Welcome back, fellow adventurers. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are revisiting a work from the career of Steven Spielberg. Don’t get heartburn, because this week on Series Spielberg, the red line on the map is taking us straight back to the Indiana Jones franchise to review The Temple of Doom. With a different approach, new characters, and a much darker tone compared to Raiders of the Lost Ark (or any of the following sequels for that matter), opinions tend to be divided on Temple of Doom, but this critic finds it to be the finest of the Indy sequels.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
Back when George Lucas was originally talking Spielberg into directing Indiana Jones, Lucas told Spielberg that he had three stories in mind for Indiana, and that if Steven directed the first movie, then he would have to direct all three. Spielberg agreed. That turned out to be a fib, however, as when the time came to start production on the first sequel to Raiders, Lucas had nothing to offer Steven for a concept. The pair then collaborated to develop ideas for the film, taking unused set pieces originally intended for Raiders, and writing the story around them to fit.
In a similar fashion to 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, George and Steven both agreed that the second film in the Indiana Jones trilogy should take a darker approach. Both of them coming off major breakups around the same time, Steven from his girlfriend Amy Irving and George from his wife Marcia Griffin, it’s due to their moody outlooks that the pair have attributed The Temple of Doom’s major shift in tone. The story was inspired by the barbaric Thuggee cult from India, and Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz of Lucas’s American Graffiti were hired to flesh out the script.
The Temple of Doom is actually a prequel to Raiders, set in 1935 Asia. The film opens in a night club in Shanghai, and while fleeing a local crime lord, Indy ends up crash landing a plane in rural India with American singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) and his trustee sidekick 11-year-old Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) in tow. There, they discover that the infamous Thuggee cult has resurfaced, and is practicing black magic rituals and keeping children as slaves. Indy and his friends stop the cult, free the children, and return the sacred Sankara stone to the local village.
The shift in tones between Raiders and Temple of Doom was so jarring upon release that it met a mixed reception from critics, and controversy from parents for its PG rating in comparison to its harsh content. In response to this, Steven suggested to the MPAA the creation of a new rating, and hence the PG-13 classification was born. Perhaps if PG-13 had already been around viewers wouldn’t have been taken so aback, but the sharp shift in atmosphere truly is an alarming change in pace. Temple of Doom is not for the faint of heart, but there truly is a lot of fun to be had here.
Similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom does offer some familiarity in that it is chock full of thrilling set pieces and delightful production ideas for summer moviegoers to enjoy. Before the main conflict is even introduced, we have a shootout in a Shanghai night club, a night-time car chase, and a plane crash closely followed by a water rapids ride. In the Indian jungle, there are all sorts of exotic sights to behold. Inside the Pankot Palace, it is full of terrors. Then, the film climaxes on one of the best sequences of the series, on a suspended rope bridge over crocodiles.
Unfortunately, the execution isn’t quite as crackpot-efficient as it was in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Things get started way too fast, with not enough time for the audience to get its bearings. The scene in the night club is far too chaotic, and the plane ride followed by the water rapids ride offers too little breathing room, while being just a bit too far-fetched to match Indy’s usual style of outlandish but grounded escapism. Once the main plot is under way, however, there is a great adventure to be enjoyed if you’re not too bothered by the steep descent into dark magic.
Temple of Doom admittedly doesn’t fit neatly into the Indiana Jones franchise, with its heavy emphasis on horror being tonally inconsistent with the rest of the series. And that’s just fine – because this element is exactly what makes the film more artistically bold than any of the following sequels, which are either trying too hard trying to replicate Raiders (in the case of The Last Crusade) or they are trying less successfully at doing something new (Crystal Skull). Temple of Doom isn’t perfect, but it’s the last Indy sequel to represent Spielberg in his most fearless form.
It’s more just a handful of specific production choices that detract from the picture as a whole, less so than its overall concept. Willie Scott, for instance, is a heavily maligned heroine for the series, and for good reason. Raiders of the Lost Ark struck bold new ground with a feisty leading lady who wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott, on the other hand, is a two-dimensional prima donna who is reduced to constantly screaming at everything and complaining when she breaks a nail. The absence of Marion Ravenwwod is also acutely felt.
But, that being said, the fish-out-of-water routine is certainly amusing, as there are plenty of gross-out situations here for a spoiled American celebrity to get into. One of the funniest scenes features Willie wailing and ping-ponging between bats and other creatures in the nighttime jungle as Indy and Short Round bicker over a card game. When a snake appears behind Willie, roles are cleverly reversed as Indy is the one panicking, and Willie is the one blissfully unaware. Other fun scenes include the dinner of snakes and monkey brains, and the room full of bugs.
Speaking of Short Round, the young child actor Ke Huy Quan is a delirious delight, as Indy’s plucky young sidekick is easily one of the most enjoyable characters in the entire series. He strikes a terrific chemistry with Harrison Ford, and they make one formidable adventure team as they take on the Thuggee cult in Pankot Palace. Amrish Puri also makes for one imposing villain as the Thuggee cult leader Mola Ram, as the horrifying scene in which he tears a man’s heart out just before sacrificing him into flames makes for one terrifying and unforgettable sequence.
Steven would later describe Temple of Doom as his least favorite of the Indiana Jones films (despite meeting his wife Kate Capshaw during filming), believing he went too far with the darker elements. This is really too bad. Yes, you could argue he and George were a bit too committed to some of the horror aspects for a breezy popcorn film, but Temple of Doom stands today as one of the most unique and certainly one of the most exciting films in the series. Yes, the earlier portions are a bit choppy, but Temple of Doom remains one fantastic adventure all the same.
We’ll be returning to the Indiana Jones franchise again, but next week we’ll be looking at the Spielberg-produced, but Joe Dante-directed Gremlins. It’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray, as well as for streaming on HBO Max and digital rental. Give it a watch, and I’ll see you next week.