Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom ★★★★★

One of the main things that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is often criticized for is that unlike its acclaimed predecessor, its tone is much darker and more bleak and more violent – it is, in that aspect, the Ugly Stepchild of the Indiana Jones franchise as we’d never see Spielberg and Lucas reach that low for Indiana Jones. Upon reading more about the film, I am immediately amazed at the reasoning behind the tonal switch: both Spielberg and Lucas, two peas in a pod filmmakers who were (and still are) titans of American cinema, were enduring their own divorces and separations from their first wives, creating an angry and melancholic persona within each other that saw it culminate with the second Indy film. This is as much as a reflection of their own personal pain as it is a reflection of how they viewed their own lives – a bleak and hopeless and mean existence – that we’d really never see the filmmakers tap into again. For that reason alone, it’s one of the most personal films from Spielberg – even if he hates it (and how could he not: this is a visual reminder of his own pain during his divorce, himself a child of it).

With this in mind, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is perhaps the craziest, most insane film Spielberg has ever made – this may be one of the craziest films ever conceived. The opening musical number sees Spielberg capture future wife Willie Scott sing “Anything Goes” to a crowd in her nightclub in Shanghai as Indiana Jones eyes her and the Chinese gangsters she associates with. The song is a catchy number, but there lies a deeper reason for its existence: Spielberg uses this opener to remind us that this is hardly the Indiana Jones we know – a prequel, no less! –and that comparing the two will be incredibly pointless: the first one lays down the foundation in which we’ve now grown accustomed with Indiana Jones and this one takes the limitations and breaks the stratosphere. Instead of seeing Jones explore different countries and encounter different characters, he’s trapped in India; in which the most problematic part of the film (that I cannot die) is in its surface level perceptions of the country – what I like about the one location is that Spielberg forces Jones to rely on himself and adapting to the unfamiliar, rather than having him hop aboard a plane and flying away.

In many ways, though, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is not about its surface level journey but the one that lies in its subtext – in this little Spielberg binge I've been on recently, I'd like to make the claim that he’s one of the best at this. The pain in Spielberg and Lucas’ vision for Indiana Jones is pure Hell: the set-pieces and colors and haunting score all allude to the despair that they felt culminating in the underground temple in which the floor literally splits open to Hell and the reds and oranges dance on the walls and the chants of people grow louder – images that would even terrify a 24-year old adult (hypothetically, of course...). In experiencing the film as a whole, however, it grows more evident that this is Spielberg’s first mature film and in realizing that, we’re witnessing him reconcile with the fading image of his own childhood as his own divorce clashes; the gross foods, the exciting adventure, the romance –there is a playfulness in this work that remains unparalleled to his more acclaimed work, almost as though Spielberg, with his divorce, used this film as his last naïve “hurrah” of sorts.

This becomes obvious in studying the Indiana Jones we see in this film – note how this is a prequel, not a sequel – and how much he’s grown as a person from this to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Jones, like Spielberg, is incredibly naïve and, at times, incredibly cocky in this film: he is that character Spielberg clings onto, the one that he uses to experience the harshness of realities – the children slave labor, the visceral violence, the betrayals, the paternal energy he gives to his sidekick – as he realizes that his smile won’t save him from situations and that contrast with his “fortune and glory” goal. As Indiana Jones progresses in this film from a mean spirited and selfish individual to the character we know and admire in the first one, we’re supposed to realize that Jones’s perception of the world is hardly formed, that this adventure he went on shaped how he viewed the world and that through this, he grew to understand how the world worked: he made an impact and saved the day, but he also realized things about himself that couldn’t remain solid. Spielberg realizes that in his life, too. As much as the film is mean spirited, it’s meant to be: its initial alienating views of the world gradually reveals a truth in which it indicates change, acceptance, and growth. All in this crazy ass movie.

Not only is this the best Indiana Jones film, I'd make the case for this being one of the best films out there – as a child, this was one of the most important movies in my life; as an adult, it remains one of them. “Anything Goes.”

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