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Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

| May 23, 1984 | 0 Comments

The most refreshing thing about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is the fact that this is not a retread of Raiders of the Lost Ark – there are some acts you just can’t follow.  How do you follow one of the biggest popcorn movies in cinema history, an adventure so spectacular that it earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and has become part of our common language?  In lesser hands, this second adventure might have been a repeat of the same formula trotted out with nothing new to discover.  But Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are not lesser hands.  They have used their collective imaginations to create something special and even in trying to follow-up a grand adventure like Raiders you can feel that they wanted to try something new.  Temple of Doom is not Raiders. It is a red-blooded adventure that moves with a life and energy all its own.

This isn’t even a sequel, it actually takes place a year before his search for the lost ark, though it never makes predictions or allusions.  Like the pulp novel adventures that inspired it, this is simply another adventure in the travels of Indiana Jones.  The familiar elements are all there, even a plucky kid at his side, an Asian boy called Short Round who acts as a sort-of moral compass.  It is always in the tradition of these stories that a sidekick is necessary, usually a non-American who gets the hero out of trouble.  And of course, there’s a love interest, this time an American entertainer named Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) whose function in the plot is to be dragged along and occasionally rescued.

The movie hurtles these characters from one damn thing to another.  Temple of Doom is in the tradition of great movie adventures in which the plot is stew of craziness encompassing all manner of chases, fights, shoot-outs, hedonistic cults, mystic artifacts, booby traps, gross-outs, a diabolical plot to take over the world, and the always reliable scene in which the hero is hanging from a cliff by his fingernails.  The movie never denies us any of these things, nor does it make them standard or boring.  It has just as much urgency as the earlier film, but not in dealing with the Nazis becoming all-powerful.  Here the plot is a little more personal, but no less diabolical.

This adventure is a little darker, meaner.  The earlier film was a grand, globe-trotting adventure featuring Indiana as a man sent on a mission to keep the Nazis from ruling the world. Here, Indiana kind of backs into the plot. It’s not his mission, but he takes it anyway, landing in India via a plane crash he finds himself in a small village desolated by the theft of an ancient stone with magical properties.  The earlier film travelled the world; this one takes Indy down, down, down into the deep chasms of a forgotten Hindu temple where ritual sacrifices include ripping out your heart before tossing you into a pit of lava. The prize is a sacred stone that was stolen from a humble Indian village.  The stone is no Ark of the Covenant, but when it lights up, it’s pretty impressive.

In fact, the whole production looks impressive.  The temple where the human sacrifices are held glows with a fiery redness, as if it was one level up from Hell itself (there’s an indication that it actually is).  The caverns beneath the earth, where the children work as slave, actually looks like an underground cavern, not a theme park attraction.

Spielberg and his writing team have also done a good job of keeping their lead character consistent.  One of the great things about Indiana Jones is his vulnerability.  He is intelligent and fallible, always pushing forward, heedless of the danger.  He’s not just a peg to move around the plot.  He’s interesting, and we like him, even when he’s taken into darker territory.  The same cannot be said, I’m afraid, for the film’s chief weakness, Indy’s leading lady.   Raiders gave us Marion, a tough talking gutsy broad who greeted our hero with a clip to the jaw.  Here we get Willie Scott, an American nightclub singer whose chief characteristic is that she whines and screams a lot.  Kate Capshaw is a good actress with a winning smile, but she’s given a bad role.  A little of her goes a long way.

Even still, the movie is a grand adventure, breathless, fast-moving and a great deal of fun.  If it doesn’t measure up, then it’s only because of the adventure that preceded it.  You can’t fault Lucas and Spielberg for not measuring up, nor can you fault their desire to return to this territory again.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.