Article By: Dan Clark
In today’s movie world the idea of doing a prequel has become common place. Some of the greatest movies of all time, like Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz, have been given the prequel treatment. When Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was released the idea of doing a prequel was a relatively new idea. The tropes we have come to expect with prequels had yet to be established, which allowed it to exist within itself. Steven Spielberg did not have to worry about continuity building, nor did he have to divert time establishing characters’ origins. Making it fit perfectly into the framework of the classic serials it emulates. Though it doesn’t suffer from the bogged down narrative of most prequels, it does have a common case of sequelitist. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of what made its predecessor such a success. While Raiders of the Lost Arc reserved its outlandish features for the right moments, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom makes them the focal point. Everything is bigger, bolder,–and less interesting. Temple of Doom does bring a high level of fun and adventure, making it a worthy entry to this franchise. The final product just pales in comparison to the original.
Part of the issue is the happenstance way the plot is laid out. The film begins in Shanghai as Indy is attempting to make a deal for an ancient artifact. Things go south and Indy barely escapes with his life. Right from the start the action seems somewhat underwhelming. Juxtaposing Indy into an urban setting was a clever effect, but the set piece as whole was not utilized nearly as much as it could have been. Not helping matters were some of the new characters that are introduced. Kate Capshaw plays Willie Scott, a lounge singer caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. She is basically kidnapped by Indy for his own protection, and subsequently forced to tagalong for the rest of the film. The Willie Scott character does everything possible to ruin the movie. Spielberg treats her like his nagging littler sister–constantly throwing creatures at her just to hear her scream. She is one fish out of water they should have thrown back. Her annoyance knows no bounds, and she never develops into anything of merit. There is also Dr. Jones’s sidekick Short Round, played by Jonathan Ke Quan. Creating a kid sidekick for Indy feels like a major studio decision to try to appeal to younger audiences, but it is not nearly as bad as it could have been. He has his moments, and provides a decent level of comic relief.
Once they escape from Shanghai the danger doesn’t stop. The story continues in an coincidence laden series of curious events. Their plane crashes and they barely escape with their lives…again. They then stumble upon a desolate village in India that views Indy’s arrival as their saving grace, and Indy agrees to help the village and rescue their kidnapped children. Overall the plot lacks any form of organic narrative structure. Events occur because the story needs them to in order to keep things moving. Where they start and where they end up have very little connection with one another. Similar to some of the plots of James Bond, Indy is basically thrown into a situation and things go from there.
Luckily, Harrison Ford makes it work. His charisma does its best to cover up the major issues. He continues to bring a lot of tenacity to the role. Simply based on his character and performance the film is worth a watch. The action as well has its moments. Parachuting from an airplane using a life raft was one well executed stunt. In addition the railcar chase sequence defines what it means to be a thrill ride. However, some of the action lacks the physicality of the previous film. There is far less stunt work, and what feels like a heavier reliance on special effects and blue screen technology. This made for set pieces that lacked a necessary sense of believability. Oddly the action as well had a stronger violence level than the previous film. The ripping out of hearts was a graphic image that could haunt many children’s nightmares. This, along with Gremlins 2, is noted for establishing a need for the dreaded PG-13 rating, which many have argued has had a hefty negative impact on cinema.
Ridiculousness wasn’t absent from the original, but it was earmarked for the right moments. With Temple of Doom everything is larger than life. One example is the way it treats ethnicities as completely backward cultures. The dinner scene in the Pankot Palace in particular relied on ethnic stereotypes to get cheap laughs. Amrish Puri, who plays the main antagonist Mola Ram, gives a great mystifying performance, but his character is extremely one note. Spielberg was adamant he didn’t want Indiana Jones fighting Nazis again, but he could have constructed something better than these bland characters. Construction of the actual sets was handled undeniably better. Each design was meticulously crafted with finite detail. Their grandiose scope made them appear like products of theatrical play. They aided in creating an atmosphere of intrigue and excitement. It was a world that begged to be played in.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is that little brother that will always stand in the shadows of his older sibling. Comparisons to Raiders cause mistakes to be elevated and successes to be downplayed, Even if you were to remove that comparison, Temple of Doom has an assortment of issues. If it would have been the first film released for this franchise the cultural impact of this series would have surely suffered. Still, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom does what a film of this genre should—it provides a remarkable journey full of fun and adventure.