I recently had the pleasure of re-watching the Indiana Jones series recently. It’s been years since I’ve seen them all in continuity. Raiders of the Lost Ark still stands out as the best of the films, perhaps to be mentioned among the best movies of all time. It is short and economic, perfectly paced and elegantly directed by Steven Spielberg. As we all know, Raiders was followed by three sequels, titled respectively The Temple of Doom, The Last Crusade, and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
I am not an Indy-hater in any sense of the word. I have always enjoyed the sequels. When Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out in 2008 met with mixed reviews from critics and boos from fans, I was mystified as to what they could possibly dislike about it. Come on! Surviving a nuclear blast in a refrigerator is far more plausible than surviving the Wrath of God TWICE! Crystal Skull is widely considered the weakest of the series, but I’m sure we all remember that before that this dubious honor seemed always to fall to the second movie, 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It’s too dark! It’s too mean-spirited! Willie and Short Round are annoying! It’s not fun! Truth be told I too shared these sentiments for a long time. When I saw it as a kid I remember feeling very uncomfortable as hearts were ripped out, children tortured, and human hides hung up for display in windows. I always remembered it as an unpleasant, if unforgettable and strangely addictive movie. Re-watching it recently, I was surprised at how much I appreciated it, and shocked at how wrong I and most other people were about its standing in the Indiana Jones canon.
To be honest, most of the things people say about it are true. It is very dark and disturbing. The fun, tongue-in-cheek action/violence of Raiders is replaced with sick and twisted horror. Tonally, Temple of Doom has more in common with Hausu and The Wicker Man than with the movies to its right and left in the series. Indiana is not so much a hero in this movie as a victim, just barely surviving with the skin of his teeth, plunging deeper and deeper into increasingly more perilous crises. The second act of the movie is pitch-black, lacking any of the winking humor we expect from an Indiana Jones flic. And I love it! For all these reasons.
I don’t know who it was who drew the arbitrary line in the sand and said, “An Indiana Jones movie must be this light-hearted with this amount of violence.” One reason to admire Temple of Doom is its uniqueness from the the rest of the series. Where the other three movies are fun action romps, Temple of Doom is bloody and mysterious. Where in the other three movies, Indy is on a quest to find something, in Temple of Doom he is on the run throughout – the hunted rather than the hunter. Where the other three movies feature multiple sub-plots which require breaks in the action to explain, Temple of Doom is a linear story packed with virtually non-stop action from beginning to end. Where Raiders and Last Crusade are set in the sandy Middle-East, Temple of Doom takes place in lush, green India, giving it an exotic and foreign feel.
As you can see, as a sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, it sucks. But as a piece of atmospheric action-horror it is brilliant. The movie begins with an over-the-top musical performance of “Anything Goes” by Kate Capshaw, then descends into progressively darker territory, down into the catacombs of the menacing Pankot Palace, a kind of anti-Shangri La, where a thought to be extinct cult still operates splendidly, offering up human sacrifices to their goddess Kali. The Temple is lit almost entirely in a hot Satanic red. The high priest and main antagonist Mola Ram wears a hat adorned with the horns and jaw of an animal. During the ceremonies he reaches into the victim’s chest and pulls his heart out still beating, laughing maniacally as it explodes into flame.
Here we come to one of the few points at which Temple of Doom is superior to its predecessor and immediate successor: the villain! While Rene Belloq was a competent and less ethical rival to Indiana Jones, he never felt like an actual threat, and it is hard to imagine him doing anything to Indy that Indy wouldn’t reciprocate if the shoe were on the other foot. Last Crusade doesn’t have a villain, merely a minor inconvenience. Mola Ram is off-the-rails evil. Maniacal in his ambitions and practical in his methods, he is a classic Hollywood villain. Until Cate Blanchett appears in the fourth movie, Mola Ram is the only truly scary villain in the franchise.
Temple of Doom is a flawed film, of course. Neither George Lucas nor Steven Spielberg is particularly proud of it, and most people seem to agree. I am happy to see, though, that a slow but steady movement to rehabilitate this film’s image is underway online, a movement which I am happy to support. It’s a wild film with a crazy imagination, wonderfully realized yet doomed to be judged by the same standard as its brethren. I can never really decide which Indy movie is my favorite – I can find greatness in each. It sort of depends on the mood I’m in. Right now, for better or worse I’m in a Temple of Doom mood. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, or you’ve always dismissed it as too dark or too weak, go ahead and re-watch it. I think you’ll be surprised.