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How ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ beat ‘Jaws’ — and won the Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown

Harrison Ford and Karen Allen in "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
(Lucasfilm Ltd.)

“Jaws” lost.

It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 shark-attack thriller, the movie that all but invented the summer blockbuster and forever changed the landscape of Hollywood moviemaking, was essentially the foundation of the L.A. Times Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown — our series to program the greatest summer movie season of all time.

Week after week over the past several months, you’ve voted on Twitter and chosen a remarkable slate of 16 films (released between 1975 and 2019), of which “Jaws” seemed the obvious favorite.

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But even a popcorn-cinema canon, it would seem, likes to buck consensus. And when it came time to pit all 16 films against each one another this week in a final round of Twitter polling, it became clear that more than a few of our voters, after faithfully following along week after week, were spoiling for an upset. And so, in a literally “Jaws”-dropping twist, one Spielberg classic succumbed in the semifinal round to another: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981). Then “Raiders” went on to triumph over our other finalist, Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” and win the Ultimate Ultimate Summer Movie crown.

Did the escapist pleasures of Indiana Jones’ greatest adventure simply overpower the more fearsome and brooding “Jaws”? Were movie lovers inclined to embrace a well-oiled entertainment machine rather than a grim environmental cautionary tale? Maybe. Or maybe they simply realized that this Showdown might benefit from something you occasionally find in summer movies: a twist ending.

Tonight, I will be hosting a live chat with Wil Wheaton, star of “Stand by Me,” the Showdown’s Week 15 winner, that will be streamed on the Los Angeles Times Classic Hollywood Facebook Page and YouTube as well as Twitter starting at 6 p.m. This is the finale of the Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown series and I’ll also be recapping all the drama of the final voting as it unfolded and revisiting our top winners.

This list of 16 winning summer movies chosen by Times readers is a must-watch list for viewers stuck at home during the long-running COVID-19 crisis.

Here’s a recap of the films we watched together this summer and how the final votes went down this week, round by round:

Marlin and Dory go on an underwater adventure in "Finding Nemo."
Marlin and Dory go on an underwater adventure in “Finding Nemo.”
(Disney/Pixar)

KNOCKOUT ROUNDS

“Jaws” (1975) vs. “Finding Nemo” (2003)
The pairing of two movies featuring hungry great white sharks — although the one in “Nemo” is at least somewhat repentant — was probably the cruelest but most fitting match-up in the entire Showdown. It took mere minutes for Andrew Stanton’s Pixar triumph to become fish food.
Winner: “Jaws”

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“Alien” (1979) vs. “Bridesmaids” (2011)
Two terrific movies featuring tough women, fractious group dynamics and scenes of intense gastrointestinal distress. In the end, “Alien” easily hugged “Bridesmaids’” face.
Winner: “Alien”

“Apocalypse Now” (1979) vs. “Do the Right Thing” (1989)
Two critics’ darlings that feel ever more like landmarks as the decades pass. But Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic may have been hobbled by being perhaps the least summer-movie-ish of these summer movies, allowing Spike Lee’s always-timely consensus masterwork to prevail.
Winner: “Do the Right Thing”

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) vs. “The Fugitive” (1993)
It’s a measure of Harrison Ford’s versatility that Dr. Jones and Dr. Kimble are merely two of his signature roles. Still, for all the brilliance of “The Fugitive,” there was no getting past the intense Indy love — which extends to not only “Raiders” but the lesser sequels that followed.
Winner: “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

Wil Wheaton, left, River Phoenix, Jerry O'Connell and Corey Feldman in "Stand By Me."
(Universal Films)

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“Back to the Future” (1985) vs. “Stand by Me” (1986)
Two ’80s youth movies, one a buoyant time-travel fantasy and the other a bittersweet, sentimental coming-of-ager. Both had their passionate fans, but winning this one was clearly “Back to the Future’s” density — er, destiny.
Winner: “Back to the Future”

“Die Hard” (1988) vs. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)
Two great specimens of action cinema at its most conceptually spare and visually dynamic. I can’t say I was upset to see “Die Hard” lose, if for no other reason to stop voters from reminding me that it’s a Christmas movie, not a summer movie. (Spoiler alert: It’s both — especially if you live in the Southern Hemisphere.)
Winner: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

“Jurassic Park” (1993) vs. “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” (2018)
I prefer “Fallout” by a significant margin. The rest of you do not.
Winner: “Jurassic Park”

“Clueless” (1995) vs. “The Avengers” (2012)
It seemed only fitting to pit the movie that made Paul Rudd a star against the franchise that would (in later editions) cast Rudd as Ant-Man. You made the right choice, voters.
Winner: “Clueless”

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Alicia Silverstone, left, and Stacey Dash in the film "Clueless."
Alicia Silverstone, left, and Stacey Dash in the movie “Clueless.”
(Elliott Marks/Paramount Pictures)

QUARTERFINAL ROUNDS

“Jaws” vs. “Clueless”
Interestingly, both “Jaws” and “Clueless” commence with idyllic scenes of a young woman hanging out with her friends. You can imagine how this battle played out.
Winner: “Jaws”

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” vs. “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Forced to choose between these two movies featuring epic desert chase scenes, I’d go with “Fury Road.” But voters disagreed.
Winner: “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

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“Alien” vs. “Jurassic Park”
Of these two nerve-shredding cautionary tales about humanity versus nature, “Jurassic Park” led the way for a while until “Alien” finally surged ahead. Something I had absolutely nothing to do with, of course.
Winner: “Alien”

“Back to the Future” vs. “Do the Right Thing”
I also had nothing to do with the outcome of this poll. But I’m grateful that our voters did, in fact, do the right thing.
Winner: “Do the Right Thing”

Ian Holm in the movie "Alien."
(20th Century Fox)

SEMIFINAL ROUNDS

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“Jaws” vs. “Raiders of the Lost Ark”
And here’s where the upset happened — naturally, spontaneously and, I think, inevitably. You can argue with the result, but I respect it.
Winner: “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

“Alien” vs. “Do the Right Thing”
Two consensus masterworks with little in common, except that they both seem to get better and bolder with every passing year. It’s interesting to note that in dropping “Jaws” and “Do the Right Thing” in this road, voters ultimately dropped two summer movies in which summer itself plays a key role.
Winner: “Alien”

FINAL ROUND

“Alien” vs. “Raiders of the Lost Ark”
My vote would have gone to “Alien,” my favorite of the 16 finalists and a movie that demonstrates the potential genius of the system — the ability of a great director, Ridley Scott, to infuse a commercial genre template with peerless beauty, terror and artistry.

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But it’s not difficult to see why “Raiders” prevailed. It’s the pinnacle of a popular series. (So is “Alien,” though James Cameron partisans might disagree.) It’s a mighty collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford, who have countless signature summer movies between them. It delivers comic exhilaration and visceral pleasure without scaring the bejeezus out of the audience; indeed, that it bested both “Alien” and “Jaws” suggests that even the greatest horror may have its limits. There were bolder choices, but I respect the boulder one. Well done, voters! Congrats, “Raiders.”
Winner: “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

Did Times readers get it right? Reach out to me on Twitter, @JustinCChang, and let me know your favorite summer movie of all time.

Justin Chang’s Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown invited readers to vote on films for 16 weeks to reveal an all-time line-up for the season, and one all-time winner.


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