A review requested by Gabe, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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There is, in Shakespeare criticism, an inconsistently-applied and vaguely-defined term, "problem play", which basically means that nobody knows how to classify the play in question, or whatever the hell else we're to do with it. I think the phrase is sufficiently empty of meaning that I can abuse it so as to say that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is similarly a "problem movie" in the career of Steven Spielberg. Though the problems are of a rather more manifest sort in this particular case.

You probably know, because you care enough about movies to be reading a site dedicated to reviewing them, that in 1981, George "Star Wars" Lucas and Steven "Jaws" Spielberg combined forces to make Raiders of the Lost Ark, produced and conceived by Lucas, directed by Spielberg. The result is, to some of us, the most perfect imaginable post-Star Wars popcorn blockbuster, a movie more or less literally devoid of flaws, with one of the tightest screenplays, most finely-honed editing, nifitiest set-pieces, charismatic star turns, and exhilarating scores in all the history of adventure cinema. It is my favorite film of Spielberg's very admirable career, and I would certainly consider calling it his best-made, which is a little ironic, because outside of The Lost World: Jurassic Park and maybe The Adventures of Tintin, I don't know if there's another Spielberg film where he's so clearly standing to the side, shepherding the material without putting a personalising spin on it (he has very consistently claimed that the Indiana Jones series was "George's thing", and that he was just there to get it made right.

It was also a massive hit, and it was the 1980s, and so that definitely meant it was getting a sequel. Objectively, there was only room to go down. Substantially far down, and as much as I enjoy the subsequent films in the series - yes, all three of them - even at their best, they're never more than "clearly not as good as Raiders, but fun remains to be had", and all of them have moments that are substantially worse than that. Granting all of that, Temple of Doom is a hell of a sequel - except it's actually a prequel, a choice made for no tremendously clear reason. Maybe it's to avoid the awkward question of why he's not in love with Karen Allen's character anymore; and there's also a thing where this film's version of Indiana Jones is rather more craven than that film's, but I will freely confess that despite growing up on these movies, I'd never really caught that Temple of Doom is set a year before Raiders until sometime in the 2000s.

So anyway, a hell of a prequel. It does not do very much of what Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull both, which is to re-run the parts audiences loved from the first film in the hope they will also love this film (despite being the only one of the sequels to literally re-run leftover concepts that were considered for Raiders but cut for time; I suspect it's no coincidence at all that they're the two best scenes in this movie). In fact, I suspect part of why those two sequels are such calculated Raiders clones is exactly because of just how far afield Temple of Doom takes things. But this is what gives it value, I think; it is probably the strangest of the Indiana Joneses, and in many ways the most broken of the Indiana Joneses, and without doubt the most tonally discordant of the Indiana Joneses, and for all these reasons it is the one that feels the most like its own thing.

"Anything goes!" proclaims the musical number that opens the film, and that's a mission statement that this will not be giving us the film we think we wanted. For one thing, it opens with a musical number. And this is key to a lot of other stuff going on, but I'll return to that. I was speaking of the film we think we wanted, which isn't Temple of Doom; it's also enormously fucking obvious that it wasn't the film Steven Spielberg wanted, either. With The Lost World, we see a director who was openly bored with his project, but with Temple of Doom, we see a director was openly appalled by it. The film was in pre-production and production when Lucas was going through a very acrimonious divorce from his wife Marcia (who as editor was, among her other achievements, one of the two people most responsible for turning Star Wars into a comprehensible film object. John Williams was the other), and it's usually suggested that his misery, depression, and rage all filtered into the story he handed over to his sidekicks, married screenwriters Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz. I have no clue if that's true and I don't suppose I actually care, but there's no doubt that some kind of unhealthy darkness fueled the story - Temple of Doom is a sour movie, and it's only made more sour by Spielberg's tangible distaste for the entire fourth act (it is a five-act story; maybe even a six-act story, but I'd need to work it out with a pencil and paper before I committed to that).

The film that emerges from this isn't necessarily good, always - in fact, it is frequently rather bad - but there's a nervous energy underneath all of it that remains kind of gripping. And the best parts are right up there with anything else Spielberg ever directed in this popcorn movie mode. By this, I primarily mean the opening and closing of the film, and... my, have I really not said one word about the plot? Do I need to? It's an Indiana Jones picture. Okay, so this is the one where adventurer-archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) gets into a scrape in 1935 Shanghai, and escapes with his plucky kid sidekick Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan) and resentful nightclub singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw, the director's future wife). They crash land in India, and go on an a quest to find a sacred stone, a Śiva linga stolen from a poor village by the menacing soldiers of the nearby Pankot Palace. Here, they uncover the existence of a fringe cult worshiping a perverted, destructive aspect of the goddess Kali. Alright, whatever, here's that five-act structure:

Act 1: Shanghai
Act 2: The raft scene, the village, trip to Pankot (last of these maybe goes into Act 3)
Act 3: Shenanigans at Pankot
Act 4: In the catacombs, the Temple of Doom, the child slaves (when I say "maybe even a six-act structure", this is the act that I think you might be able to subdivide)
Act 5: The mine cart, the bridge, victory

So here's my first assumption: Spielberg hated Act 4. In particular, he hated every last single thing related to the child slaves and the mind-controlled Indiana, who attacks both Willie and Short Round in his daze. There's a distinct, peculiar flatness to the way this is all staged and framed, with the director's customary gawking camera suddenly losing all of its particularity. You can absolutely feel it being gotten through, with everything suddenly turning all loose and slipshod - the lighting, in particular, suddenly loses all of its character in this sequence, which I think says less about cinematographer Douglas Slocombe and his gaffing team, than to the film's evident discomfort with spending any more time on this material than necessary. I'm almost tempted to offer up a theory that this was intentional in one very narrow way: during this sequence, the film suddenly starts looking very artificial, with obvious sets rather than effectively illusory locations (the lighting is a huge reason why). The film's biggest single aesthetic strategy throughout is to evoke the filmmaking techniques of the 1930s - hang on, we'll get there in a second - and I wonder if this was maybe Spielberg of somebody else's deliberate intent here: maybe, if it at least looked fake in the way '30s movies did, at least it would somehow be recuperated as a fun thing to watch, given how enormously anti-fun all the content is.

