That’s a harsher title than it ought to be, as I don’t hate “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” But the revisionist history going on across the Interwebs as we mark the 30th anniversary of the first sequel to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” has me completely baffled. It’s also directly contrary to my own personal experience.
AintItCoolNews, for instance, posted a plethora of article under a series they titled “Fortune and Glory,” in which the writers talk about how underappreciated the Indy prequel is. Many of them admit they didn’t like it much when it first came out, but the intervening years have caused them to appreciate the film’s charms over time.
For my part, I loved “Temple of Doom” back in 1984. The year previous, I had ditched school to stand in line to see “Return of the Jedi” on opening day, and I refused to admit, even to myself, how disappointing I found the third “Star Wars” entry. I had no such feelings about Indy II. It was non-stop action, with every sequence even more exciting than the last. Yet for me, the movie really hasn’t aged well at all. It’s got some of the best set pieces of the entire series, but none of them hang together in anything like a cohesive whole. It’s easily my least favorite “Indiana Jones” movie, and, yes, that includes “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” for which I’ve become a rather vocal apologist.
Of course, I’m operating from the premise that “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is the closest thing to a perfect film ever made. Everyone kept saying how closely it followed the old black-and-white serial formula from my parents’ era, but I knew nothing about black-and-white serials. All I knew when I first saw Indiana Jones was that it was entirely original and unlike anything I’d ever seen. (I remember sitting in the theatre having to pee when I first saw it, but I didn’t dare leave my seat for fear of missing a single moment.) This movie is still the template for how to do an adventure film, yet nothing that has followed has been the equal of “Raiders.” Nothing has even come close.
As a kid, I was captivated by the action, but as an adult, the movie endures because Indiana Jones isn’t just a generic action figure. You’re introduced to his idiosyncrasies early on – he hates snakes, you know – and the contrast between his fedora and professor personas makes him much more interesting. And when we meet Marian drinking a sherpa under the table, we fall in love with her instantly. And what terrific bad guys! Belloq, the lazy weasel who steals the idol right after Indy’s done all the work! That sneering Nazi with the medallion seared into his hand! You’re just as eager to see the villains get their comeuppance as you are to see Indy succeed. “Raiders” manages to create indelible and unique characters in the midst of all the commotion, and that’s the main reason why it’s the masterpiece that it is.
In 1984, I didn’t really notice that the characters weren’t all that interesting in “Temple of Doom.” The movie is so busy – or perhaps “cluttered” is the right word – that you don’t realize until afterward that the Indiana Jones that was so fascinating in “Raiders” is largely absent here. Fact is, “Temple of Doom’s” Indy, up until the very end, is kind of a jerk. You don’t really notice at first, because there’s plenty of leftover “Raiders” affection for him, but if you take “Temple of Doom” as a standalone, this Indy is pretty boring.
Of course, he’s the height of complexity when compared to the shrieking banshee that is Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott. Even in 1984, I thought she was nails-on-a-chalkboard awful. I’m sure she’s a great lady in real life – Steven Spielberg fell for Capshaw on set and has been happily married to her since 1991 – but there’s a reason her career never went anywhere after this.
Of course, it’s not all her fault, as her character is supposed to be grating. But that’s the problem – “grating” isn’t fun to watch, unless maybe it’s “funny/grating” or “grating-with-a-heart-of-gold.” But Capshaw was none of that. She was just “watch-me-whine” grating. I think a better, more likable actress could have brought more to the part than was on the page and somehow make us not hate her, but Capshaw is ultimately the weight that sinks the film.
The only other character worth mentioning is Short Round, Indy’s kid sidekick who, almost by default, becomes the most interesting character in the movie. The scene where breaks the voodoo-esque spell on Indy is the most compelling moment in the entire film. But he’s largely undeveloped, and much of his shtick is a little too cutesy for my tastes.
As for the bad guys, there’s nothing to see here. Mola Ram is a stock villain pulled off the B-movie shelf. He’s bad because he’s bad. Yawnsville. The MacGuffin – the Sankhara Stones – pales in comparison to the Lost Ark. Dramatically speaking, there’s not much to hold anyone’s attention.
That leaves the action sequences, which include the finest such sequences in the entire franchise. The Club Obi-Wan stuff is dazzling and the best opening sequence in all four films. The mine cart ride is a practical special effect tour-de-force that would be hard to recreate today, even with CGI. And then there’s the awesome rope bridge stuff at the end, which is still so audacious that it leaves my head spinning every time I see it. With stuff like this, it’s easy to understand how the 1984 me was able to overlook the fact that the rest of the movie kinda stunk up the room.
In the film’s defense, there is something to be said for the fact that Lucas and Spielberg didn’t follow the traditional sequel route and recreate the original movie beat for beat. (They essentially did do that with “Last Crusade,” but that was still far more satisfying than “Temple of Doom.” If you have to rip off a movie, “Raiders” is a pretty good source to steal from.) So the producers score points for taking a risk. It’s just that not all risks pay off.
Also, Willie Scott is the Jar Jar Binks of the Indiana Jones series. Meesa loathe her.