In preparation for yesterday's release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls I’ve been re-watching the Indy films and am coming around to the idea that I’ve never really given
During our quixotic endeavor to catalog and rank every film in my VHS collection in college, joel miron & I had a discussion regarding which Indy movie was the best of the (then) trilogy. We debated the relative merits of Raiders of the Lost Ark & The Last Crusade and pretty much assumed that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom wasn’t a part of that discussion. I remember miron even watching both ends of the trilogy & making a list of pros & cons for each to settle the issue (miron, if you can produce it, i would love to see that list... otherwise, get to work on another one).
While often read as the weakest, perhaps primarily because of it’s non-Christian centric story, in re-watching the film it stands up pretty well among the four. One of the differences that make the film stand out, i think, is that Indy isn’t ‘driven’ by dreams of fortune and glory as he is in the other films, rather he’s called. The film explores questions of fate even though its framed most explicitly as a story about seeking fortune & glory, but really its the least so. Take, for instance, the shot after revealing the children were stolen from the village, Indy is presented as ‘hero’, low angle shot, panning in. While this 'hero' shot is present in all the films, the narrative moment that this shot presents Indy as 'an only hope' rather than 'a hero'.
The film is, clearly, darker than the other Indy films, allowing Harrison Ford to play 'bad Indy' & exploring a variety of sadistic scenes, but it isn't this darkness that inherently makes the film superior (and i'm not ready to say that it's the best of the Indy films, though i'm no longer ready to say anymore that it's not the best of them, either)... The exploration of darkness & 'light' in the structuring of this film as one about fate & calling, rather than about treasure hunting and personal gain makes it more intriguing than at first glance. I think the film's setting & it's non Christian-centric center also make it interesting in the sense of questioning convention. Officially, Temple of Doom is a prequel, because the events happen 2 years before Raiders of the Lost Ark, and with the success of that first film, going to a previous time & to an unknown setting (India was at least an 'unconsidered locale in the mid 80's) was a huge gamble that actually didn't pay off... Relatively hated by critics & at the box office this makes the film, in some circles, even more worth a closer look...