Thursday, November 11, 2010

Too Much Mysticism And More Of The Same Kills Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom.

The Good: Decent enough acting, Moments of character, Fun iconic moments
The Bad: Way too much mysticism compared to the former, Terrible supporting characters/performances
The Basics: In a lackluster sequel that goes in a completely different direction, Indiana Jones returns to go on a mystical journey to help recover magic rocks in India.

I've been challenging the old notion of "you can't go back" this week as I peruse the films in the Indiana Jones Trilogy. I recall as a child enjoying Raiders Of The Lost Ark" (click here for my review!) and finding a lot to enjoy in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. Having now rewatched the second installment - though chronologically it precedes Raiders Of The Lost Ark as far as the story it tells - of the Trilogy, I have to say that maybe I should have stuck with my youthful enjoyment of the film and left it at that.

Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom is not a terrible movie, but it is so thoroughly different from Raiders Of The Lost Ark that one wonders why Spielberg, Lucas and Ford were willing to collaborate and call it part of the same franchise.

Indiana Jones, having recovered an artifact for a Chinese gangster named Lao Che, finds himself fleeing Shanghai with his young sidekick Short Round and an annoying American lounge singer named Willie Scott. Alas, Indiana is betrayed once again when the pilots abandon the small aircraft and Jones, Round and Scott are forced to abandon the plane at their peril. After a rocky descent in a rubber raft, the trio finds themselves in India in a village where all the vegetation is dead and the children are missing, abducted by forces from a nearby spooky castle (no kidding).

Indiana, compelled by a sense of duty and intellectual curiosity, pledges the villagers to find the sacred stone that will restore the crops. With his sidekicks, he goes off to the castle to fight evil and superstitious nonsense with his sense of American intellectualism and his bullwhip. There he encounters a bloodthirsty cult led by Mola Ram, a high priest who is using the sacred stones of the Indian gods with the goal to take over the world.

Yes, it is just as hokey a plot as it might sound and therein lies the difficulty with accepting the Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (perhaps from the same naming guide that brought the world Star Wars - Episode II: Attack of the Clones) as a part of the same franchise as the magnificent Raiders Of The Lost Ark. In Raiders, Indiana Jones is a man of science, an archaeologist and adventurer who uses reason, logic and a studious disposition to uncover clues and search for the truth or history.

In Temple Of Doom, Indiana Jones succumbs to a wad of mysticism whether or not he claims to believe in it. In the course of the film, such superstitious elements are entered into the Jones-universe as mind-controlling sacrificial blood, voodoo dolls, and the classic man with heart removed from his chest who continues to live until he is set on fire minutes later. Yeah, this is not the same guy who searched for the Ark of the Covenant for money and the principle of keeping the artifact from the Nazis. This is not the guy obsessed with artifacts for the purpose of filling museums and bettering humanity. This is Hero For The Sake Of Hero and one wonders what compelled Harrison Ford to participate in the debacle.

Outside Indiana's abrupt shift in character - the mysticism has an effect on him and the closing lines of the film are troubling in that regard - the supporting characters are far less likable than those of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. First, Willie Scott is no Marion Ravenwood. Scott is no doubt supposed to be completely different, but the problem with her character is that while Ravenwood complained about things and shrieked for "Indy!" when she needed help, she also grabbed a torch and kept the snakes at bay. Ravenwood drew a knife on Belloq; Scott does nothing so bold. Instead, she is a cinematic menace to feminism in any form, the archetypal damsel in distress and nag in one form. The only decent moment she has in the entire film is a brief scene wherein she and Indiana flirt. Sadly, this is not nearly enough to justify her place in the movie and she is a pathetic excuse for comic relief and an annoyance in virtually every frame of the film (if you haven't actually seen Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, Willie Scott is the Jar Jar Binks of Indiana Jones).

Only slightly better than Scott is Short Round, an Asian Stereotype Child who makes quick quips throughout the movie up until the climactic moment when the boy tells Indy he loves him. It's so pathetic and formulaic that it could only have come from the pen of George Lucas.

Steven Spielberg and his henchmen (John Williams this means you!) are equally inept at creating something new in this movie. Spielberg makes scenes as unrelenting as possible without a real ratcheting up of emotion or menace. So, for example, at the castle, there is a banquet featuring dishes that gross Willie out. She's not into eating baby snakes or scarabs. We get that. She's grossed out. So, Spielberg throws in some eyeball soup. Willie is grossed out (we get it). So, Spielberg throws in chilled monkey brains. Willie is really grossed out (WE GET IT!). It's not any more funny with the second or third dish than it was with the first, especially considering the disgust Willie feels for . . . alternative cuisine is already made quite clear in a scene earlier in the film at the village.

The point is Spielberg tries the same hackneyed gags over and over. He tries to make menace by things moving fast (like the chase scene through the caves in the mining carts) and Williams comes along to telegraph the emotions musically, as if to keep saying "You need to be feeling more excited now!" The problem is, regardless of what the music is telling us, the film is hardly as exciting as it wants to be. Neither Lucas nor Spielberg is daring enough to add real jeopardy to the mix by offing one of the leads (if Short Round had been slain in Temple Of Doom it would explain his lack of presence in Raiders Of The Lost Ark) and the result is that the adventure never reaches the heights it could have.

This is, in part, because Spielberg surrenders to so many of the obvious cinematic conceits of adventure movies. Indiana is pursued by many warriors, none of whom may catch up to him. He is shot at by marksmen who are so inept they cannot possibly hit him even though they are supposedly otherwise quite formidable warriors. And of course, Mola Ram is as monolithically evil as his henchmen are stupid. This means, of course, that Ram will literally climb over his henchmen to save his own life and toss them to their deaths in the process.

The point in all of this is that Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom is a cinematic letdown and it's astonishing to see the film was made, much less got past the script stage. Sadly, the only reason to even watch the film now is the cinematic legacy it is a part of. Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom has iconic images that are heavily referenced in parodies and homages and as a result a true pop culture junkie must take in the film at least once. In order to appreciate such things as the heart getting ripped out, the twin coal car ride, and the chasm bridge being severed by the hero one has to endure Temple of Doom at least once to truly get certain allusions in The Simpsons, Family Guy, and the works of Kevin Smith (just to name a few) . . .

. . . but you're not compelled to enjoy it. And between Willie's whining and Williams' telegraphing score, it's not likely you will.

For other adventure films, please check out my reviews of:
The Fellowship Of The Ring
Sherlock Holmes
The Mists Of Avalon


For other film reviews, please check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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