Movie Review : Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
The Indiana Jones movies were the ultimate throwaway entertainment of the eighties. They were directed with the same energy and ambition than any other iconic franchise, but they weren't inspiring like the Rambo or the Star Wars movies. They were just a good time. Were they a failure in the eyes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg? I've always wondered that. Raiders of the Lost Ark latched on WWII triumphalism so well, wasn't there a feud to build with Nazi occultists there? After all, the movie was set in 1936.
So, I watched the sequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, trying to gain better insight on the weird nature of this franchise.
Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom is set in 1935, one year before the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark. technically making it a prequel. But it's kind of straying from the all-american college professor image of the earlier film, introducing Indy (Harrison Ford) selling a religious artifact to Chinese mobsters on the black market like he's goddamn Humphrey Bogart. The deal goes haywire, so our hero, his child laborer sidekick (Ke Huy Quan) and the club singer (Kate Capshaw) take a quick plane out of the country. Only problem is that the plane crashes in India and they end up in a village where a stone with magical properties has been stolen by a cult of Kali revival. I know, right?
I don't need to tell you this movie is pretty racist. There will probably be a self-congratulatory 2,000 words essay on Medium written by a 24 year old white kid popping up at some point, explaining how racist Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom but it's common knowledge, right? I'm sure George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and their screenwriters had a couple editing sessions back in the days where they went: "Ouh, I don't know about that, guys. This is pretty racist." Whether it is the palace scene where Indian people are delighted to eat bugs, eyeballs and chilled monkey brains or the white child actors playing Indian children until the last scene where they are conveniently swapped, it's all over the movie. If you haven't realized this until now, Edward Said will be turning over into his grave.
So, you'd have to be a special brand of hypocrite to blame racism for the Indiana Jones movies never quite achieving transcendent status. We've all enjoyed them despite that *. There are others reasons why Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom doesn't work quite as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark, though. There is no overarching narrative arc to them. Every movie in the series is self-contained and Indiana Jones is, more or less, the only character that carries through from one more to the other. Whenever you walk out of an Indiana Jones movie, all is good with the world and everything's in its right place. So, there never was emotional incentive to anticipate a new movie.
Nevertheless, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom aged rather well for what it is. Part of the reason why is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. There is no grand good vs evil narrative in this movie. Sure, there's an evil cult of death that needs to be stopped, but Indiana Jones doesn't make the trip to India in order to stop them. He's literally parachuted in the situation and pursues the investigation out of professional curiosity more than anything else. Not unlike Die Hard's John McClane, you root for him because he's caught in a deadly situation he didn't choose. I mean, Indiana Jones sure is a white savior but he's a reluctant and therefore sympathetic one.
There you have it. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is undoubtedly a classic of throwaway cinema and I believe it was designed this way. The movies were too spread apart (eight years between the first three and nineteen years between the last two) and it hit a little too close to home with the historical and the cultural references in order to have universal appeal. It's too easy to pick apart in order to take itself seriously. But if you can appreciate it for what it is: a weird, goofy adventure story with triumphalist goggles, it's possible to still enjoy it in 2018. Don't take Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom more seriously than it takes itself.
* To a certain degree, at least.