A Trip Back To: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

By Christian DiMartino

So, I have a strange relationship with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. As a kid, it was my favorite of the Indiana Jones films. As I got older, it became my least favorite. Then as more time progressed, I realized that, yeah, it’s better than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (call it ridiculous all you want, but guys, these movies aren’t exactly grounded in reality). Which brings me to now. I revisited it last night and it’s weird: it’s a film I know well, and yet revisiting it, I don’t know, the film just seemed… better. Like I always enjoyed it, but this time, I really enjoyed it. I was a bit drunk too, so that could’ve helped.

So here’s the rundown on these films. Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark kicked things off in 1981, and honestly, I’d place this near the very top of Spielberg’s films. Seriously, it’s so rich, it’s so entertaining, it’s exhilarating. It’s essentially a live-action Saturday morning cartoon, and it’s amazing. Almost as good, but not quite, is the third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, from 1989. Yet I don’t even know why it’s a notch below the first one, because it’s honestly almost as good. The chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery is splendid, and makes up for the lack of a love interest (there is a fake-out early on, and the love interest, Elsa, turns out to be a Nazi, or, “Nat-shi,” as Connery would say). Many say this is their favorite, and I cannot fight them on it. Then there were the other two, which I’ve always enjoyed, but to a lesser degree.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is technically a prequel, since it takes place a few years before Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’ve never really understood this detail, because it doesn’t explain, say, why he’s horrified of snakes or anything (the opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade does, however). I feel like they forgot what year the first film took place, and forgot to change it. That, or they wanted to give the audience hope that they (or, we) wouldn’t be saddled with spending any more time with the love interest, Willie, since by Raiders of the Lost Ark, she’s out of the picture (more on her later).

The film opens in 1935 Shanghai, with Willie (Kate Capshaw, Spielberg’s eventual wife) giving an unforgettable rendition of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.” I love this sequence, but something occurred to me: it’s a Shanghai nightclub, and we get this shot of these dancers and… all of a sudden her stage is bigger than it was earlier, and then it returns back to normal. Just a minor quip. Anyways, Willie ends up getting caught up in the shenanigans of Indiana Jones (Ford, always having a ball, and looking great doing it) as he finds himself poisoned and in need of the antidote. Since this is technically the first movie, you can assume he makes it out okay, but not before being shot at and jumping out a window, and into a car. It’s not on a “nuking the fridge” level of absurd, but, eh.

The car is being driven by Short Round, a young Asian boy who is Indy’s sidekick. I’ve always wondered how these two met, but nonetheless, Short Round is a delight (but also, how did they part ways?). I feel like I’m getting too into this, so I’ll speed it up. After jumping out of a plane in a raft, the trio eventually find themselves in India (I kid you not, I accidentally typed “Indiana” without thinking about it. As an Indiana native, you can’t imagine how boring that movie would be). Indy is asked to find a mystical stone, but he gets more than he bargained for when he discovers a mine in a palace that seems to be home to a secret cult that is committing human sacrifices and the enslavement of children.

This film was rated PG, which by today’s standards is nuts, considering something like Raya and the Last Dragon was rated PG. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is the darkest of the four films, and need I remind you that the climax of the previous film featured a man’s face melting off, people blowing up, and so on. Yet I did just remember that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was actually the film that inspired the PG-13 rating, and it’s easy to see why. For family entertainment, it certainly pushes its boundaries. A man’s heart is ripped out of his chest, and then he’s dropped into fiery lava; the trio, while at dinner at the palace, are served monkey brains and eyeball soup; and again, the child enslavement thing, among other things. Truth is, as a child, I must’ve thought nothing of this (I was a weird kid), but as years went on I guess I was turned off by it. But re-watching this, I couldn’t help but admire how dark and macabre the whole thing is. Honestly, the movie is bats*%t crazy, but I can’t help but admire it for going where it goes.

What’s weird is that while I did always consider it lesser, the things about it that I enjoyed I remembered quite fondly. The set-pieces, from the opening to the plane crash to just about everything in the mine, are pretty amazing. Knowing that we were going to watch this last night, I began hyping up one sequence in particular: the race in the mining carts. As a kid, this absolutely blew me away, and honestly, it was probably the reason why it was my favorite, stupid as that sounds. As an adult… yeah, basically. This scene is phenomenal, really, and it holds up beautifully, and it’s one of the best sequences in the Indiana Jones saga, hands down.

So, what was the issue then? Because everything that I enjoyed about this film, I really enjoyed. Well, I guess as I got older, what kind of sunk the movie for me a bit was the obnoxiousness of Capshaw’s Willie (hehe, that sounded funny). I’m not alone on this, I mustn’t be. She spends the whole film screaming and moaning and complaining. And yet… this time, she kind of grew on me. Mind you, she doesn’t work as well as Indy’s true love, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). Marion was tough, sexy, but she held her own. Willie is certainly more of a damsel in distress. Yet revisiting The Temple of Doom after a few years, I found charm in her. She does work well with Ford. When the film focuses on her, yeah, she spends much of it screaming… but I can’t help but feel like I would have the same reactions. For Indy and Short Round, this is probably business as usual. It certainly isn’t for her, she is just a normal woman who was dragged along for the ride against her will. Quite frankly, if I jumped out of a building, followed by a plane, and then was expected to eat eyeball soup, and then got covered in insects, and then witnessed the enslavement of children and a man getting his heart ripped out of his chest and eventually thrown into a fiery pit of lava, among other things… yeah, I’d probably scream too.

So I’ll say this: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom still isn’t on the level of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade… but it’s really good. I don’t know anyone who flat-out hates it, but I do feel like it’s not as well regarded. After loving it as a child and merely enjoying it for many years, I can now say that The Temple of Doom is really enjoyable. What doesn’t work in it is only minor, but what does work in it is as awesome as anything you’d expect from Steven Spielberg.

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