Friday 15 October 2021

Movie Review: Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984)

The first sequel (and nominally a prequel) to Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom is undoubtedly imaginative, but also dark and claustrophobic.

The setting is 1935. Adventurous archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) tangles with an unscrupulous tycoon in Shanghai, then bails out of a crashing plane along with his young sidekick Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan) and lounge singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw). They land in India and stumble upon a village in misery, because an evil cult based at Pankot Palace stole the villagers' sacred rock and all their children.

Indiana, Willie and Short Round travel to the palace and encounter Prime Minister Chattar Lal and priest Mola Ram. They have a plot to dominate the world by reviving the Thuggee cult in a cavernous temple beneath the palace, engaging in human sacrifice, black magic, and child slavery. Indiana has to retrieve the missing sacred rock and rescue the children.

Directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by George Lucas, Temple Of Doom tries hard to do something different and not simply retread the original Indiana Jones experience. While the determination to carve a unique identity is commendable, writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, working from a Lucas story, first adopt a frantic over-the-top attitude then lock themselves into the temple and throw a mishmash of horrors at the screen, ranging from slithering snakes to hearts ripped out of live humans. The result is an uneven, uncomfortable, and forced adventure.

The film is never dull, filled with just-in-time rescues, good stunts, and high quality special effects, while bits of humour wriggle free from the shroud of darkness. But the production is also perforated with weaknesses. The character of Willie Scott is an abominable irritation, screaming incessantly and worrying about broken nails. Kate Capshaw is not helped by the script, but still delivers a wooden and unconvincing performance. The treatment of Indian culture is always insensitive and sometimes insulting, alternating between victimhood and savagery, and reaching a low point with a grotesque dinner scene. 

On at least two occasions Spielberg and Lucas brazenly rip themselves off. Jones and Short Round endure the slowly-getting-squished-in-a-small-room Star Wars episode, and the boulder from Raiders is replaced by gushing water. With the dominant success of E.T. fresh in Spielberg's mind, children are inserted for cringey manipulative purposes. From Short Round to the abducted child villagers and culminating in the ill-defined young Maharajah, kids carry the load of counteracting barbarism. 

On the positive side, several highlights contribute to the Indiana Jones legacy. The opening sequence in the Shanghai nightclub, featuring a Busby Berkeley-style musical, is fun. A chase on rickety rail cars through mine shafts injects a jolt of energy, and the final showdown at a rope bridge is spectacular. 

Harrison Ford's star power and latent charisma just about drag Indiana Jones out of the temple of doom, but it's a narrow escape.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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