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 Opening. Raiders 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?