Welcome to Wednesday Rewatch, a SYFY WIRE series that challenges writers to rewatch a science fiction, fantasy, or otherwise genre-adjacent movie they've already seen and reevaluate in a new context.
This week we rewatch Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).
Steven Spielberg is, for two solid generations of people, a name synonymous with nostalgia. Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Jurassic Park are just a sampling of the movies Spielberg directed that made millions fall in love with the movies.
But 2018 marks a kind of turning point. Ready Player One, his adaptation of a book that is ostensibly about Spielbergian nostalgia, arrives at a time when people are starting to feel some emotional distance from the films that first made Spielberg famous.
It's been 25 years since the director known for capturing childhood wonder released Schindler's List and transitioned towards telling more adult stories. That means the 25-and-under crowd has less and less reason to feel nostalgia for Spielberg movies (though the real young ones may be partial to The BFG and Tintin).
With that in mind, this week we take a look at Spielberg's most famous franchise, Indiana Jones and, specifically, its second entry: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The movie arrived nearly a decade after the young wunderkind director smashed into the movie business with Jaws.
People had... really mixed feelings about Temple of Doom. So, since Ready Player One is, in some ways, the cinematic representation of mixed Spielberg feelings, we thought we'd return to the funky sophomore entry into the adventures of Indiana Jones and see how we feel about it.
It's impossible to pin down when I first saw Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I was four when it came out in 1984, but it found its way to television a few years later, at which point it was on TV constantly. For kid me, it was background radiation, a movie filled with memorized moments that I remember loving and hating that I loved.
Indiana Jones has a kid partner: Short Round, played by Jonathan Ke Quan, who I also knew as Data from The Goonies (I saw these movies in reverse release order). Since I was a kid (and I LOVED The Goonies), I liked Short Round, too. I also loved the mine cart sequence, specifically because it reminded me of all the Rube Golbergian elements from The Goonies. Did I mention, I really liked The Goonies when I was a kid? That's a rewatch for another day!
I also loved being grossed out, so I lived for the bug room sequence, the chilled monkey brains, and, of course, watching Mola Ram rip a still-beating heart out of a man's chest and then holding it aloft as it was magically set on fire.
Oh, and the glowing stones were neat, too.
Otherwise, I had a tendency to fall asleep to Temple of Doom, only to wake up for those specific sequences because they were loud and exciting.
It wasn't until my 20s that I really watched Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in full. I was not a fan at the time. I hated Willie, thought she was thoroughly unfeminist, and I also was keenly aware that Temple of Doom was not, uh... the most culturally sensitive film in history with, you know, all the Indian blood cults and such?
So, during that time, all I could really see were the films most noted flaws — that it's uneven, that it's racist, and that it's awfully dark in tone compared with the other Indiana Jones films.
Also, at that point I knew that Short Round existed to appeal to kids and, not being a kid, I resented the forced intention. Knowing that Short Round is only in Temple of Doom to please kids is a lot like knowing that the He-Man cartoon only existed to sell toys — it gives an already jaded person even more excuse to hate something.
To wit: for me, Temple of Doom felt like a movie where nostalgia went to die. It felt like a cash-in and a failed experiment best relegated to the same bin where Kingdom of the Crystal Skull goes, aka the garbage.
THE OFFICIAL REWATCH
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, just to get it out of the way, is super culturally insensitive and, no matter how much time passes, that flaw will always be extremely noticeable. If you write a narrative about Indian cults drinking blood and a nice white man saving the day, it's just not going to go over well. And, yes, Willie, the film's ingenue, screams A LOT.
Honestly, though, if you set aside those complaints, there's no shortage of things to love about Temple of Doom.
The opening "Anything Goes" dance number (which was actually the last scene to be shot) is incredible, albeit disconnected from the rest of the story. The dress Kate Capshaw (who plays Willie Scott) wears was made from vintage 1920s and '30s beads and the entire sequence, dripping with detail, is one of the coolest odes to Broadway musicals ever filmed.
And despite Short Round being the "kid" character, the truth is that Jonathan Ke Quan is really charismatic. Did you know he didn't even come in to audition for the role? Kuan's brother was the initial auditioner; Jonathan came to provide moral support. But he also was advising his brother what to do so much that the crew noticed him, brought in Spielberg and Harrison Ford, and quickly improvised a version of the "cheating at cards" sequence to see how Quan would do. He got the part over 6,000 other kids.
My biggest takeaway, though, is how great Kate Capshaw is as Willie, a character she admits is a bit of a dumb blonde stereotype. The backstory, in case you didn't know, is that Steven Spielberg met Kate Capshaw on the set of Temple of Doom, fell in love, and they got married. And I confess that learning how Kate, this goyish blonde, converted to Judaism and helped Steven reconnect with his own Jewishness after years of self-loathing, was really emotionally affecting.
But also, can I be honest with you? I just love Willie Scott now. I love Willie Scott more than any other partner that Indiana Jones has ever had. I love that she goes full tunnel vision when she sees a big diamond, I love that she reacts to the gross food and the giant insects exactly like I would, and I just think Kate Capshaw's comedic timing is great. Her reaction when Indy is about to cut the rope bridge at the end is just priceless.
