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Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Retro Review: Fortune and Gory, Kid

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BY March 28, 2020
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Before we get into my Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom review, let’s talk about another movie. I had a kind of weird déjà vu the first time I watched The Night of the Hunter. Although Charles Laughton never became a household name, his only directorial effort was hugely influential. So much so, that when I watched the movie and felt that sense of been-there/done-that, it took a moment to realize it was because so many films (and TV shows) borrowed from it.

That’s the same sensation I’ve had while watching the first two Indiana Jones films. In this one, I felt it when Harrison Ford said the line I’ve spoofed in my title: “Fortune and glory, kid.” I knew I’d heard it somewhere before. And when I figured out the source was Død snø, the Nazi zombie movie, that made a lot of sense. But that’s not the only thing these movies have in common. (It’s blood. And lots of it.)

(And if you missed my Raiders of the Lost Ark review, you might want to start there.)

First Things First: I Know Nothing

Temple of Doom review image via Lucasfilm/Paramount

Even though this film franchise was (and is) a cultural juggernaut, I’ve still tried to go into it as blindly as possible. To that end, I didn’t even know that this movie was not a sequel. It is, in fact, a prequel. There’s some good news! Because if there’s one thing George Lucas is known for, it’s his association with high-quality prequels. (Lord, bring me closer to your light.)

Beginning this time in Shanghai at Club Obi-Wan–I sigh for like, 5 whole seconds and then look at the camera like I’m on The Office–this pre-sequel finds Jones wasting no time in his quest for trouble. Within literal minutes, he’s on the run with a child companion, Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan), and a nightclub singer, Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw). Their madcap dash to escape a crime boss ends up with them bailing out of an airplane–sure–somewhere in ruralish India.

They come upon a village where things have gone terribly wrong. Mysterious bad guys have not only stolen a sacred stone from the villagers, but also–and much worse–they’ve taken the village children. Once Indy and company arrive, these poor saps believe that Shiva sent them to help. Jones doesn’t care too much about philanthropy, though. He’s all about–say it with him–“fortune and glory, kid.” So he, Willie, and again, an actual child set off for Pankot Palace, wherein they find a temple of good vibes.

No, wait. I think I wrote that down wrong.

The (Indian) Elephant in the Room

Temple of Doom review image via Lucasfilm/Paramount

Before we go on to my honest-to-goodness Temple of Doom review, we gotta gather around the campfire and talk about something as a family. If you’re the kind of person who sincerely uses words like “snowflake,” though, then you should probably skip to the next safe section.

Like I said in my Raiders review, I didn’t care for the casual Orientalism. But the depiction of Egyptians and others in that film seems almost flattering when you compare it to Temple.

It kicks off from the very first scene, when Indy’s in that nightclub. They pack every east Asian stereotype possible into those opening minutes. “But Salome,” I can hear you saying, “those were just tropes of the original movie serials.”

Temple of Doom review

Mmm-hmm. True. And it’s also true that the depictions of Indian folks owes a lot to earlier movies, too–flicks like Gunga Din, for example, which I reference on an almost-weekly basis. But it doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.

And speaking of swallowing, that batshit dinner scene is fluorescently over the top. Look at how bizarre and gross these people are! They eat live snakes and bugs and of course, chilled monkey brains. Nevermind that none of this is true. It’s in the movie, so it got in people’s heads. As Professor Yvette Rosser wrote, “The wholly fictional depiction of India in the Steven Spielberg film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, seems to have been taken as a valid portrayal of India by many teachers, since a large number of students surveyed complained that teachers referred to the eating of monkey brains.” The depictions we see of people who are different than us make an impact, especially if we don’t see anything different.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: The Review

temple of doom review image via Lucasfilm/Paramount

Now. Like its predecessor/sequel Raiders, Temple of Doom is packed with action. From those opening scenes with a gunfight and a wild plane ride to the mining cart chase towards the end, there are some impressive set pieces. Unfortunately, the cream filling in between is less satisfying.

One of the biggest problems I had with the movie was the tone. Tonally, this movie is all over the place. The movie presents Willie and Short Round as comic relief, for example, especially in the hollerin’ scenes where Willie has to deal with imposing animals or creepy crawlies. In fact, it’s a little much–I’m surprised Kate Capshaw didn’t tear her diaphragm from screaming so much, just like Jennifer Lawrence on the set of mother!. “The trouble with her is the noise,” Indiana says, as she wails throughout yet another scene.

But then again, why wouldn’t she scream? Because the scenes that aren’t played for laughs are full-on horror shows. This is, after all, the movie that led to the invention of the PG-13 rating. That, of course, was after gobsmacked parents and their stunned children sat through the heart-removal scene. But the film is stacked with all manner of gore and ugliness, including torture and murder. Both Lucas and Spielberg have attributed the dark mood and outright meanness of the film to their mental states after their respective break-ups. Who’d they break up with, India?

Because basically, outside of the action scenes that book-end the movie, it’s not fun. In fact, between the tonal whiplash and the tedious story, the movie’s kind of a drag. And it turns out I’m not the only one who thinks so. It’s Spielberg’s least favorite of the franchise. And now it’s mine.

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Do you have thoughts on this review of Temple of Doom? Share them with us on social media or gently in the comments.

featured image via Lucasfilm/Paramount

MoviesIndiana JonesIndiana Jones and the Temple of DoommoviesRetro Review

Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.

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