it here is like releasing the first film in a planned trilogy without securing a budget for the other two.

My fingers are crossed.  Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, Jayson Lamb - my heart goes out to you.  Best of luck.  I sincerely hope we get to see your next movie some day.

My Rating: 4 / 5