1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Lawrence Kasdan
Of all the things I miss about the 80s — aside from my youth and hope for the future — I miss being surprised the most. You could walk into a movie knowing very little about it. You really had to work in order to spoil yourself, like read the novelization beforehand or not see it until a month after it came out. We still had trailers and TV commercials, but they weren’t nearly as sophisticated and pervasive as they would become, and they certainly weren’t simply condensed versions of the films they promoted like too many are today. And, of course, there was no internet to rush out every detail of a film months before its release. The only thing your computer connected to was your television.
So it was into this relatively more sheltered environment that Raiders of the Lost Ark began creeping in the early part of 1981. At this point, The Empire Strikes Back was the newest Greatest Movie of All Time, and George Lucas could no wrong. But Steven Spielberg was still smarting from his first all-around failure, and everybody I knew thought this was going to be a movie about storming Noah’s Ark. So yeah, “creators of Jaws and Star Wars” good, but still some trepidation.
I’ve already waxed adoringly over this film in the past, so I won’t retread any of that here. Suffice it to say my dad and I sat down in a movie theater on the Saturday after Raiders was released and Lucas and Spielberg proceeded to smash the ever-loving trepidation right out of us. But it was that very trepidation that made the whole experience so memorable, and so perfect. Because Raiders constantly surprised us, and kept getting better and better as we watched it. It was one of the purest cinematic experiences of my life, truly not knowing what was going to come next, and being amazed by what eventually did. The moment Indy shoots the swordsman was followed by one of the most genuine, spontaneous reactions I’ve ever seen in a theater, spawned not just by the moment itself, but by the cumulative joy the film engendered in that audience. Spielberg could have ended the movie with Harrison Ford simply reading the rest of the shooting script after that and we’d have been totally on board. The film had us, in as complete a way I wouldn’t really feel again until The Fellowship of the Ring some twenty years later.
There was also a strong sense of connection with my dad. He’d grown up watching serials like this, and now here I was watching one with him. He was already responsible for so much of my burgeoning geekdom — watching Star Trek re-runs, convincing me to see Star Wars, driving me to the comic shop — but this was the first time it felt like we were sharing a good time instead of him allowing me to have one. I know now he got just as big a kick out of those things as I did, but Raiders marked the beginning of the realization that my dad was just as big a kid as I was. And that I didn’t necessarily have to stop being one just because I got older. Until my parents moved out of the state shortly after I graduated college, my dad and I were there for opening weekend of every Spielberg movie. Kind of fitting that Spielberg’s disappointing film about growing up — Hook — was the first one I saw without him.
Raiders and Jaws constantly duke it out in my head for my favorite Spielberg movie. But seeing as how my first viewing of Jaws was through the gaps in my fingers, I didn’t really come to appreciate it until years later. But Raiders was instant, as sharp as the cracking of a whip and as familiar as a worn leather jacket. It felt like it had always been around the minute it started, and you wanted to see it again the minute it ended. When our family finally got a VCR — a Betamax, of all things — the first movie we ever owned was Raiders of the Lost Ark.