A Study in Spielberg: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

09 Apr


Spielberg has always been known for turning the movie industry on its head, but in 1984 there were those who felt that he had gone too far.  Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was radically accused of amping up the violence of its predecessor to a degree that some found disturbing.  Along with the Spielberg-produced Gremlins, and Joseph Ruben’s nightmare thriller Dreamscape (which also featured Kate Capshaw as well as another impromptu manual heart amputation) several films came under attack and gave the MPAA the idea of instituting a new PG-13 rating.  The effect was that it would allow films to be gory without the forbidding R-rating or cut to fit the PG perimeter.

For Temple of Doom, I don’t see that it is any more violent than Raiders.  The story is much darker but I don’t see why this film and not the earlier one became a target.  Does the violence tarnish the film?  Not really.  The ripping out of a heart in Temple of Doom is no more or less violent than the melting of a face in Raiders.  I see the films on an equal footing.  The Indiana Jones films are violent, that is just the nature of this series.

But that doesn’t ebb to the bigger question at hand.  How does Temple of Doom stand up to the wow-factor of its predecessor?  How do you follow-up one of the most exciting action movies of all time.  The short answer: you don’t.  Temple of Doom doesn’t try to be Raiders, and that’s a brilliant move.  The story takes place a year before the events of the last film.  There’s a new female sidekick, Willie Scott, who is just the opposite of Marion (which is not really a good thing).  There’s a kid sidekick, a babbling Chinese orphan named Short Round.  And it takes us to a new location, this time we’re in India.  The only thing that remains the same is the goal.  Indy must find a sacred stone from an ancient cult lest they take over the world; Plus he finds that he must free the children of a lost village.

I won’t say that this is a better film; I’ll say it’s a different film.  Temple of Doom, like the pulp novels that inspired it, is another adventure in the world of Indiana Jones without connections to the previous story.  Oddly enough, this is the only movie in the series that does that.  The two that followed are more direct sequels (there are references to Raiders in both), but this one is more disconnected.  Personally, I like it that way.  It’s like a James Bond adventure in which you follow the hero into a new story without the connective tissue of what has gone before.

Aside from that, the movie is a great deal of fun.  Its action scenes have a great deal of urgency and once they get rolling, they tend to stay rolling for a long stretches of time.  The third act is literally a half-hour roller coaster ride that takes us right to the end credits.

And YET, let us discuss the elephant in the room.  The movie’s chief weakness is in its female lead.  Willie Scott is to the Indiana Jones series what Jar Jar Binks was to Star Wars.  She’s grating, irritating, whiny and self-involved.  There is an attempt to give her some sex appeal early on but it falls flat when we remember Indy’s strained romantic chemistry with Marion in the earlier film.  The only mercy from her screaming act is that once the movie does get to the Temple of Doom, her character takes a back seat to the action and her presence becomes less obnoxious.

I mentioned earlier that many felt that Spielberg had gone too far.  That was the critical reaction when this movie came out not only for its violence but for its depiction of Hinduism and of Indian culture.  One of its critics was Spielberg himself who felt that the movie was too horrific.  He was disappointed in the result and from that it is perhaps worth noting that his films for the rest of the decade got softer, with a more humanistic vantage point.  His next film would be a complete departure, starting a humanistic element to his work that remains with us to this day.


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