I consider myself to be something of a student of George Lucas.

Unfortunately, there's no Geek University at which I could actually BE a student of George Lucas. I'd love to pursue a Ph.D. in Geekology with a concentration in Lucasian Themes. I can see myself in the plush, hallowed halls of Spielberg Hall, combing through old issues of Starlog while doing research for my thesis on "Representations of the Other in 'THX 1138'" as my fellow students vigorously debate the merits of Kirk verus Picard.

So I'm not a literal student of Lucas. I guess that makes me simply OBSESSED with him. Whatever.

He's easily the most compelling pop cultural figure on the current landscape, second only to Michael Jackson. He went from being the great blockbuster auteur of the early eighties into trudging through awfulness ("Howard the Duck"), more awfulness ("Radioland Murders"), and yet more awfulness ("Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace"). Through it all, he's remained strangely disconnected from his own creations, as though he doesn't really want to be the overlord of a sci-fi uberfranchise, but he feels like he has to. From the ever-present flannel shirts to the fact that he let his daughter change her name to Tyger (great parentin' there, Georgie!), this is one odd dude, no matter what his public "hamburgers and cruisin' and spaceships" persona may depict.

It cannot be denied, however heinous and tangled his most recent creations may be, that there was a time when Lucas was the *** of the filmmaking block. And "Raiders of the Lost Ark" finds him in the thick of his most fallow period, not just in terms of box office receipts but in terms of creative success. It's the centerpiece of an early eighties trifecta that remains unequaled, starting with the triumph of "The Empire Strikes Back" and concluding after "Raiders" with "Return of the Jedi."

(Even on "Jedi," the decline had clearly set in. But we'll get to that later.)

All three of those films were actually co-written with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan; Lucas gets a "Story By" credit on "Raiders" along with Philip Kaufman. On "Empire," Lucas again scores a story credit, while Kasdan shares co-writing credit with Leigh Brackett, who actually delivered the first draft of the film's script before her untimely death. On "Jedi," Lucas picks up yet another "Story" credit along with a co-writing credit with Kasdan. Cursory research into all three films will reveal that Lucas essentially brainstormed the work with Kasdan, then left his screenwriter to do the actual grunt work of the writing.

So why are we gassing on about George Lucas and Larry Kasdan when the average Joe and Josephine on the street probably regard "Raiders" as a Spielberg masterwork? Because to me, the brilliance of "Raiders" really begins with the script, which is one important sense in which it critically differs from most blockbusters produced today, where writing words for the pretty people to say in front of the big picture-taker thingees seems like an afterthought.

"Raiders" is elegant storytelling, one of those amazing tales that seems like it's always been there, just waiting to be put to celluloid. It's sharp, smart, funny-electric. Every word crackles; every scene raises the stakes, until you can't stand the tension any longer.

Like the "Star Wars" films, "Raiders" starts you in the middle of a story, namely Indy's running contest with the giant ball and his first encounter with the sinister Belloq. The stage is perfectly set; you know what Indy is all about, what his attitudes about life and adventure are, within the film's first five minutes. You also get a perfect introduction to the chief villain of the piece, doing something diabolical to Indy that sets you up for his sinister ways to come. By the time Doctor Jones has leapt aboard that plane and taken his seat with the snake (a seemingly throwaway gag that cleverly sets the viewer up for Indy's famous encounter with many snakes later in the film), you're pumped and primed and totally drooling for more.

What's most interesting about the first third of the movie-basically, everything until Indy meets up with Marion and they set off to Egypt-are the shades of grey Lucas and Kasdan build into their lead characters. Sure, Indy's our hero, but he's also a *** to Marion. Sure, Marion's cast as the victim in her relationship with Indy, but she also kicks some hearty ass and can drink even the toughest dude under the table. (Another fine slice of foreshadowing, this time to Marion's trickery of Belloq in the tent in the desert.) Belloq is just plain evil, but he's also a dark shadow of Indy himself-there, but for the grace of God and Marcus Brody, goes Indy. And Belloq will get his own grey shades painted in later, when he becomes charmed by Marion and shows a vulnerable side that still can't conquer his greed.

This movie is packed with moments that create the idea of Indiana Jones as a legendary, iconic figure. Who knows if Lucas, Kasdan and Spielberg were conscious about sculpting these moments, or if they just created coolness that happened to become unforgettable. Either way, you can never forget Indy shooting the swordsman or exhaustedly saying, "I'm making this up as I go" once you've seen the film. They're forever, and they're forever because they cast Indy as a warts-and-all hero. He doesn't know what he's doing, but he knows what he's got to do, and he does it. "My ambition in action is to have the audience look straight in the face of a character, and not at the back of a capable stuntman's head," Harrison Ford has said, and that's a huge part of it too. We see Indy experiencing every high and low of his journey to capture the Ark; we're wounded when his face falls, and excited when his eyes brighten.

Indy's leading lady Marion is no slouch as an iconic film hero either, especially when compared with Lucas' recent failures in the realm of creating female characters. It's always been astonishingly cool to me that when Indy and Sallah are retrieving the Ark itself, it's not a sequence totally reserved for this awe-inspiring moment, the discovery that the entire film has been building toward. No, the Ark discovery is intercut with Marion's adventures with Belloq as she tries to get him drunk enough to escape his tent. In a movie entitled "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the sequence with the most raiding and ark-ing gets divided up with the female lead.

Fast-forward to the "Star Wars" prequels. Can anyone really believe Padme Amidala is anything but a cardboard cutout of a flimsy nothing, an excuse for Lucas to slap some self-designed bondage gear onto a young cutie? She's so lacking in substance, she's practically transparent. She's light years removed from Marion.

You can see the beginning of Lucas' disinterest with strong female characters in "Return of the Jedi," where the powerful Princess Leia is reduced to wearing a steel bikini and worrying anxiously about her brother. Wither the ass-kicking, confident woman who declared "I am not a committee" and "It'll take a lot more than you to get me excited"?

The Ewoks also speak to Lucas' decline as a storyteller; they're kiddie fare designed to sell stuffed animals and action figures, not creatures that belong in a space saga for all ages. But there's no kiddies stuff in "Raiders," thankfully; kids love the movie, as any kid of the era will recall, but it doesn't talk down to them. Which is more evidence of its brilliance. After all, who were you impersonating in the backyard during your wayward early eighties youth: Indiana Jones, who gets to swash his buckle and dig in the desert and fight snakes and ***? Or Wicket W. Warwick, the stubby-legged representative of a tribe of woodland teddy bears whose chief weapons consisted of rope and rocks? I thought so.

And what of Spielberg, anyway? Naturally, his direction is note perfect, imbuing each second with an urgency that still works even two decades later. These are action sequences that could feel slow by today's frentic standards, but they don't, and that's thanks largely to Spielberg. "Raiders" also happens to fall during Spielberg's most fallow, brilliant period, the fourth of five films that are mostly perfect examples of personal yet dynamic filmmaking on a grand scale. (We'll eliminate "1941" from that honor roll. No offense, Steven.)

Ultimately, the only sense in which "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is an antiquated film is in knowing that George Lucas will probably never make a movie nearly as great again. I keep holding out hope that maybe he'll crack through whatever haze is keeping him from hitting a home run out of the movie geek park, but I can't see it happening. At least we have DVDs, and we have Indiana Jones. Lucas, Spielberg, all of us...we're just passing through history. But "Raiders" IS history.

Cue the march.