Did you know Kate Capshaw was covered with over two thousands insects during the bug room sequence? As someone who is petrified of bugs -- that's commitment.
In a movie franchise full of people who act like a hot archaeology professor who tracks supernatural artifacts while getting shot at CONSTANTLY is perfectly normal, Willie Scott is the one person who acts like a normal human person. Is she a "dumb blonde"? I mean... a little? But she's dumb in all the ways I think most of us would be dumb when faced with an army of blood zombies worshipping stones, enslaved children, giant snakes, mean elephants, and shirtless Harrison Ford. Are you prepared for that? I'm not! Especially not circa 1984 shirtless Harrison Ford. That's a lot to take on. So, yeah. Willie Scott: RELATABLE.
Yes, the movie is very dark. This rewatch also reminded me how disjointed Temple of Doom is in comparison to the other Indiana Jones movies. Raiders of the Lost Ark is about Indy facing off against another archaeologist and preventing Nazis from getting the Ark of the Covenant. The Last Crusade is about Indy facing off against another archaeologist and preventing Nazis from getting the Holy Grail. Also his dad is there.
Temple of Doom is about Indiana Jones trying to steal a diamond, but then winding up with a mouthy lounge singer instead, crashing a plane, meeting a town whose rock (and kids) got stolen, and then trying to get back the rock and the kids but running into giant bugs, people who eat brains, and a dude who likes ripping out hearts along the way.
The truth is Nazis and well-known Judeo-Christian artifacts make for a much easier shorthand in western storytelling than racist claptrap about Indian mysticism. And, for me at least, there's no amount of rewatching that can subtract that core issue within the narrative.
Also, ironically, the mine cart sequence I used to adore feels totally out of place and is way less fun as an adult to watch than when I was a kid thinking about The Goonies.
But, in the end, I enjoyed Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom way more now than I have in the past.
The visual storytelling — Indiana Jones has his trademark hat. Short Round has a baseball cap. The visual narrative shows a kinship and parallel between Indy and Short Round through their mutual attachment to their hats, which is a great touch. The whole movie is full of stuff like that. Indy shouting in victory at Lao Che only to immediately reveal he's gotten on a plane with "Lao Che" emblazoned on the door is hilarious. Scene transitions of Indy's head to a rock shaped similarly, villains seamlessly appearing from the walls, shadowplay, and gory details like a blood smear after a villain is crushed all feed the aesthetic of Temple of Doom in a way that is both horrifying and humorous.
The wardrobe — Indiana opens wearing a white tuxedo jacket that's straight Bogart in Casablanca. Every single outfit Willie wears is incredible, but especially the opening, vintage gown (which was partially eaten by an elephant by accident).
The dinner sequence — the chilled monkey brains were actually raspberry sauce and custard, but you never would know to look at it. Watching a cooked snake be sliced open to reveal dozens of still writhing baby snakes, soup made from eyeballs, bugs galore... again, it is not culturally sensitive, but it does paint a picture.
The behind the scenes stuff of legend — Kate Capshaw got a black eye while filming the mine sequence, so everyone put a black smudge mark under their eyes so she wouldn't feel so bad. The Indian village shaman, D.R. Nanayakkara, didn't speak any english, so Spielberg had to repeat the lines to him as they were filming. But, most famously of all, is the story where Harrison Ford was supposed to get whipped. Barbara Streisand showed up to do the whipping herself in a dominatrix outfit. Don't worry, though, Ford gets rescued — by Carrie Fisher.
I honestly don't know! Do I like Indiana Jone and the Temple of Doom more now because I'm older and a little easier on movies from my youth? Or had I just been too hard on it in my twenties? I couldn't say for sure.
I do think I was too hard in the past on Willie, especially in my accusation that she is somehow completely "unfeminist." Yeah, she screams a lot and is kind of selfish, but I'd scream a lot, too, if I were covered in bugs, and stuck adventuring for free with a guy who is hot but not hot enough to justify constant threat of death.
The more I think about it, the more I conclude that the first hour of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is great, but that it ironically loses steam when the actual main plot really kicks in. The sacred stone, the kidnapped kids, the brains, the bugs, the blood rituals — all those ideas combine into a strange stew that's less than the sum of its parts.
Steven Spielberg, himself, has said this is his least favorite Indiana Jones movie and that the only thing he really got out of it was meeting his future wife. But I also think, historically, people came to focus more on the ways Temple of Doom is problematic rather than the ways it's fun. And there's a lot of fun. The singing and dancing, the wild chase sequences, all the scary, gross creepy crawlies, and a classic John Williams theme score all do more to create an emotional connection than the actual story.
So! I guess I'll leave it to you. When's the last time you watched Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Did you like it more the first time you saw it, or has it grown on you over the years? Does Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom deserve better than its reputation, or should it have its heart ripped out before its screaming husk is plunged into the fiery depths below?