“Raiders of the Lost Ark”: Totem and Taboo

  • Author(s): Andrew Gordon
  • When: 1991-10
  • Where: Extrapolation
  • Like George Lucas' Star Wars trilogy, Raiders of the Last Ark (1981) is a pastiche of and homage to earlier Hollywood movies: Star Wars was inspired in part by the Flash Gordon serials, and Raiders is an attempt to recreate the genre of Saturday matinee adventure serials, the cliffhangers of the 1930's and 1940's.. Like the serials, it is episodic, with a quest plot which is the framework for a succession of action set pieces and fabulous stunts. Nevertheless, Raiders does not merely imitate the tacky thrills of the old cliffhangers. It tells the story not in short weekly episodes but in a single feature-length film, and makes use of an enormously larger budget and much better, more "realistic" production values, including location shooting, state-of-the-art special effects, wide-screen color, and Dolby stereophonic sound. The action is almost nonstop, barely allowing the audience time to catch its breath before the next cliffhanger, but executive producer George Lucas, screenwriter Lawrence Hasdan, and director Steven Spielberg have also spiced up the story with constant touches of visual style and humor. The visuals resemble as well the slam-bang illustrations of today's action comic books. So what we have is not simply a revival of the serials (the economic conditions and the particular audience for that form no longer exist) but, like Star Wars, a new kind of adventure fantasy, an elaborate entertainment which attempts to allow a more sophisticated, demanding audience to experience the feeling and original impact the serials had on naive young viewers decades ago.

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