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Thursday, September 4, 2014

In Defence of.... Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

It's been a long time since I've written, but many things have kept me occupied. Frankly, it was a discussion with a friend that made me realise that there are people out there who actually read what I have to say, so i decided to get back on the horse with a new sub-topic.

The purpose of In Defence of... is to take what I consider to be an unfairly maligned film/album/whatever, and make the case for why it's better than you think it is. when I get around to posting these, I will set up at least three reasons why, and will invite discussion in the comments section. So, without further ado:

In Defence of..... Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

I'm just going to come out and say it: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is my favourite of the Indiana Jones movies for multiple reasons. Don't get me wrong; I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, really like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and even found Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull enjoyable, but Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom holds a special place in my heart, even though Steven Spielberg himself has indicated he thought it was a mistake to go as dark as the film did. Make no mistake: Temple of Doom (which is the shorthand I will use from here on out) is dark. It's also a funny, goofy, over-the-top homage to the adventure serials that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg grew up watching on Saturday afternoons at the movies. This is not to say it falls into the category of "so-bad-it's-good"; far from it. Temple of Doom expertly weaves dialogue, stock characters and stereotypes into a story that hews far closer to those Saturday morning serials than Raiders of the Lost Ark did. Here's why.

World Building

Many sequels trade on the goodwill of the films that preceded them, and expand those films' universes without having to tread through all that exposition all over again. This was described by Jay Roach, director of the Austin Powers films as the first film setting the universe up while the second film allowed the characters to play in it. Prime examples include Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Empire Strikes Back, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and...... Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. 

Now, I know some of you will want to point out that Temple of Doom is a prequel, but hear me out: We got a LOT of exposition in Raiders of the Lost Ark that informs the characterisations and situations we see in Temple of Doom. Case in point: We know from the first film that while Indy is a teacher at a university, his true passion is for field research and collecting ancient artifacts. Many took exception to the choice of quest in the second film, but let's remember that the search for the Sankara stones and the discovery of the Thuggee cult being alive and well is not Indy's primary mission this time around; when we open the film, Indy is negotiating an exchange of the remains of Emperor Nurhachi for a diamond, showing that Indy can be a mercenary when he wants to be and his motives may not always have been as purely scientific as they appear in Raiders. When Indy does begin his quest for the Sankara stones, we see the change of heart begin that informs his character in Raiders. This is a great example of world building and character development.

Continuing with people's objection to the choice of quest in the film is the underlying suggestion that this objection is rooted in some mistaken belief that an archaeologist like Indy would be searching primarily for Judeo-Christian relics rather than pagan idols, relics of their worship, or other cultural relics. Believe it or not, this is a real objection that I have heard voiced, and displays a fundamental misunderstanding not only of the Indiana Jones world, but of archaeology generally. Let's go back to Raiders, shall we? At the beginning of the film, Indy is entering a Central American temple to retrieve........ an idol. When he is engaged to search for the Ark of the Covenant, it is at the behest of the Federal Government, and to prevent the Ark from falling into the hands of the Nazis, not some sort of "holy crusade". In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, all of the relics are Judeo-Christian, but that is a reflection of the backlash from Temple of Doom; a conscious decision to give the people what they want, and an error in judgment in my humble opinion. It quite literally turns the film into a "holy crusade". A quest for non-Judeo-Christian relics is also more in keeping with the spirit of the serials from which the Indiana Jones series draws its inspiration. These serials were populated with explorations of foreign lands filled with "savages" and strange relics, and screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz are well versed in this sort of thing. They clearly did their homework with the Thuggee, but also made it accessible to the audience. The end result is a richer onscreen experience.

Now, let's turn to Willie Scott. Many people have told me how much they hate this character and how shrill and whiny she is. Fair point, but if you want shrill, watch Ethel Merman in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, but I digress. Fans are going to compare Willie to Marion Ravenwood from the first film, who was a hard-drinking, tough as nails woman who could go toe to toe with Indy or any of the villains in the first film. However, if you were paying attention to the dialogue about the forbidden underage romance between Indy and Marion, it becomes clear that the choice of Willie as a damsel in distress was a conscious one to demonstrate that after the brutal breakdown of the Indy/Marion relationship, Indy found solace with shall we say, less "complicated" women [I know my feminist friends will have a field day with that one, but don't blame me; blame the screenwriters]. As well, by the end of the film, Willie has survived her "trial by fire" and becomes a stronger woman, even if she didn't want to undertake the journey. Contrast this with the wholesale changes to Marcus Brody and Sallah in Last Crusade, where they go from being quite sober characters in Raiders to being demoted to comic relief buffoons in Last Crusade. Brody is turned into a doddering, absent-minded professor, and Sallah is little more than a comic foil. 

