Do you have those moments when you’re watching a film you swear blind you’d seen before but then realised that you didn’t? This happens very occasionally with me, but this was a big one. Chilled monkey brains, hearts being ripped out, a constantly screaming heroine, these were all moments I knew but upon watching Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom, it quickly became apparent that I hadn’t seen the entire thing and that the most famous moments had just lodged themselves in my pop-culture addled brain!
Temple of Doom was before 2008′s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull the red-headed stepchild of the Indiana Jones franchise. With the much loved first and third parts bookending this, Temple of Doom is a film which pushes its family audience remit to the very limit, it’s famously the film which caused the creation of the PG-13 and was a key contributing factor to the emergence of the 12 certificate for the BBFC, and it’s also a film which its own director seems to be rather sheepish about.
“I wasn’t happy with Temple of Doom at all. It was too dark, too subterranean, and much too horrific. I thought it out-poltered Poltergeist. There’s not an ounce of my own personal feeling in Temple of Doom.” – Steven Spielberg, 1989
Indeed, it comes at an odd time in the ‘Berg’s filmography, just before he started to make more “worthy” films and after the troubled Twilight Zone: The Movie on which he directed a segment, this sees the man dabbling in the gruesome, but then Raiders of the Lost Ark ended with melting Nazi faces and less than a decade later he’d have dinosaurs horrifically killing a great many people in Jurassic Park. Looking at it from today, I think it would be a hard-hearted person who’d truly look at Temple of Doom and call it a mistake, despite its faults.
The filmmakers mark their cards very early on in the opening credits no less, as we are treated to a performance of “Anything Goes” a song which in title alone manages to justify much of what was intended with this film. While Raiders of the Lost Ark is a pure romp filled with daring-do and a dashing but certainly not superhuman hero, here we have a film which ranges from broad comedy to insanely dark, probably upsetting for wide audiences imagery of people being sacrificed brutally and children being slapped around and whipped.
The film is also not helped by the presence of the character of Willie Scott. After Karen Allen’s plucky, gives as good as she gets Marion Ravenwood in Raiders, you’d hope for better than a preening, screaming and rather arrogant character we have here. Her constant bellyaching is something obviously intended, and for the role written Kate Capshaw does a perfectly decent job but this is a character who it’s hard to ever really get on-board with. When Indy has better chemistry with a hot Nazi in the next installment, you know you’re not in for a good time here.
Despite all of this though, the film remains defiantly an Indiana Jones adventure and there is a lot to enjoy with that. Harrison Ford fits the role like a glove by now and manages to capture the charming but faintly nerdy character in a way only he could at the time. Adding to the enjoyment is the presence of the now classic character Short-Round, Ke Huy Quan’s excitable little scamp who manages to not once be annoying but instead form a lovely bond with Indy which gives us more emotional engagement towards the end than Willie Scott could ever manage. His intended purpose is obvious, giving a character kids can relate to, but unlike a character like Jar Jar Binks, it doesn’t feel like the filmmakers are talking down to the audience, instead Short-Round helps out Indy more than Indy helps him creating a character who sticks in the memory for the right reasons.
Spielberg’s faultless production values and action filmmaking also work at full speed here. With the confidence given after Raiders, this manages to have larger set-pieces and a greater sense of spectacle adding to the surreal atmosphere of entering a world the audience shouldn’t be in showing us exotic places with a dark underbelly but also being incredibly fun with the minecart sequence towards the end being an absolute thrill with solid blue-screen work and a constantly increasing level of tension making for a climax which will still engage an audience member of any age.
Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom is a little bit of an oddity, with Raiders and The Last Crusade feeling like they fit together, this does feel a tad out of place but it’s still a brave attempt at pushing family filmmaking which certainly doesn’t get everything right but manages to leave a huge smile on the face nonetheless.