I’m just going to come right out and say it: I really did not enjoy sitting through Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I can’t, for the life of me, understand why the big follow-up to Raiders of the Lost Ark has its share of defenders, but cry in outrage how 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ruined their childhood. So much that worked in Steven Spielberg’s masterful action-adventure Raiders, I felt, was absent in this sequel (despite this installment taking place in 1935, one year before the events of the original movie). The sheer wonder and thrill of being whisked away into a whirlwind of adventure and danger that the first Indiana Jones picture Lucas & Spielberg created never shows up until midway through the third act, and in it’s place: a darker and slightly uglier tone/mean streak that simply does not work from how the original work presented itself, but more on this later.
Harrison Ford returns as the titular character, this time, escaping from Shanghai gangsters when a trade for a valuable diamond goes south; his sidekick, an 11 year-old Chinese boy nicknamed Short Round and a nightclub singer, Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), in tow. After a failed attempt to kill the trio in the plane results in them being stranded in Northern India, Jones stumbles onto a village where the residents believe they have come to rescue their missing children from a religious cult, dedicated to ritual sacrifice and child slavery in their name of their goddess, Kali.
Already, we have a few significant problems, primarily being the supporting cast. What I feel worked so well in Raiders was how the side characters came naturally from the plot of the story: It felt natural that Jones would have an ally in Cairo in the form of Sallah, and that Sallah would be an asset in his skills as a digger and being clever enough to help his friend out of a tight jam if need be. I could believe a Marion Ravenwood would exist in this universe as a hardened barkeep who tags along with her former flame and could fend for herself because these characters came organically to serve the story.
In contrast, the addition of Short Round and Willie feel forced and tacked on because we have to keep the story in motion. I can almost hear George pitch these two irritating hellspawn to his friend during script meetings: ‘Say, Stevie – you know how John Rhyes-Davies had his kids save Indy’s bacon in the first movie? Well, let’s have an actual child be his sidekick in the next one! And you know how Karen Allen got captured a few times in Raiders? Well, let’s have the romantic interest serve as rescue bait all throughout the movie! What do you think, Stevie?!’ In a perfect world, Indy would have told both Short Round and Willie to get lost, because they would be a hindrance, rather than a help.
But no, the movie persists on dragging the pair of them through the jungle and into the Pankot Palace of the young Maharaja, Zalim Singh, where his majesty treats Dr. Jones and company to a royal banquet, complete with delicacies such as eyeball soup, live snakes, beetles and chilled monkey brains for desert. Yum. Lawrence Kasadan, the screenwriter of the first film, declined to pen the script for Temple once he learned of what Lucas wanted to do the second time around.
“I thought it was just horrible. It’s so mean. There’s nothing pleasant about it. I think Temple of Doom represents a chaotic period in both their lives, and the movie is very ugly and mean-spirited.”
– From the book, “Mythmaker: The Life and Work of George Lucas” (Avon Books, 1999)
Kasadan’s comments on why he refused to be associated with the sequel pretty much sums up the glaring problem with Temple of Doom: it isn’t fun to look at in any regard. Instead of being more adventurous, Spielberg and Lucas double down on trying to be unpleasant and grim. Who was asking for an Indiana Jones film to include a grotesque dinner scene, chalk full of gross-out scares that feel like it could have been ripped from the minds of Dario Argento and Ruggero Deodato? Similarly, why did we need a sequence where our heroes, Capshaw in particular, have to trek their way through a trap door, filled with millions of large insects, some as big as the palm of a human hand? And why did this adventure series need to feature images of kidnapped children being forced to work and mine for a set of sacred stones, complete with overseers beating them senselessly with a bullwhip?
Do you know how much better Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows would have been had author J.K. Rowling had decided to, after Voldemort and his Death Eaters had taken control of the Ministry of Magic, added in a descriptive sequence in which the reader is forced to imagine Muggle-born witches and wizards being forced into camps that would invoke the horrors of the Holocaust, and Auschwitz in particular? Oh, that’s right – it wouldn’t. It would be seen as mean-spirited and ugly. I’m not saying that Spielberg make an exact copy of what he did in Raiders, but if him and Lucas wanted to make a darker picture than the last installment, don’t make it so unrelentingly grim and dour that the audience doesn’t want to spend one more minute watching it.
Towards the end of Indy 2, Spielberg does remember that this is supposed to be a thrilling adventure, and he crafts a very good action sequence featuring our three heroes escaping the temple in a mine cart. The whole piece plays very much like how Raiders played: fast, tight, loose, and calls back to the predecessor’s playful nature that excites and gets the audience invested in how Indy will evade his adversaries’ grasp. But that takes place near the end of the picture, and by that point, it’s too little and too late.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a dour, unpleasant experience to sit through: So much of what made Raiders of the Lost Ark the enjoyable, exciting classic most fans enjoy and love is shockingly absent thought most of the picture. There’s no sense of wonder and the thrill of going on an adventure with Dr. Jones and his cohorts, and Kate Capshaw and Jonathan Ke Quall are several steps down from Marion Ravenwood and Sallah in terms of believable side characters that would help assist the main character. The biggest problem is the overall tonal shift, the reliance on gross out imagery and the themes of coerced child labor and human sacrifice as a juxtaposition to tell how much darker it is, rather than letting the story and the mood reflect a more sinister nature. In short: it is Spielberg’s worst movie, by several miles.