Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Viewed January 21st

Archaeology professor Indiana Jones travels around the world in a dangerous race with the Nazis to possess an invaluable religious artifact.

There's the perfectly crafted flow of kinetic action scenes. There's director Steven Spielberg's seamless mastery of widescreen composition. But the film's greatest strength is perhaps Harrison Ford's star performance. When he's on-screen and the camera catches his eye, things crackle and feel funnier and more consequential. The myth Ford projects through his character is the white academic adventurer. It's a fantasy of Euro male virility: perpetual stubble, khaki and dusty leather, running through primitive lands, killing the natives, stealing their culture without fear of retribution. It's of course wildly problematic. And the film offers no critical reflection on that. The intention, of course, is not to be about these academic issues but to give audiences a slick b-movie, tech-triumph, thrill ride cinematic fantasy. But even on that more visceral level, does it work? Maybe not as well as it could. There are multiple reasons, but one is that the film's central romantic relationship features one star, but not two. By way of contrast, in Star Wars (also based on old adventure serials and also featuring Ford), things worked better. In that film, Ford is paired with another genuine star, Carrie Fisher, and they have chemistry, an alchemical magic that generates even more cinematic mythic surplus. (Or you could say he's involved in a triangle with Fisher and Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker, but, either way, the result is the same because Hamill turns in a star performance, too). Star Wars is just as based on the idea of dressing-up corny b-movie tropes, but it all goes further and feels more elemental in comparison with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Karen Allen in Raiders is perfectly fine, but she doesn't have that star quality, that mythos that Carrie Fisher projects as Princess Leia. When Allen appears in a virginal white dress during her captivity at the hands of the French archaeologist collaborating with the Nazis, the audience should feel their breath taken away, but that doesn't happen. She can't generate those sparks the way Carrie Fisher can. When a snake curls through the Karen Allen character's white high heel shoe, it fills in some of the blanks. It's erotic and sears an archetypal image into the viewer's brain, but it's no substitute for the chemistry of two stars on screen together.