Stars: ***1/2 out of 4
Summary: It is indeed a triumph of escapist entertainment, that cemented the ‘Indiana Jones’ legend.
Review: Back in the day, this installment of the Lucas/Spielberg adventure film series was the most controversial among fans. Some people loved it for its guts (in the sense of gumption) and its gore (not in the sense of Al) and its rousing sense of catharsis. Others hated it for its darkness, horror sequences, and its difference in style from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. Of course, it has been retroactively absolved of its sins by the fan community at large since the release of the similarly controversial ‘Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’. Nevertheless, here’s where I stand in the argument.
The first thing that must be done in the viewer’s mind before experiencing ‘Temple of Doom’ is the realization of a simple fact: This film is not ‘Raiders’. All four ‘Indiana Jones’ movies have their own rules, textures, and stories that distinguish them rather largely, even though they are (arguably loosely) connected by inner continuity. The second thing is that the viewer must not go in unprepared for the film’s darkness. I do sometimes wish they had stuck with the original title, ‘Temple of Death’, because the frankness and implications of it are more in line with the film’s tone. The tone, however, is the film’s greatest cinematic weak point. It swings very broadly from a zany sense of comedy-adventure akin to mainstream 1930s films of the same vein, and a bleak, horrific atmosphere more akin to horror films of the 1980s. The clashing sensibilities of these two tones is what has made the film so controversial.
What the movie communicates, though, by contrasting the two, is Indy & Co’s journey into (basically) Hell and back. The established lightness of the film gives the heroes something to go ‘back’ to once the conflict is over. ‘Temple’ does take risks, but it takes them only so far. If you’re prepared for what’s going to happen, the horror sequences, while disquieting, only serve as a backbone for Indy’s roaring rampage of revenge on the villainous Thuggee cult, which is what we’re hoping to see. The bad guys nearly triumph, but the good guys do win in the end. As a distinct story, this is what makes ‘Temple’ worth seeing: It’s an update of the classic myth of the hero’s journey into the underworld. Though ‘Temple’ has Hindu sensibilities on account of its Indian setting, the story has a pronounced Christian flavor. The notion of Christ’s decent into Hell to rescue the captives is, in a way, mirrored by Indy’s rescue of the slave children. To quote St. Cyril’s words about Christ, ‘For having destroyed hell and opened the impassable gates for the departed spirits, He left the devil there abandoned and lonely’. In the same way, the only thing left in the devastated and emptied Temple of Doom is the lonely statue of Kali, with no one to worship it or satisfy a demonic blood lust. There’s a purely human hope expressed in seeing the Hero return from Hell with a train of freed captives. We have to believe that even the most horrible things that exist can be destroyed by a bond of love and nobility.
The controversial nature and timeless tone of ‘Temple’ cemented what ‘Raiders’ had begun. Indy’s legacy was established, though the series now had the scent of smoke.