Lessons from the Temple of Doom

Recently my friends and I watched what most would agree is the weakest of the Indiana Jones films, The Temple of Doom. Coming off of the thrilling adventure of Raiders of the Lost Ark, there is something in the second Indy movie that doesn’t strike the same chord as the first.

The reasons have probably been hashed out more than once since it came out in 1984, but I noticed a few things that for me derail the story.

LEAPS IN LOGIC

1. The OpeningRaiders hit the ground running with its iconic opening. So many things were introduced in the opening sequence: the traps of old ruins, life-threatening danger, double-crossing companions, hunger for ancient treasure, the film’s villain,  and of course the resilience, smarts, and adventurous spirit of Indiana Jones.

In contrast, Temple opens with an extended song and dance number that doesn’t reveal much about the story beyond introducing us to Willie, the main female “character” (we’ll get to her in a minute). Once the musical portion is over, Indy appears in a suit and has a tense conversation with a businessman. Not exactly the rough-cut, live-on-the-edge guy we remember from the first film. Once he is double-crossed (that aspect is still present), there is a fight scene that is purposefully comical: balloons fall, Indy loses the fight against several bad guys, and Willie crawls around on the floor desperately trying to find a large diamond.

Indy finally makes a dramatic escape—and grabs Willie on the way out, leading us to the main problem I have with this film’s story.

2. Why is Willie there? Willie doesn’t know Indy at the start of the film; she sits down because she knows the businessman with whom Indy is talking. So why save her?

But just for fun, let’s give Indy the benefit of the doubt. So they make their escape out the window and into the waiting getaway car. You could say the car’s young Chinese driver, Short Round, appears out of nowhere, but we learned in Raiders that Indy usually has a sidekick (i.e. Sallah, played by John Rhys-Davies), so we can let that slide.
The next problem comes when they finally get to the airfield to board a plane, and Willie goes with them. She had a job! She doesn’t know Indy! Why is she going with him,  and why is he bringing her along?!

This question looms over the rest of the film for me. Willie doesn’t do anything helpful the remainder of the film.

3. Why is Indy looking for the stones? In Raiders, the journey of the film is set into motion by men asking Indy for help in search of the Ark. They know of his skill, the bad guy Nazis are front and center, Indy decides yes, let’s unravel this mystery before the Nazis (cue the ticking clock).

In Temple, everything happens by accident: they happen to get on the bad guy’s plane and the pilots ditch it, causing Indy and co. to crash land in a village that happens to need their help; they end up at the Maharaja’s palace and after making it through one obstacle (which again is played off as comical) they stumble on the evil lair and horrific sacrifices.

All of these things just seem to happen, instead of the way Raiders pulls and propels you into the action.

WHY DIDN’T THIS END INDIANA JONES?

The surprising thing is, throughout all of this Indiana Jones himself is still awesome. He is still as awesome as can be, which I think is a real testimony to the character Steven Spielberg and George Lucas created.

Despite the lack of story around him, Indy is still adventurous, bold when he needs to be, daring, and ready to fight his way out. That’s exactly what we loved about him in Raiders, and thankfully we get that same character in Temple. It’s the power of that image above: a man ready for action, unique tools by his side, a smile on his face.

In addition, the film is saved by an exciting railcar chase and tense fight on a really long rope bridge.

LESSONS TO LEARN

So here are some lessons I want to take into my own writing:

  • Make sure every character is in the story for a purpose and has a believable motivation for being there
  • The plot needs to be a series of questions that propel the audience forward, not things that just happen to occur
  • A good character can carry a weak story

Which of the Indiana Jones films is your favorite? Why do you think it captured your imagination the most?

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4 thoughts on “Lessons from the Temple of Doom

  1. Jake

    Love your gift Jesse! My mind is random and doesn’t pay attention to movie meanings so yes Temple was my fav. lol….Indie cover your heart!

  2. daniellerizzo

    This is a great read Jesse, really enjoyed it.

    Temple of Doom is actually my least favorite Indy because of the sacrifices and hearts being pulled out of bodies (ugh).

    I liked how you analyzed the “Indy Girl” in this film. So, going on in that vein I would say I like Raiders of the Lost Ark best, mostly because Marion was a great Indy Girl, she was scrappy and spirited. And she fit into the plot because Indy was looking for something she possessed.

    I also enjoy John Rhys-Davies so that is another point for me with Raiders.

    And finally, I think the special effects during the Ark scene at the end are pretty cool, I remember being freaked out as a kid. I think it’s probable that the effects were quite excellent for 1981, especially since they were produced by ILM, but that’s just my personal opinion.

  3. Jesse Koepke

    Great point about Marion in Raiders, Danielle. If you took her out of the film, the story wouldn’t work. And I totally agree about the effects! The ending of Raiders has stuck in my mind ever since I first saw it.

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