Goonies never die. They just grow up, get married, and drift apart. I remember reading once, “The best friends a person will ever have are often childhood friends.” I don’t know if that’s true, but childhood friends can be the most iconic, the most vibrant when the memory goes, and the most painful, too.
Watching Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is equally like stepping into a time capsule of someone’s childhood, specifically a child born of the 1980s. The film explores the pained realization of growing up, the rifts that form between former best pals, and the moment when childhood and all its fanciful dreams are put aside for the “real world.” It’s also about the desire to fulfill the promises one made as a child and not letting the spark and creativity die as you grow older.
For Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, Jayson Lamb, and the friends they managed to rope into their crusade, childhood was spent in pursuit of a singular creation: a shot for shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Viewed through the eyes of a documentary that includes interviews and archive footage, Raiders! explores the seven years between childhood into teenage and adulthood that they worked on the film. In addition, the film also covers the present-day endeavors of Chris and Eric to film the iconic airplane battle from the film, the one scene they never managed to film as children.
Cut between these two narrative arcs, the documentary raises the question of friendship and whether it lasts, and whether childhood dreams are a feasible reality. Chris, Eric, Jayson, and their friends very much lived by the Goonies codebook. They are somewhat social outcasts in their own right, during a time when it wasn’t cool to be nerdy. The three became a close–knit trio over the years. Bonding by lighting the house on fire, hanging from moving cars, and creating plastic prosthetics, the lives of the three boys are presented in snapshots through outtakes and scenes from their pet project.
At times, it seems like you’re watching through someone’s collection of home movies because you are. In their quest to make a kid’s version of Raiders, the three also filmed their childhood from moments of them just hanging together to Chris’s first kiss. While the technical aspect of the fan film from the naysayers to the kids’ begrudging and eventually supportive parents is nicely displayed, the film focuses on the exploration of friendship and what this film meant to the boys and what the boys meant to each other. It is suggested that Raiders! was a way for them to ignore the very real and harsh reality around them such as parents getting divorced. Indeed, it is when filming is over that real life and adulthood begin to take over.
Content to put the film and each other behind them as they grew older, the three fluctuate between being best friends and complete strangers. It is only when horror director Eli Roth, who features into the documentary along with several others including Indian Jones star John Rhys Davis, comes across a VHS copy and screens it at Butt-Numb-A-Thon to rave reviews that the three are pulled back into each others’ circles. They’re forced to face the reality that their childhood dream wasn’t frivolous, and that it did matter.
The secondary arc that follows Chris and Eric trying to film the airplane scene adds to the general narrative of friendship and reclaiming one’s childhood, but is less successful than the look back at Raiders! and Chris, Eric, and Jayson. The documentary is at its best when it’s scanning archive footage from the boys childhood and interviewing their parents and friends. These segments create a lived-in atmosphere that sells the passion of the boys as children. In contrast, the arch following the boys as adults feels to clean cut reminiscent of reality television.
Maybe, the act of being filmed in juxtaposition to just hanging out with friends creates this artificiality. At certain places, it feels manufactured to add tension and stakes. Will they acquire the necessary funds? Will Eric get the extra days off work or will he be fired? Will the pyrotechnics work? Will they finish the scene in time? It seems less like an unmountable task than the documentary wants you to believe. At times, it seems like people are simply going through the motions or posing for the camera.
Maybe, real life is strange and I’m projecting, but there seemed to be too much artificial tension in these segments. I was also slightly disappointed that Jayson was left out of the proceedings, with the trio splintered again when Jayson wanted to film the scene using miniatures. Indeed, the ending offered little in hints of reconciliation between the three, leaving viewers with a bittersweet feeling.
Indeed, bittersweet is a good way to describe the documentary as a whole, and that’s a compliment. Childhood itself is bittersweet. A group of people come together, have a good time, create memories, and then their time together ends. Raiders! suggests we should celebrate childhood without being beholden to it, and in that aspect, it succeeds quite well.