Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Raiders of the Lost Ark was one of the biggest hits of 1981 and it made it clear that both George Lucas and Harrison Ford had careers outside of the Star Wars series. That had in fact come to an end in 1983 with The Return of the Jedi, and at the time it looked like that was going to be the last time Han Solo was going to make an appearance anywhere. With that behind both Lucas and Ford it was time to revisit Indiana Jones.
Raiders of the Lost Ark had been a fun romp for the whole family with a few shocking scenes but nothing that caused parents' groups to get their hackles up. Unfortunately, by the time the second Indy movie came out, those hackles had been raised by Poltergeist. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, along with Gremlins, would be the straws that broke the camel's back. Christians had drummed up an entire fake Satanic Panic a few years before, the Parents' Music Resource Center was in full swing and groups of "concerned parents" began demanding that everything be censored.
Unfortunately, the controversy over the banquet scene and the scene where Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) pulls out a supplicant's heart overshadowed the movie at the time. It was one of the things that led to the creation of the PG-13 rating, which these days means the movie is bound to be tamer than the movies that inspired the rating ever were. All the controversy, including the movie being used as a stepping stone for the MPAA to move from being a resource to a censorship board, overshadowed a sad fact: The Temple of Doom was simply a major disappointment to those who had enjoyed Raiders of the Lost Ark.
After escaping from a gangster (Roy Chiao) in Shanghai, Indiana Jones (Ford) and his sidekick Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) acquire the gangster's showgirl Willie (Kate Capshaw). Barely surviving a plane crash in the Himalayas they find themselves in an Indian village where they hear a strange tale: the Maharajah of Pankot Palace has kidnaped their children and stolen a sacred stone that protected the village.
Indy soon realizes the rock is one of five mythical stones associated with the god Shiva that provides protection against the forces of evil. It turns out that Pankot Palace was once the center the Thuggee cult, and that Mola Ram is the true power there, using the children to mine gems while searching for the remaining stones and terrorizing the local villages. Originally interested in the profit the stones would bring when selling them to a museum Professor Jones soon finds himself battling magical forces and trying to save his friends from a violent death.
Surprisingly, despite my irritation when little children are given prominent roles in movies that don't involve repelling burglars or seeing dead people, Short Round is not as annoying as I remember. In fact, he is a fun character, and from what I understand in canon at some point between this movie (which occurs in 1935, while Raiders takes place in 1936) and the next two parts Short Round himself becomes an adventurer like Indy. He's resourceful and quite fun, looking up to Jones as the father figure he never had and often imitating him. He does as much rescuing as Indy does and is always there to assist. If anything has changed in my view of this film, which I have never been that fond of, it is this character. Ke Huy Quan is great, and it's a shame his part in the fourth movie never materialized.
Unfortunately, Willie has just grown more irritating over time. It was a shrill, annoying performance in 1984, and the generic portrayal of a blonde gold digger who frequently just gets in the guys' way has not improved with age. This was a character that was criticized as being a sexist stereotype by contemporary critics and there is really nothing redeeming in her. I can't see why Indy falls for her except that Lucas may have been trying to give him more of a James Bond appeal. If anything, screenwriters William Huyck and Gloria Katz didn't do enough to reign in some of Lucas's worst ideas, exacerbated by the fact he was going through a divorce. Kate Capshaw, who plays the role, can't even stand her own performance.
It also surprises me that a movie from 1984 reveled so much in colonial attitudes toward India. There are mentions of the tensions between an India beginning to demand its freedom and the fading Britsh Empire mentioned in places, and it is part of the reason for the return of the Thuggees However, the attitudes toward India, especially since part of the resolution of the film involves British-led Indian forces, is purely stuck in the time in which the movie takes place. Normally I would say that isn't a problem, and I often get upset when modern views are inserted into films that are supposed to be taking place in a different time, but I can quite understand why this movie remains banned in India to this day. For them the denouement of this film probably isn't too far off from how most Americans view the last act of a The Birth of a Nation.
It is a shame that this movie was saddled with so much baggage as, when it comes to being a straight adventure film, it is more successful than any other in the series. The minecart chase is great, the scene with a cave full of insects genuinely creepy and the opening scene in Shanghai filled with humor and tension. Mola Ram is a great villain and, after all the spirits coming out of whatever dimension portal exists in the Ark of the Covenant, there is no attempt to hold back on the magical and fantasy parts of the story. While Steven Spielberg doesn't like this film because of its dark tone, I think that is one of the things it has going for it. Unfortunately a good deal of it was problematic in 1984 and time has not done the movie any favors. As anxious as Spielberg and Lucas are to jump on every hip progressive trend these days one would think they would have known better when making Temple of Doom.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Time: 118 minutes
Starring: Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw, Ke Huy Quan, Amrish Puri
Director: Steven Spielberg