Cinema: Slam! Bang! A Movie Movie

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In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas crafts a real cliffhanger

Indians armed with poisoned darts and arrows. Arabian assassins in black masks wielding wickedly whistling scimitars. Nazis by the jackbooted legion, including a Gestapo sadist always dressed in black, always giggling in happy anticipation of torturing someone. A cave where tarantulas drop from the ceiling by the bushel. An underground chamber alive with deadly snakes—7,500 of them.

Flying wings and flying boats. A car chase and a barroom brawl. Abduction by submarine. Supernatural forces. A brainy professor who turns into a roguish soldier of fortune between semesters. A heroine who talks tough, loves hard and punches with either hand. A traitorous monkey—yes, a treacherous little bundle of chattering fur who constantly betrays the good guys until he is dispatched by a poisoned date, not a minute too soon.

Raiders of the Lost Ark has it all—or, anyway, more than enough to transport moviegoers back to the dazzling, thrill-sated matinee idyls of old. It is surely the best two hours of pure entertainment anyone is going to find in the summer of '81, and it is almost equally certain to be the great commercial hit of the season—a blockbuster on the order of Star Wars and Jaws. Which is as it should be, since it is produced by George Lucas, 37, who created the former, and directed by Steven Spielberg, 33, who made the latter.

This is good news, a cheerful prospect to contemplate as the air conditioner goes on the fritz and the kids go into a frazzle. One begins to wonder: What did people do in the summers before George Lucas started making movies? But there is more to the success of Raiders than the simple, "Let's see it again" pleasure it is going to give audiences, though that, of course, is its most basic virtue. In a troubled time for the American movie, a time of runaway costs, indifferent craftsmanship and stiffening competition from new entertainment technologies, Raiders is, in fact, an exemplary film, an object lesson in how to blend the art of storytelling with the highest levels of technical know-how, planning, cost control and commercial acumen. Most of its relatively low, $20 million budget (half what Michael Cimino was permitted to squander on his out-of-control flop, Heaven's Gate) is, as they say in Hollywood, "on the screen." It will therefore surely make money. The only question is whether it will rival the huge worldwide grosses of Star Wars ($500 million) and The Empire Strikes Back ($300 million).

Raiders represents Spielberg's best work in years, a return to the briskness and coherence that have been missing since Jaws. But in the end it is very much a producer's film, a George Lucas film, reflecting not only his taste in entertainment but a carefully evolved production style that leaves plenty of room for creativity and none at all for miscalculation or self-indulgence. The film began as "a daydream" back in 1973, when Lucas first got the desire "to make a B movie I wanted to see," and was modeled on Republic serials, those thrill-a-minute kiddie-matinee favorites of the '30s and '40s.

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