Indiana Jones and the Bumpy Ride into Darkness – Reviewing Temple of Doom

So, I re-watched Temple of Doom for the first time since I was a little girl. I thought it was ok back then, mostly because it made me feel cool to tell the boys at school that no, indeed, I did not have to cover my eyes during the gross parts, thankyouverymuch. But even as a child I never thought it was a good movie, so after having embarked on this whole Indiana Jones craze I’ve been cultivating for the past few weeks, I’ve been dreading the time when I would re-watch Temple. If even an eight-year-old is able to catch on to a movie’s lack of quality, that can’t be a good sign.

Turns out I had every reason to be dreading it. Temple of Doom really isn’t a very good movie. It feels wrong from the very beginning of the film – it simply doesn’t feel like an Indiana Jones movie, the atmosphere is that much different from the atmosphere in the first and the third movie. And I sat there throughout the movie trying to guess why in the world Spielberg and Lucas would do this – what were they going for with this marked change of ambience in the second movie?

Even the poster for this movie seems wrong. Why does Indy pose like a skinny emo teen boy in this picture?

Even the poster for this movie seems wrong. Why is Indy posing like a skinny emo teen boy in this picture?

The special features on the DVD gave me some clues as to the answer to this question. As Spielberg explains in the feature “An Introduction to The Temple of Doom”, he and Lucas intended to make a trilogy out of Indiana Jones, and Lucas wanted to make the second movie of the trilogy a slightly darker movie than the other two, because apparently that was the formula he’d used for his Star Wars trilogy (I wouldn’t know. I have never seen Star Wars). So this was their reasoning behind this plot where Indy enters into the hellish world of darkness and evil that we find in the Kali Ma cult.

And you know, I can kind of see how that might be an interesting idea: Our hero Indy retreating into a world of evil which he has to defeat from within before he can make it out on the other side. There’s something almost Dante-esquely interesting to that thought.

The problem is, however, that the idea doesn’t work at all in the movie: I didn’t sit back with a sense of having seen a sinister movie about a hero overcoming evil. This post shall be dedicated to answering why I didn’t feel that way.

The Absence of Dr. Henry Jones Jr.
I think one of the main problems with the movie was that Indy simply didn’t seem real the way he’d done in Raiders. Raiders was so compelling partly because it depicts Indiana Jones as a whole person – not just as an adventurous hero. In both Raiders and Last Crusade we get to see Indy teaching a class, and these scenes are wonderful in that we get to see Indy as a normal person who, just like the rest of us, relies on his regular occupation in order to put food on the table. In Raiders we even see him show Marcus Brody some antique pieces that he intends to sell to Brody’s museum in order to make enough money to go on one of his adventorous trips. It’s little details like these that makes me engage in Indy as a person – that makes him seem realistic enough for me to want to follow him on his out-of-this-world adventures of wild car chases and melting Nazi faces.

And there is none of this in Temple. We never get to see Indy in a classroom or even at home – the adventure starts in Shanghai where we find Indy at a nightclub wearing an elegant white blazer in a scene that would be perfectly fine if it were a James Bond movie scene. But it’s hard to recognize the loveable and slightly dorky college professor in these surroundings, and it almost felt wrong to hear Short Round insistantly refer to Indy as “Dr. Jones” throughout the movie.

“Oki-doki, Dr. Jones!”
Speaking of whom – Short Round is a problem in the movie as well. Retrocrush listed him as one of the most annoying movie characters ever, but I wouldn’t go that far. It speaks to Short Round’s advantage that the kid is really cute and as far as child actors go, I actually don’t think he’s half bad. But his character is simply too much of a bumpkin – his relationship with Indy doesn’t seem believable. I simply can’t believe that Indy would hire a ten-year-old orphan as his personal bodyguard and procede to make him drive his car, and take him with him on a journey to a temple infamous for kidnapping children and turning them into slaves. The Indy we know from Raiders is protective even towards the adults with whom he cooperates (like Sallah and Marion), and certainly wouldn’t have dragged a poor orphaned child with him on a dangerous quest. Thus robbed of any believable backstory, Short Round is reduced to functioning as a means to make the sinister movie more kid-friendly.

“Primitive Sexual Practises”
It’s pretty much the same problem with the character of Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw a.k.a. Mrs Spielberg), the leading lady of the movie. She’s on Retrocrush’s list as well, and I definitely agree with them there. I’ve already mentioned in my tribute to Marion Ravenwood how annoying I used to find Willie’s screaming when watching this movie as a kid, and it was even worse than I remembered it. Willie Scott screams and whines her way through the entire movie. Now, I wouldn’t have a problem with this if only her screaming and whining made sense, but most of the time it doesn’t. For instance, who the hell would waste time whining when they’ve just realized that they’re aboard a crashing plane?

The whining seems to have been exaggerated for comical effect, but not only is it not very funny, it’s also completely out of place in a movie that’s supposed to be about a quest into the sinister and dark places of the human world. Which is a shame, because can you imagine how great this movie would have been if they’d pared Indy up with a woman that we actually grew to care about? The scene where Willie is being lowered into a pitful of fire would have been terrifying! The way it is now I almost – almost – kind of want the Kali Ma guys to just kill off Willie and get her out of the picture already.

