I have pretty vivid memories of seeing this back in the summer of 1984, and only some of them related to the movie itself. We’d planned to go see it as a family, but the week before it came out, my sister got a truly wicked case of chicken pox. So she had to stay home with my mother taking care of her, while, bravely, my father and I went and saw it without them. We valiantly trudged our way to the theater, endured the ordeal of seeing the movie by ourselves, and sympathetically described to my sister exactly what she’d missed. The story became all the sweeter in the following weeks when I finally got the chicken pox — and ended up with such a light case of it that I think my sister might still be holding it against me. Evidence of the healing power of Indiana Jones.
The thing is though, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was very nearly my Hook moment. When I first saw it, I was all wrapped up in the excitement of opening weekend, the thrill of having a new Indiana Jones movie, all that. But I remember as it ended a little bit of “Is that it?” creeping into my head. It didn’t feel like Raiders or E.T. or even Return of the Jedi (I was really drinking the Star Wars Kool-Aid back then, deal with it). I just liked it when I wanted to love it. Of course, it’s far and away a much, much better film than Hook, and has enough good stuff in it to place it this high on the list, but, as you can tell by which other Indiana Jones film I haven’t mentioned yet, it’s not like I don’t have some issues with it.
Now, I love the opening sequence. Love it. The repeated idea from Raiders of joining Indy mid-adventure, the interplay between Indy and Lao Che, the energy of the whole thing being informed by the big gaudy musical number, it’s all great. It’s a perfect start to an Indiana Jones movie. If only it had ended with Indy making his escape and back in his classroom in the States. But instead, it’s a double-cross, the plane crashes, and we’re stuck with two of the most annoying characters ever to hit the screen. Willie is everything Marion wasn’t: pampered, grating, and dainty. And while it’s not a bad idea to have Indy play off someone of that type, the character is basically there to go “Ew gross!” at everything, as if we couldn’t have picked up on that on our own. Same goes for Short Round, but in a different capacity: he’s there to tell us how funny and exciting everything is. I know the character gets a lot of love, but he just grates on me, because he’s the typical hyperactive movie kid, the one Spielberg is usually so adept at not giving us. Willie and Short Round would have been fine if they had been incidental characters we see only in the prologue, but they’re with us all the way. And whereas Marion felt like an equal to Indy on his adventures, and someone we could root for, Willie and Short Round come off as a couple of cheerleaders, there to cue us in when to feel a certain way.
I’m also not a huge fan of the villain. Not in his look or the way he’s played, but in the level of threat he presents. Raiders and Last Crusade had truly big stakes: if the Nazis get this item, it will be bad for the entire world. Sure, Mola Ram pays some lip service to Kali toppling the other gods once he has all the Sankara Stones, but for the most part, it seems the worst that’ll happen is bad times for India. And aside from brainwashing people and being able to remove people’s hearts one at a time, we’re never really given a sense of the power the Stones give Mola Ram. It all feels too localized, as if James Bond was dispatched to Cardiff to stop a corrupt zoning inspector or something.
Then there’s the Lucas factor. He had to make this a prequel. Which is fine in theory; it’s pretty safe to assume Indy had adventures before Raiders. But there’s too much stuff here that contradicts what we saw in the first film. In Raiders, Indy says, “I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus pocus,” when Brody tries to warn him about meddling with the Ark. But here he is one year earlier in Doom up to his neck in that very superstitious hocus pocus he supposedly doesn’t believe in. So, what, it’s just Christian hocus pocus he doesn’t believe in now? Then there’s the repeat of the gun gag, which was a great, organic moment in the first film, but here feels like a labored nod to it. And again, his reaction in Doom feels more suited to a film that takes place after Raiders, not before it. Just slap “Shanghai 1938” on the front of this and a lot of issues go away.
And yet here’s Temple of Doom sitting at #13 on my list. Because despite all my nitpicking above, the film is as effective a thrill machine as has ever been put on-screen. From the moment Indy enters that tunnel full of bugs, it’s pretty much one big roller coaster ride, veering from exciting to scary and back again and all effortlessly coordinated by Spielberg. Only a master craftsman at the top of his form could take something with parts that are so flawed and still turn it into a classic adventure film. Once we get that tracking shot in to Indy’s face after he lays out the slave master, and John Williams’ score is pounding away, well damn it, I don’t care about chronology or Willie screaming or Short Round’s antics. Indy’s about to kick some ass and take some names and I want to be along for the ride.
So, despite spending three paragraphs on what I dislike about this movie, it’s still one of my favorite Spielberg films. The list of complaints is more to justify why I rank it just below the next film in the series. Which, coincidentally, will be the next film on this list.
Tomorrow: He ain’t heavy, he’s my father.