A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 468 – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – June 11th, 2011

Last night I promised a story about when I first saw this movie. While on vacation, my parents and some friends of theirs went out for dinner, leaving myself, my brother and the son of my parents with my great-aunt and uncle. Our viewing choices were limited. There was a tiny video place near the house we were staying in but it was roughly the size of a closet. Somehow my brother and I convinced my parents that this movie was a great choice for a night they’d be going out. So we sat with my great-aunt and uncle, who are very nice folks, and watched a man reach into another man’s chest and pull out his heart. Needless to say, my great-aunt and uncle were a little taken aback by what we’d rented for the night.

I was a little taken aback too, as I hadn’t really known what to expect but that certainly wasn’t anywhere close to what I’d been thinking. Mostly it was the sacrifice scene, and the whipping. It didn’t really bother me, as it’s patently ridiculous and unrealistic, but I’m sure my great-aunt and uncle would have preferred not to watch anything like that. And there is some speculation that this movie was one of the films that necessitated the introduction of the PG-13 rating. Too violent for a PG rating and not quite extreme enough for an R, so it got something in the middle. But like I said, it didn’t really bother me when I first saw it.

Of course, watching it now, I have a bit of a different response. I have a lot of problems with this movie, even if I do have fond memories of the experience of watching it for the first time. And I enjoy bits and pieces of it, but oh is it problematic. And it’s problematic in addition to be messy, but let’s start with the messy since it’s a lot easier to get into. For one, I think it’s pretty clear that the structure of this movie is an attempt to take the structure of the first movie and copy it. We begin in a foreign land where Indiana Jones is attempting to do something involving an artifact and an antagonistic figure who’s obviously going to double cross him and try to kill him. And then it turns out that this introduction has almost nothing to do with the eventual plot and it mostly existed to show how Indy is a bad-ass archaeologist. And then there was the main plot, which involved Indy, a lady friend and a sidekick all working together to recover an artifact with supernatural powers while facing off against a large antagonistic group of enemies.

The trouble here is that they applied the formula but didn’t think enough about how they were doing it. The initial introduction in Shanghai? Ridiculous, and it seems like an odd thing to have Indy doing – selling off a priceless artifact for a diamond? The fight scene in the club is laughably over the top, with the giant gong and the diamond and the poison. And it takes 20 minutes of the movie’s time. Not only that, but the bad guy here has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It all just seems like an excuse to stick Indy with this movie’s female lead and crash them in India. It feels out of place and clumsy. Then once we get to the main plot there’s a whole pile of backstory and it’s set up not to be an artifact Indiana wants to retrieve because he recognizes its importance. It’s this whole “Please, save our village by getting our magic stone you don’t believe in!” deal. Again, it’s an odd thing to set up for Indy. So off he goes to this palace that’s supposed to be deserted, I think? Except it’s obviously not and while the path there is overgrown and the locals won’t go near it, it’s clearly well populated and has not only a full complement of servants and dancers but also a young ruler and a bunch of wealthy guests both foreign and local. I’ve never quite gotten that. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe it’s just lazy writing. I’m going with the latter.

Regardless, the next messy part of the formula is the bad guys, and here is where we segue into the problematic aspects of the movie. Now, one could explain the depiction of the Indian people in this movie and the Thugee cult as being something out of serials from the time period the movie is set in. But it’s one thing to look back at media from a given time period and know that racism and a total misrepresentation of “exotic” cultures was the norm and while not excusable, certainly expected for the time. One of my favorite series of children’s novels are from the 1930s and while the vast majority of them are fantastic, two so very clearly show their age that I flat out tell parents not to take them unless they’re up for a discussion of racist depictions and British colonialism in writing from that decade. But while I can work with that, I cannot work with this. Because it wasn’t made in the time period it takes place in. It was made in the 1980s by people who should have known better. In fact, talks to film parts of this movie in India fell apart because of the movie’s depiction of Indian people, and I’m not at all surprised.

The baddies here are a secret cult that are called Thuggee but I suspect they have little to no resemblance to the actual group the name comes from. I’m afraid I’m not terribly well versed in Indian culture, history or religious practices (of any of the major religions practiced in India) so I can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure that ritual human sacrifice into lava wasn’t typical. But oh, it’s all supposed to be unrealistic and supernatural and they’re supposed to be a secret cult of bad guys so of course they’re evil! Still doesn’t make it okay. You’re still talking about some absolutely horrible misrepresentation, not to mention having the vast majority of Indian characters in the movie playing evil roles. And on top of that, I honestly think the Thuggee cult was a foolish idea for antagonists anyhow. The first movie had the easily recognizable Nazis as the baddies. And I get that they didn’t want to just make another Indy vs. the Nazis movie, but to go from that to a movie where the bad guys are a largely fictional homicidal cult with some nasty racial overtones? It’s just unpleasant. And then there’s the voodoo doll and oh, what a messy situation this all is.

Add in a shrieky female lead who’s feisty yes, but not in the fun way Marion was and this movie just doesn’t have the charm of the first. Oh, it has all the necessary parts if you simply label them according to where they fit into the formula. It’s got Indy and his whip and it’s got the great mine cart chase scene and okay, the heart ripping scene is the sort of over the top ridiculousness I expect in a schlocky serial like what they’re alluding to. I like Short Round as the sidekick (yes, really) and the requisite cramped-tunnel-with-traps scenes are fun. But the major parts of the formula just don’t fit together as well as they did in the first movie. It’s a pity, but that’s the way it goes.

June 11, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , ,

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