And then Willie’s character serves to make Indy seem even less recognizable. Because why on earth would the cool, intellectual Indy we met in Raiders fall for a clingy airhead like Willie? It doesn’t seem right, and it doesn’t help things that there is zero chemistry between Ford and Capshaw. It’s almost as if Spielberg and Lucas have realized this – in any case they’ve directed a dialogue between Indy and Willie in their love scene that’s way over the top, as if to compensate for the lack of sparks flying between the actors:

Indy: “You wear your jewels to bed, princess?”
Willie: “Yeah. And nothing else. Shocking?”
Indy: “Nothing shocks me. I’m a scientist.”
Willie: “So as a scientist, you do a lot of research?”
Indy: “Always.”
Willie: “And what sort of research would you do on me?”
Indy: “Nocturnal activities.”
Willie: “You mean what sort of creme I put on my face at night? What position I sleep in?”
Indy: “Mating habits.”
Willie “Love rituals?”
Indy: “Primitive sexual practises.”
Willie: “So you’re an authority on that subject?”
Indy: “Years of field work.”

Um, ew? Excuse me while I go bathe my ears with alcohol. They have just been linguistically sullied by an Indiana Jones movie. I suppose you could argue that the dialogue is entertaining because of the sheer outrageousness of it, but mostly it’s just gross.

“Dr. Jones! Don’t drink, it’s bad!”
Towards the end of the movie there’s a scene which I’d completely forgotten about since I was a kid, and which is probably the movie’s most intense sequence. This must have been the scene that Spielberg and Lucas had in mind when they declared that they wanted this second Indy movie to be a quest into darkness. In the scene, Indy is forced by the Kali Ma cult to drink the Blood of Kali, and the blood somehow transforms Indy into a Mr Hyde-type version of himself and thus a member of the evil cult. Transformed!Indy proceedes to chain a screaming, incredulous Willie to the crane that will lower her into the fire, and to hit a poor, defenseless Short Round across the face and laugh at his pain.

This could have been a memorable scene that might even have overshadowed the overdone comic relief of the movie and made it into the dark movie that it was apparently supposed to have been. But the problem is that this evil force that takes control over Indy is an entirely alien one. The extreme evil doesn’t seem to be rooted anywhere in Indy’s own personality and thus the sequence can’t be said to deal with Indy’s battling his own demons. And so, apart from the fact that it’s interesting to see Ford play an evil character, the scene becomes a pretty dismissable one.

Especially because it’s so easily resolved. Apparently, all it takes to cure Indy (and anyone else who’s drunk the Blood of Kali) is to be burned with fire. Somehow Short Round knows about this (how?? And how is it that no one in the firery Temple has caught on to this cure before?) and burns Indy who turns back into his old, heroic self just in time to save both Willie and Short Round.  Too easy, writers.

“Chilled monkey brain!”
Finally there’s the fact that the movie has a pretty strong undercurrent of racism. India is apparently a somewhat backwards civilisation doomed to perish by the hands of evil and primitive native cultists if the British empirialists aren’t there to keep an eye on things. And I realize that the whole Snake’s Surprise/Eye Soup/Chilled Monkey Brain dinner sequence is probably added mostly as a nice and effective gross-out factor, but it still comes off as very xenophobic. As in, “Oh, those crazy Indians and their weird food! Will they ever learn?”

Indiana Jones and the Scenes that Actually Aren’t All that Bad
But this is not to say that the movie is all bad. It is pretty entertaining in its places, and while I think this is definitely the worst of all four Indy films, it does have its moments – moments that ultimately make the movie a watchable part of the Indy Quadrology. Here’s a list of these extenuating circumstances:

– The last part of the movie, including the roller coaster ride out of the Temple, and the nerve-wrecking scene on the suspension bridge. You can almost feel the sinking feeling when Indy, Willie, and Short Round rush through the temple corridors in their cart, or when Indy hangs on to the collapsing bridge while Kali Ma cultists plummet to their deaths below him.

– The scene where Indy succesfully uses an inflatable raft as a parachute, as he, Willie, and Short Round have been left
on an airplane with no pilots and no fuel. Simply because that idea is so fantastic.

– The fact thatWillie actually does go through a slight character development in the movie, and she seems changed after her near-death experience in the pit of fire. It’s especially refreshing to see her being subsequently protective of Short Round, whom she’s mostly ignored up until this point. She still does whine up until the very end of the movie, (when Indy shuts her up with a kiss that she totally hasn’t deserved).

– The fact Ford is shirtless in his evil Post-Kali Ma Scene. Yes, I’m that shallow. Boy, is that man goodlooking.

–   Indiana Jones. Even if he’s not depicted as a whole person, he’s still undeniably cool to watch. No one else can pull off a line like “Prepare to meet Kali – in Hell!” and not sound cheesy.

5 responses to “Indiana Jones and the Bumpy Ride into Darkness – Reviewing Temple of Doom

  1. Pingback: “A city girl. Out of her element.” « At the Lighthouse

  2. I have loved some of Stephen Spielberg’s works but none as much as this. Still so fun to watch.

  3. Would I open Pandora’s Box by asking someone with an interest in gender studies for their opinion of Indy using his whip to pull Willie to him at the end of Temple of Doom?

  4. Heh! I’ll have to think about that one and get back to you. There’s definitely some feministic Pandora’s Box potential there.

    I nuanced my take on Willie Scott a little in this entry: Although here, too, I have neglected to deal with the gender-related implications of the whip-pulling.


  5. Agreed, bad movie, but here’s a spot of triva: there is a cut scene after Shorty has been thrown into the mines where he accidentally cuts into a vein of lava that splashes a guard, waking him up from the black sleep of Kali, but God knows why they cut something that vital from the film. Just one of many bad decisions in the production, I guess.

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