Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Paramount, 1984

“I’m allowing you to tag along, so why don’t you give your mouth a rest?”

—Harrison Ford to Kate Capshaw

To say that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a disappointing follow up to a modern classic would be grotesque understatement. It is quite simply, the worst film of Steven Spielberg’s ever ascending career. The most unfortunate thing is that it isn’t a case of poor direction, just that the content is frightfully ill-considered and thought out. There was an almost Zen-like elegance to Raiders of the Lost Ark that kept the picture moving at the breakneck pace of the old serial adventures. But Temple of Doom makes the mistake of confusing efficiency, pacing, and variety with a never-ending series of progressively sillier set pieces which reduce the story to parody.

Temple of Doom begins on a high note that it never manages to recapture, with a charming Busby Berkeley-esque nightclub sequence in which leading lady Kate Capshaw performs Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” in Mandarin. The song’s conclusion introduces our intrepid hero, impeccably clad in a white tuxedo jacket, looking as if he strode right out of The Thin Man. As the song says, “Anything Goes,” and unfortunately, that philosophy spells the end of the movie’s connection with its illustrious predecessor. Spielberg and Lucas don’t seem to have the slightest idea what to do with their character. This is not the same awkward intellectual who was flustered to distraction by a girl writing “I Love You” on her eyelids. This isn’t an academic dedicated to tracking down and preserving the past he so dearly loves. This is James Bond in the ’30’s: dashing, daring, irresistible, indestructible.

The set piece mentality of the action sequences begins poorly and only grows worse, as if their only point is to allow John Williams to include the distinctive Raiders theme yet again. In a sequence that Spielberg apparently dreamed up for inclusion in Raiders – which Lawrence Kasdan either wisely deleted, or simply couldn’t fit in – Indy and company escape from a crashing plane by jumping onto a life raft and inflating it on the way to the ground. The raft lands them on the side of a snowy mountain, whereupon they go over an impossibly high cliff, wind up in a raging river, then there’s a waterfall, etc., etc., etc. It’s totally absurd. And terribly disappointing to anyone who loved the ragged-edge-of-plausibility that kept Raiders so compelling.

There is a darkness to the tale that may also be off-putting to some audiences. The meat of the story involves the Thuggee deathcult, human sacrifice, child slave labor and other charming twists and turns. In and of itself, the subject matter could be handled in a palatable manner, but Spielberg seems to revel in the “gross out humor” potential, so he continually pushes the issue to the forefront. By the end, you’re left with the feeling that he’s trying to remake Animal House as a serious adventure.

While the bleakness, misdirected humor, and pointless stunts might be excusable, but it’s the casting that completely undoes Temple of Doom. Perhaps the best choice in Raiders was the strong pairing of Karen Allen with Harrison Ford. It was easy to identify with Marion Ravenwood, and the things that attracted Indy, also captured the hearts of the audience: she was smart, tough, and independent. She recalled the best of the no-nonsense leading ladies of Hollywood’s Golden Age. But if Karen Allen was Barbara Stanwyck, newcomer Kate Capshaw is more like an inept version of Lucille Ball – which says quite a bit for those who remember her chronic bumbling on I Love Lucy. Ms Capshaw is given nothing more to do than act like an idiot and scream. It’s instantaneously grating, and manages to persist like an irritation in your psyche until long after the closing credits have rolled. It’s utterly inconceivable that that the same Indiana Jones who wooed and pursued Karen Allen would do anything other than strangle this shrill, ignorant excuse for a caricature.

Apparently, the writers were going for a kind of ’30’s ditz, and there are a number of elements in Temple of Doom that make it seem as if they were making a screwball comedy – lots of screaming and doors slamming and people running from room to room. If that were truly the goal, Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday would have been a good model: someone who could match Indy’s yearn for adventure with a go-to attitude, wit, and aplomb.

Much as you’d desperately like to blame the failings of the film on Ms Capshaw – she being the most conspicuously visible irritant – but that wouldn’t really be fair and equitable since she’s merely a performer (and hardly the star of the picture). Someone thought this character was a good idea. Multiple someones, actually. Three of them inflicted More American Graffiti upon us, and the last was responsible for 1941. Hopefully, this doesn’t indicate a trend.