Friday, June 20, 2014

FlashBack Friday: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

It's FlashBack Friday again! Last weekend was busy with sports events and family get-togethers, so I had to skip a week on sharing my reflections of my childhood favorite films. Though I adore this series as a whole, I knew there was going to be at least one bump in the road (and possibly two) as I continued on with the Indiana Jones movies. If you've read my gushing review of Raiders of the Lost Ark, then you know I absolutely love this franchise and its lead character. What you probably wouldn't be able to guess, however, is that this was actually my first time sitting through the entirety of the divisive second installment of the series, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I'd seen little bits and pieces as a kid, particularly the opening scene in Shanghai, but perhaps the general darkness (which I'll get into) of Indy's second adventure kept my parents from encouraging me to consume this one compared to the others.

The opening scene of the movie is fairly well-known, with Dr. Jones walking coolly into a fancy night club where the blonde bombshell Willie Scott is performing for a group of dangerous men (as we come to find out). Already my defenses are raised by this scene, however, as the opening number really overstays its welcome with a choreographed dance routine that apparently wasn't seen by any of the patrons. Though Indiana Jones's white tux is really cool, there's just something a little less exciting about the action in this intro. It's a bit less connected with reality, and it would only get more cartoonish as the film progressed. I could kind of get into the poisoning scene, but the Kate Capshaw hijinks make everything a little harder to swallow. She's hardly the worst thing about this movie, but I just don't understand why Steven Spielberg felt the need to infuse every action scene with nudge-you-in-the-ribs physical comedy that just doesn't jive with the rest of the material.

If I could cut one major thing out of this movie, though, it would have to be... you guessed it, Short Round. It seems like there was a string of films where Spielberg couldn't resist making annoying kids the co-stars of movies that would be much better without their inclusion. Also, the fact that this is a prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark only makes the Chinese orphan's absence in future films all the more confusing. Does he stay in India at the end of the film? Does he die on some later adventure that was never filmed? Introducing a child sidekick into the mix when we know that Indiana Jones works alone to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant the following year doesn't exactly bode well for little Shorty.

Apart from the constantly annoying presence of both Short Round and Willie, there are some fairly iconic moments in this film... if not always for the right reasons. Everyone remembers Temple of Doom for the disgusting dinner scene where Indy and co. are served monkey brains and where a giant python is sliced open and slimy black fish flop onto the table from the incision. The way I heard my friends talk about this scene as a kid totally gave me the impression that it was a much bigger part of the story. On the contrary, this and almost innumerable scenes like it are total non-sequiturs. Spielberg's over-reliance on gut-wrenching gags like this give me the distinct impression that he knew the script of this film was weak and he was trying to distract the audience from thinking about it.

This brings me to the plot of the film. Unlike Raiders, this film devotes about ten minutes of its running time to the actual storyline of Indy's struggles to retrieve a stone that will save a starving village from further subjugation and slavery. Everything else is a completely useless detour in order to push this into a reasonable length. I might go so far as to say that this premise seems less developed than the far more engaging "Temple of the Forbidden Eye" attraction at DisneyLand (though there are quite a few similarities). It's almost like Spielberg took an idea for an Indiana Jones short film and extended it to feature-length with a bunch of unnecessary action and gross-out moments.

Having said that, there are some things that are forever burned into the pop-culture that were introduced in this film: pulling a beating heart from a man's chest, eating monkey brains, riding on mine carts (you're welcome Donkey Kong Country), and mind-controlling blood. Some of the imagery is also well designed and executed on screen, but the problem is that none of this really feels like Indiana Jones to me. Perhaps that has to do with my lack of childhood familiarity with this particular installment, but I really think it comes down to the writing. Having just gone through a divorce, George Lucas was perhaps not in the right frame of mind to be telling an Indy story, as the extreme darkness in this movie clearly demonstrates. Had the screenwriter from the last film, Lawrence Kasdan, even done a script polish on this film, it could have been much closer to the original classic that was Raiders of the Lost Ark (Kasdan also wrote the amazing Empire Strikes Back, incidentally, as well as next year's Star Wars Episode VII).

In closing, I wasn't really impressed with Indy's second theatrical outing. The action scenes are ludicrous (skydiving out of an inflatable raft...), the plot is muddled, and the technical prowess just isn't there like it was before. The effects aren't as good as they have been, and even the sound mixing was unforgivably poor with many lines of dialogue not matching the lip movements of the actors saying them. But beyond all of that, perhaps the most damaging thing to this film is its lack of adventure and fun that made Raiders so great! It's dark, dour, and a little depressing at times, which is a far cry from the heroic character we've all come to know and love. One clear indication of its deviant tone is the almost criminal absence of Indy's famous theme music, which is a staple of any Indiana Jones adventure. Though there are a few subtle nods to the previous film (which make less sense given that its a prequel), the villains' motivations and the macguffin of the movie are severely lacking in depth or even general appeal. It's a very disappointing film for Indy fans, but I'm going to give it a generous two and a half stars for what it did do right.

INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM is rated PG (but probably could have been R)

**What do you think of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Am I too harsh on it, or do you want to drop this film into a crater of boiling lava?**