Thursday, 28 February 2013

OVERRATED: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

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Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (USA, 1984)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw, Jonathan Ke Quan, Amrish Puri

There's a great myth in film-making that stories with dark tones or subject matter are inherently more interesting than stories which are more light-hearted in premise or execution. People who've been following my reviews for some time might conclude that I agree with this sentiment, generally gravitating towards and heaping praise upon dark films like Killing Them Softly, Chinatown and We Need To Talk About Kevin.

But in the end, dark storylines are like any other aspect of film-making: they are brilliant and effective when they are done right. Darkness has to be justified every bit as much as silliness, and just being or going dark for its own sake can often make a film feel desperate and misjudged rather than impressive or deep. When it comes to action films there is no better example than Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which pales in comparison to Raiders of the Lost Ark and still has its problems after nearly 30 years.
In hindsight it's not hard to see why Lucas and Spielberg decided to go dark with Temple of Doom. Like Star Wars before it, Raiders was a far greater success than anyone could have imagined, reviving Spielberg's career and leaving an indelible mark on popular culture. Any sequel (or prequel) would have a hard act to follow, needing to raise the stakes and deepen the characters in order to justify itself. Lucas and Spielberg knew that they couldn't just repeat the formula of Raiders, with the former outright rejecting any more stories about Nazis (for the time being).
In making Temple of Doom, Lucas and Spielberg tried to follow the template of The Empire Strikes Back, with more time being devoted to character interaction and much less of an overall quest. As with Empire, Lucas' involvement was confined to the story and production aspects, and so you cannot entirely blame Temple of Doom's failures on his creative input. The bigger problem is that the second instalments of each series serve very different purposes, responding to and addressing different aspects of their predecessors.
It made sense for Empire to be darker and slower because we needed something to believe that Luke, Han and Leia were more than just walking archetypes. We needed to believe that the Empire were not just a monster-of-the-week bad guy, who could be defeated by just blowing up the newest Death Star. The film succeeded because it gave us these things, adding bigger stakes while keeping the experience enjoyable. Indiana Jones, on the other hand, is a franchise whose appeal comes from the thrill of the chase, going through different locations discovering clues and getting into scrapes. It is possible to do character development, but it mustn't interfere with the pacing to such an extent that we start unpicking the plot.
This is where Temple of Doom comes unstuck, spending far too long setting things up and ultimately not delivering on the thrills until the last half hour. When Lucas and Spielberg saw the first cut, they both felt the film was too fast - something they rectified by letting certain scenes play out for longer, giving the story time to breathe. Without having seen the original cut, it's hard to know how much better it would have been, but as things stand the film is paced very inconsistently. The opening section feels baggy, the middle is just about right and the ending is a breathless roller-coaster that almost wears us out.
The opening of the film immediately sends alarm bells ringing, starting not with an action-packed quest or thrilling chase, but a musical number. As a director Spielberg can do many things; big musical set-pieces is not one of them. The whole opening is intended as a tribute to Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s, but all it does is bring back horrible memories of the jitterbugging scenes in 1941. It's a lot more coherent and has better choreography, but it still feels forced, as though Spielberg wasn't really sure what he was doing.
In terms of its characterisation, Temple of Doom is more rooted in the conventions of the fantasy genre. Short Round acts as Sancho Panza to Indiana's Don Quixote, following him everywhere out of chivalry and devotion, and often being bemused by the choices that he makes. But while Short Round is tolerable, Willie Scott is perhaps the single most annoying character in the history of the series. She is the damsel in distress turned up to eleven, spending the whole film either screaming, moping, preening or being rescued. Spielberg was quoted as saying that his subsequent marriage to Kate Capshaw is his only means of justifying the film (bear in mind: snakes, eyeballs and bugs won't always work on first dates).
The central problem with Temple of Doom is simple: it doesn't always feel like an Indiana Jones film. While you can understand Lucas and Spielberg not wanting to do a straight-up rehash of Raiders, they go so far against the grain that they lose sight of what made Raiders work so well. All the moments that are set up as funny are either inherently not funny or are executed in a slapdash manner. We do get some good humour, such as the bedroom scenes, but the food scene is far too gross and creepy to be funny.
In my review of Raiders, I mentioned that if you stopped for any length of time, you could start to notice aspects of the plot which don't add up. This wasn't a big problem, for the reasons I laid out, but it becomes a problem with Temple of Doom because we are never so involved in the story that we can avoid noticing them. While Raiders' plot functioned like a well-oiled machine, Temple of Doom is like a ghost train; different elements are thrown at us in quick succession without much attempt at narrative cohesion.
Some of the shortcomings can be written off as continuity errors, such as the reappearance of Indy's whip. Others are excusable on the grounds of shock value: we have no idea how a man can have his heart torn out and still live, but the experience is so striking that we overlook it. But most of the time, the shortcomings are downright idiotic - for instance, Indy escaping from the trance by being burned, in a cult based on burning people to death. While the original was hardly 2001, this is very much a 'leave your brain at the door' action movie.
We now come on to the delicate issue of racism - specifically the accusation that Temple of Doom is racist in its depiction of India and Hindu culture. As with Raiders, the B-movie territory dictates that the depiction of religion and culture are plot devices rather than dramatic details. But while it's not meant to be taken seriously, there was an effort made with Raiders to make the mythology both consistent and referential enough to have dramatic impact. In other words, even if it wasn't accurate, it made enough sense within the story so you could read into it without being offended.
In this case, we're dealing with a mishmash of names and symbols from Hinduism, voodoo and other religions. In creating a fictional cult, Spielberg is stereotyping a series of cultures as one for the sake of having easy-to-recognise bad guys. It isn't racist per se, insofar as it doesn't depict all Indians as backward devil worshippers, but it does unfairly exploit recognisable elements of these cultures, for no good reason other than to differentiate our heroes. Had Lucas and Spielberg simply made up a culture, taking things further into the fantasy genre, it might not have been so problematic (or uncomfortable to talk about).
In spite of all its problems, there are certain things about Temple of Doom which do still hold up. While the darkness of the plot ultimately works against the characters, the film still looks really good. Douglas Slocombe's cinematography is great, using carefully placed smoke, red light and wide angles to such effect that you'd never know you were looking at a sound stage. The Kali temple feels like a Hammer film on steroids, and for all the inconsistencies surrounding the cult itself, Mola Ram is still a terrifying villain.
The film is also entertaining as a piece of action. In the second half the pacing does pick up and the set-pieces begin to flow one from another every bit as wittily as the truck chase in Raiders. While the film as a whole feels like a fairground ride, you couldn't have shot the mine sequences in any other order; they make perfect sense and build to a famous climax. Even when it starts blatantly repeating Raiders (the sword vs. gun joke), it's such a marked improvement on the first half that we let it slide. If Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was very by-the-numbers and then lost its way at the end, Temple of Doom spends its first half trying to find itself and eventually ends up on firm footing.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a heavily flawed film, which deserves its reputation as the weakest and most problematic of the original trilogy. It is of some value both visually and for the spectacle, and it does steadily improve in its second half. But there's so much wrong with it, both technically and thematically, that it doesn't quite make the grade compared to Raiders or Last Crusade. In the end it's as flawed and entertaining as Crystal Skull - it has its problems, but it will not be your doom. 

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For a more in-depth discussion of dark storytelling, check out JesuOtaku's review of Madoka Magica here, which includes a section on audience expectations of drama and tragedy.

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