To some, the archival video in Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made will feel really familiar. For seven years in the 1980s, Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala and Jayson Lamb spent just about every free moment recreating Raiders of the Lost Ark using whatever equipment they could find and whichever neighborhood kids they could convince to help. By the end of that time, they’d shot everything except the original film’s flying wing sequence.
The documentary — directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen — observes as Strompolos and Zala finally commence work on the missing sequence, but also reveals a sort of childhood that seems very specific and very familiar at the same time.
Alternating between their childhood production and the pitfalls of trying to mount the final sequence, Raiders! will remind viewers alive at the time what it was like in the early 1980s. Strompolos and Zala, and much of the neighborhood as we learn, witnessed the disintegration of their parents’ marriages and end up very much like their director-hero Steven Spielberg; himself a survivor of a broken home making movies with the other kids around the block.
The group also lived through that last era of relative childhood freedom, when kids were free to enjoy their backyards and play at being movie characters with the rich tapestry Spielberg and George Lucas offered at the time. They just happen to have an extensive record of those days.
It is perhaps only through this mixture of timing that their fan film, now known as The Adaptation, exists.
The documentary also reveals the complicated and sometimes strained relationship between Strompolos and Zala (and the disintegration of their collaboration with Lamb). After completing the bulk of The Adaptation, both moved on with their lives but never too far apart. Zala began a career in video games while Strompolos kept striving for the film life both imagined as children. But as one settled down, the other had a rougher road and its easy to see those years on their faces. At one point, both discuss the notion that Zala had somehow “sold out” by joining the games industry. Though they both have seemingly come to terms with it, it is clear Zala still has the film bug and delights in the chance to direct again when they begin shooting the airplane sequence.
As a whole, Radiers! also delights in their childhood spent filming as the pair, Lamb, and others involved in the production recall insane stunts, like their attempt to film the bar fire — which saw their parents getting involved and shutting them down for a time — Strompolos’s recreation of Indy sliding under a moving truck and their failed attempt to create a plaster mask of Zala’s face to mimic the film’s explosive finale. All of it is recalled with such fondness, even by the parents. Their stories are aided by material we would now call behind-the-scenes footage in which the kids offer their own timely reactions to hanging off trucks and their relief to be (seemingly) done with their recreation.
The best aspect of the documentary is the way it captures that childhood optimism. Whether the viewer had film aspirations back in the 80s or just enjoyed going outside with the neighbor kids and emulating Star Trek or The Transformers, the sensation the stories and archival footage offers is so damned familiar. And it is interestingly counterpointed with the duo trying to recreate it one last time; though now with some professional expertise and adult-style headaches.
And one unbelievable moment that could’ve stopped the sequence and the documentary.
While The Adaptation has been called a love letter to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Raiders! is very much a love letter to that period and to the people who try to hold onto some small piece of it. And for those of us who remember what that time was like, it will be a fun experience to look back on.
Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made opens in theaters today. It is also available on VOD platforms.