Scene Dissections: What if Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Had Been Good?

Ten years ago this week, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Within a week, it would be in theaters everywhere, including the California AMC multiplex where my then-high school sweetheart watched in horror as her childhood icon was brought low.

Or so she told me. On the night of Crystal Skull’s US debut, I was busy working, but eager to hear her thoughts on the film, which my rather cretinous school film club had been running fan-trailers for on campus for the past year. The two of us were lifelong fans of the franchise– she cherished an original poster from Raiders of the Lost Ark, whilst my uncle, in a quintessentially avuncular act of recklessness, gave me a hat and bullwhip for my ninth birthday which my mother wouldn’t dare take away– so the adamance with which she begged me not to see the latest installment was shocking enough to keep me from ever doing so.

Popular culture for the most part has taken her side: despite receiving mostly positive reviews, seemingly meeting expectations through its mere existence, Crystal Skull immediately became “the bad one.” But then something happened that rarely occurs in fandom: people started to ask if it was the only bad one.

MV5BM2Y4ZTM5MmItZjdiMy00ZTI2LTg2MmItNDkwNTlmODBjMmU0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDYyNDkxNzQ@._V1_
The Gang Contemplates the Quality of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is set before the events of the first film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. After being double-crossed by a Shanghai crime boss, Indy (Harrison Ford) escapes a narrow assassination attempt with his street urchin sidekick Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan) and tagalong club singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw). Finding themselves lost in India, the group take refuge with an impoverished village whose sacred stones– and their children– have been stolen and abused by the Thuggee Cult.

In 2008, the most prominent criticism of Temple of Doom was specifically aimed toward its insensitive portrayal of Indian culture, specifically a dining scene in which Indy and company are offered live eels, monkey brains, and eyeball soup– to the point that the film was actually prevented from shooting in India itself. Surprisingly, these criticisms were taken pretty well– possibly because Indian food was far more common and better-known in the US by then, but also because there’s so much else to dislike.

Think about the Indian problem and your mind starts to pull at a thread that winds through every aspect of the movie. Back in 1984, critics from Richard Corliss to Gene Siskel decried the contradictory efforts of the picture to appeal more to kids whilst also depressing with a lavish depiction of child slavery. In Short Round and Willie, we are gifted with the two most obnoxious characters in a Lucasfilm production until Jar-Jar Binks. I personally am put off by the treatment of Indiana’s characterization: first, that the film is set as a prequel purely to recycle (and thus make redundant) his character arc in Raiders, the heart and soul of that film; second, that he is dragged helplessly into this adventure rather than having any agency in the matter.

Temple of Doom is overloaded with– and defined by– bold creative choices. Not all of them are bad, but there are so many that the bad ones begin to color the entire venture, making everything seem ill-conceived, and nowhere is this more clear than in the movie’s introductory sequence.

Opening the sequel to a rough-and-tumble action-adventure film with an elaborate Busby Berkeley homage might play with the audience’s expectations, but it’s equally in keeping with the spirit of Raiders. First, we have a conscious throwback to 1930s cinema, and then the actual plot kicks in.

Despite its recollections of ancient adventure serials, Indiana Jones’ most obvious influence is James Bond: handsome, knows how to fight, always dresses the part, always gets the job done, and the ladies can’t resist him. Like most Bond films, each Indy movie begins with our hero finishing up a previous, unseen mission; two of them even follow this up by briefing Indy on his newest quest, recalling 007’s interactions with M.

Temple of Doom lacks any such briefing scene, but the parallels to Bond are clearer in this opening sequence than at any point in the saga: Indiana, looking as swanky as he ever will in a white suit, has arrived at a Shanghai Jazz club to sell the long-lost remains of the first Qing Emperor, Nurhaci. But he’s double-crossed: his drink has been poisoned, and as a brawl breaks out, his undercover confidant Wu Han, disguised as a waiter, is killed in the crossfire.

To many of this scene’s detractors, the death of Wu Han is a strange, ultimately pointless attempt at pathos, but it’s much more. The same summer as this film’s release, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai debuted, eventually rising to cult status on the strength of its central conceit: that it was just one part of an ongoing blockbuster franchise that didn’t actually exist, referencing and calling back to previous films that were never made and will never be seen. It’s exactly the type of camp that George Lucas was once able to tap into so deftly, and fails here only because the rest of the movie fails to live up to it.

So why does this scene feel so weird? Perhaps because it’s trying to be a completely different type of sequel than Temple of Doom ends up being. Most of the movie takes a similar approach to Aliens, taking the general concept of the original and transforming the genre around it to keep things fresh. But Indiana Jones isn’t horror, and on first viewing, the club scene promises the type of sequel this should have been, taking what worked about the first movie and expanding on the characters and world for a richer and deeper experience. To a detractor of the movie, Club Obi Wan might seem just as out of place as anything else onscreen, but maybe that’s it’s the only thing that actually builds on the original, a window into a vastly different and far better film than what we got.