Richer Dialogue

Hear me out on this one. Raiders is a well-written film, but the dialogue in Temple of Doom "snaps" like dialogue from a 40s film noir. It's witty, funny, well timed and sometimes gut-bustingly hilarious. The exchange between Willie and Indy which begins with the bowl of fruit is some of the best dialogue written in the 80s, and the actors handle the timing perfectly, including when the scene transforms into one of Indy's many fights for his life in the film. I laugh out loud every time I watch this scene, and I've watched it many times.

Let's be clear on one thing from the start: Raiders of the Lost Ark is no slouch in the dialogue department, but Temple of Doom is better. Huyck and Katz, being friends of George Lucas from their film school days, had worked closely with Lucas on another film with great dialogue: American Graffiti. They are students of hard boiled, rapid fire repartee. The dialogue in Temple of Doom has fantastic rhythm and content, while Raiders is simply solid as an action movie. When we got to Last Crusade, Jeffrey Boam's script was merely serviceable, with a few good zingers here and there. When your best lines involve a father and son bedding the same woman, the question of whether or not you've run out of ideas comes to the fore.

Gore

Temple of Doom has been immortalised as one of two films either produced or directed by Steven Spielberg that resulted in the creation of the PG-13 rating. The other was Gremlins, though Poltergeist also stretched the PG rating about as far as it could go at the time. Here, the blood and guts (especially guts) starts almost at the beginning, with the very violent opening set piece at the Club Obi Wan. People are shot, blood is spilled, and one character is impaled with a flaming sword. This continues into the very inventive dining scene (clearly meant as Swiftian satire; chilled monkey brains, anyone?) and beyond, with the sacrificial rituals being the part to which most people refer when commenting on how disgusting they think Temple of Doom is. It seems to me they forgot the substantial gore in Raiders: a man is impaled on hidden spears that spring out into a passageway, a man is chewed up by an airplane propeller, and people melt and explode in the final set piece of the film. By comparison, the gore in Temple of Doom is cartoonish and largely played strictly for the "gross-out" factor. It has no analogue in reality. Moving on to Last Crusade, the violence is almost tasteful and nearly bloodless, which is pretty much the antithesis of the Saturday morning serial. 

I'm not saying that an Indiana Jones film has to ape every element of a serial; rather, it needs to contain elements and expand on or extrapolate from them to make them relatable for modern audiences. In the case of Raiders and Temple of Doom, each film winds both paying homage and being a product of its time. Raiders is pure escape, something sorely needed during a time of recession. Temple of Doom winds up indirectly commenting on the excesses of the mid-1980s. By comparison, Last Crusade seems almost aimless. 

The last element here that sets Temple of Doom apart is menace, which I'm grouping in with gore because even though menace is not in and of itself gory, it helps to give certain elements of gore gravity. In Raiders, even though some of the gore might look ridiculous in isolation, in context, the menace makes it more effective. Temple of Doom does it even better, because the human sacrifice scenes, even though they are decidedly over the top, become frightening because of the context. In addition, the stakes seem higher because Indy and company seem to be in far greater danger. The effect of the loss of the Sankara stones on the village is devastating, and people seeking mere escapism suddenly realised that what was going on here had more depth. 

Conclusion

In short, Temple of Doom is a film in need of reappraisal, both as a prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and one of many underappreciated films of the 80s, notwithstanding its success at the box office. Because of its great dialogue, better developed characters and setting, and greater willingness to shock (though not without an underlying purpose), it is the one film in the Indiana Jones series to which I keep returning, because it doesn't feel like a rehashing of previous successes. It's a truer homage to the serials that inspired the Indiana Jones series than even Raiders of the Lost Ark. That makes it worth defending.