Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark is now old enough to be a grandfather: it was released in 1981, back when most members of Generation X were babies and long before any Millennials existed. Fortunately, Raiders has aged better than most of its peers, in large part because director Steven Spielberg frames the film's many action sequences so impeccably that they never feel campy even when the special effects feel outdated. Before the movie is over our intrepid hero Indiana Jones will have outrun a giant boulder, escaped from  a snake filled Egyptian tomb, and snuck aboard a Nazi submarine - and all of those setpieces remain visually thrilling, even if the boulder itself seems a bit styrofoam-y.

Still, there are a few places where you have to give Raiders a bit of a pass due to its age. For example, Jones has a bad habit of going to a foreign country and grabbing other people's sacred relics for himself. That trait was supposed to make him seem like a globetrotting adventurer - and it does, but it also makes him seem like a greedy colonialist. Raiders was designed by Spielberg and producer George Lucas to be a throwback to the adventure serials of the 40s and the 50s that they had loved in their youths, and while Indy's entitled attitude towards indigenous people's property would have been perfectly fine in the 40s, it was slightly retrograde in the early 80s, and it seems completely dubious now.

(That said: I'm more or less fine with his central quest to reclaim the Ark of the Covenant, because anything owned by Moses should be old enough to be in the public domain by now. Mostly I'm objecting to the opening scene where Jones is trying to steal an idol from a tribe of jungle dwellers because they clearly still use it in their religious ceremonies, and as such, his desire to turn it into just another meaningless museum exhibit for bored Americans to gawk at is blatantly shitty.)

Of course, most people will be prepared for an older movie's racial attitudes to be slightly problematic. What new viewers might not be prepared for, however, is Raiders of the Lost Ark's surprising attitude towards violence. Modern action films tend to have wall-to-wall fight scenes but they are entirely bloodless - we've decided to indulge children's love of mayhem, but we've eliminated the consequences of that carnage for their "protection". Most of Raiders' best scenes fit into that paradigm, as they adopt a cartoony tone that rides the edge of being too scary for small kids without quite crossing over. When Nazis fall off cliffs the camera doesn't pan down to show us their mangled corpses, and when people get dragged under the wheels of speeding vehicles the cars simply keep driving on, thus conveniently omitting any hint of gore. And oftentimes when there is gore it is depicted in a goofy enough fashion that it isn't completely frightening. For example, at the very beginning of the movie a dead body pops into frame, and its sudden introduction is shocking, but as soon as we get a good look at its bug-eyed rubbery face it becomes more comical than scarring.

However, there are a lot of scenes where Raiders depicts murders in fairly graphic ways, and those instances are troubling because they really clash with the movie's overall lighthearted tone. At one point Marion Ravenwood, Indy's on-again off-again love interest, shoots a Tibetan mercenary in the back of the head and he bleeds out of his mouth before crumpling to the floor. At another point Indiana Jones maneuvers a Nazi pugilist into a position where a plane propeller chops off his head and we see his blood splatter the wings. But even a violent decapitation pales in comparison to the deaths that end the film, which are shockingly explicit.

There's no polite way to say it, so I'm just going to come out with it: this family friendly adventure ends with three men having their FACES MELTED OFF BY THE WRATH OF GOD. That's right: holy fire boils off all of their skin until we can clearly see their previously submerged skulls. They are screaming in terror and pain the whole time.

Now, I want to be clear: I actually think that the face melting scene is pretty cool. The face-liquefying special effects are incredibly tactile, and as an adult viewer with a morbid sense of humor it is easy for me to laugh at how unnecessarily gruesome that scene is. My point is that Raider's climax makes no sense with what we've seen before. There's a scene early on where a bar becomes engulfed in flames and several Nazi henchmen end up getting set on fire - but they are depicted as demurely as you can depict a flaming human, in wide angles and without any audible screams. The face melting, however, is front and center, and it is basically nightmare fuel for children. Using that scene to end the movie is like using a chapter from a Hellraiser novel to wrap up a superhero comic book: both parts might be equally cool, but that doesn't mean they match up well together.

Ultimately, all of Raiders of the Lost Ark's flaws can be forgiven both because the parts that work really work and because it is such an important link in a long cinematic tradition. It is the bridge between early Hollywood adventure films and modern blockbusters, since it marries the earnest charms of a classic swashbuckler with a very current love of spectacle. Actually, its ability to dabble in both styles simultaneously is the secret to its success - it has better effects than an older film and more grit than a newer one, thus offering the best of both worlds. Raiders is old enough that it should feel a bit long in the tooth by now, but it is so smartly constructed that it actually feels evergreen. It remains the sort of film that should appeal to viewers whether they are young or old... As long as they are old enough to view a good face-melting without freaking out, of course.

Winner: Me

Raiders of the Lost Ark on IMDB