I don't know, but there's something shocking and delicious about watching this unusually rare example of a big-budget popcorn film that is so clearly at war with itself. Nowadays, such a thing would be all but inconceivable: too many cooks, many of them executives. Even in the '80s, when the Blockbuster Age was young, there was some clear notion of quality control for the biggest tentpoles (this was also when tentpoles came out a few times a year, not a few times a month). But with Temple of Doom, we just had good buddies Steven and George working together without anyone else telling them what to do, and here is the only time that Steven and George were obviously not on the same page. It feels bizarrely transgressive.

Anyway, I concede that "this film is broken, and thus fascinating!" is hardly enough to justify an enthusiastic review, so on to the good parts: Temple of Doom is, in its own right, one of the greatest adventure movies of an excellent era for adventure movies. Because if Act 4 finds the film sort of disconsolately limping along, Acts 1, 2, and 5 find it soaring. The film boasts three outstanding setpieces: a physically impossible escape from a crashing plane on an inflatable raft that turns into the world's most exciting tobogganning scene; the mine cart roller coaster; and the showdown on a bridge. The first two were leftover ideas from Raiders that could never be fit in, and they showcase all the brio and gung-ho giddiness of that film's production, though the mine cart sequence, for all its audacity and visual kineticism, suffers from some dated compositing. The bridge scene is actually the one that's most interesting to me, because it's the least self-evident why it works. It's a ruthlessly well-edited sequence, for starters, with Michael Kahn pivoting between establishing shots to clearly lay out the geography of the sequence and close-ups to showcase the tension on the characters's faces, with every cut serving as a little reminder of the encroaching danger (it is one of the most overtly Kurosawa-like scenes in the career of either Spielberg or Lucas, both avowed Kurosawa acolytes). John Williams's music is another great strength, suggesting a ticking countdown without actually being so crass as to provide one (the score here is strong throughout; nothing as good as Raiders or the Star Wars trilogy, but I'm particularly fond of the theme he associates with Short Round, a cheerful little chiming melody that glances towards an idea of Chinese-ness without ever dropping into Orientalist cliché). It's a suspense setpiece rather than an action scene, which is a little against-type for this series, but handled masterfully, carefully exploiting the weird geography of the setting (a narrow rope bridge can only allow for three angles, really, and all are used well) to exaggerate the inherent sense of danger.

The other thing that's great, and the place where I think the movie is the most lively, is the whole opening scene in Shanghai. Spielberg has openly wished his entire career to make a musical, and as of 2018, the "Anything Goes" number is the closest he's ever come. It's clear from every aspect of the choreography, the cutting, and the theatrical impossibility of what happens once the camera follows Willie inside a gaudy dragon's mouth that the filmmakers were careful, attentive students of 1930s cinema: other than the anamorphic widescreen frame and the color, there's not one thing here that would have seemed at all out of place in any of the many "Busby Berkeley but less so" musicals being cranked out in that decade by Warners and RKO (but really all the studios besides MGM, which was doing its own thing in the genre). And once you've been primed to notice that, it becomes suddenly impossible to ignore how very much of the subsequent scene also feels like it's drawing from the norms of 1930s B-filmmaking rather than 1980s blockbuster filmmaking. Only it's '30s filmmaking with a giant budget.

"Revive the spirit of '30s serials" was, of course, the operating principle behind the entire Indiana Jones franchise, but I don't the series ever got closer to that than in this film. I mean, hell, that five/six-act structure makes much more sense when you think about breaking the film into individual 10-15 minute chunks to be screened once every Saturday morning. So, unhappily, does the cavalier racism, oddly prominent even by 1980s standards, tied as it is to a flagrantly pro-colonialism view of history. So, most importantly, does the very much maligned figure of Willie Scott, who is usually accused of being hellishly annoying - and she is. But she's also a stock character from '30s genre fiction, and Capshaw's apparently unhinged, screeching performance is a pretty excellent stab at what a mid-level blonde contract player at RKO, given little advice other than "be Fay Wray", might have done with the role.

Does any of this make the film good? Maybe not. But it does make it interesting - the most interesting popcorn movie of the 1980s, as far as I'm concerned, even more interesting than Raiders itself, which has to make do with merely being flawless. Combine this interest with the sequences that are really, truly stellar examples of adventure filmmaking, the effectively forboding atmosphere in the sets and lighting, the wonderful score, and Ford's perfectly smarmy self-regard as a more openly mercenery Indy than we saw before, and you have a pretty fucking great movie that is augmented, rather than damaged, by its lapses, breaks, and mistakes. It's a movie that's much more engaging than its at-times dubious reputation allows for, and - here it comes - it's comfortably my second-favorite Indiana Jones film.

Except for that gross-out dinner party scene. That shit's just plain awful.

Reviews in this series
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Spielberg, 1984)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Spielberg, 2008)

Not yet reviewed
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Spielberg, 1989)