Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Doom Town

Continuing the build to the big unveiling of the new Indiana Jones film, today we look at the second installment ...

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (d. Steven Spielberg)

Webster's Dictionary defines "sequelitis" as the following ...

Well, actually, there is no definition because "sequelitis" isn't a word. But if it were, I suspect it would be defined thusly ...

sequelitis -- (SEE-kwel-EYE-tiss) n. The tendency of ensuing films in a series to be inferior to the original. cf. Pirates of the Caribbean.

It's inevitable: the first films are shiny and new and get to do all the introduction stuff and usually filmmakers pour their hearts into them. Second, third (etc.) films are usually the province of the accounting and marketing departments, the equivalent of "New Improved Comet Scrubbing Cleanser." Artists are wired to try new things, but audiences like the things they've already seen and crave more of the same. What to do?

Steven Spielberg is the most successful filmmaker in the medium's history and considering his lengthy directorial resume, it's more than a little remarkable that he has only gone back to the well for sequels on two of his franchises: Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park. Committing to the second Jurassic Park film was part of the contract that enabled him to do Schindler's List. Isn't it amazing that he had nothing to do with the Jaws sequels, even though he made the first one as a relative novice? Isn't it amazing that there was never an E.T. II or a Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind? Or a 1942? Well, maybe that last isn't quite as amazing.

Therein lies the Spielberg Paradox: no filmmaker has been better at giving audiences what they want. Ever. Yet no filmmaker of remotely comparable success has been able to try his hand at so many different things.

All of which brings us in a rather roundabout way to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

After recreating -- and markedly improving on -- the adventure serials of his (and George Lucas's) boyhood with Raiders of the Lost Ark, a sequel must have seemed like a natural, not just because Raiders was so successful, but because the subject matter leant itself so readily to Further Adventures. Temple of Doom is the rare film sequel that made artistic sense as much as it made financial sense.

And of course, it's not a sequel at all, but rather a prequel, set one year before the events of the first film. Not that it really matters. The Indiana Jones movies all take place in a kind of timeless Adventureland. The dates given on-screen are a convenience to justify the inclusion of Nazis or what have you.

After a marvelous Busby Berkley-esque musical production number that promises freshness, the now-familiar Indy set pieces begin; things that were so disarmingly original in Raiders begin to feel formulaic: The opening scene that is actually the climax of an unseen adventure, the elaborate trap rooms, the wild chases, Ford's world-weary delivery. All bear the charm of the familiar, all lose the thrill of discovery.

In an odd way, Temple of Doom is more in line with the adventure serials that inspired it than the first film, emphasizing the action and jettisoning the personal obsessions that helped elevate the material. This movie has no interest in elevation, unless it's the elevation of a cliff face or a plummeting aircraft. Because it makes no pretense towards being anything other than a crackerjack runaround, Spielberg and Co. are free to throw their all into the mayhem. And Temple of Doom contains some of the most intense, thrilling daring-do ever done (did?).

Indeed, the violence here was considered so intense back in 1984, that the "PG" rating was deemed inadequate for it. Temple of Doom is the film that inspired the MPAA to invent the "PG-13" rating, giving parents an extra strong cautioning, or something, without issuing an "R" restriction. A whole generation of 12-year-olds was thus spared the sight of one man extracting another's still-beating heart from his living chest. A grateful nation again salutes the MPAA.

The Thuggee cult that does the extracting and the sacrificing in this movie may not have the universal hatability that the Nazis do (heck, Kali worshippers were downright adorable in the Beatles' Help!), but because they're not quite such a personal, politically loaded gang of villains for Spielberg, he can cheerfully wallow in their corruption, depicting their foul rites with a kind of demented glee. I suspect he could not have depicted even a stylized version of Nazi atrocities quite so glibly.

Harrison Ford inhabits the role easily this time around. The story is less personal for Indy, too; no old ex-girlfriends to complicate matters, no beliefs (or lack thereof) challenged. He's free to indulge in adventure and casual romance.

Which brings me to Mrs. Steven Spielberg. Kate Capshaw's performance in this film has been maligned and mercilessly spoofed over the years, and it's not hard to see why. Her character, Willie Scott, does and says things in this movie that are borderline retarded. Asking the natives of a primitive Indian village if they have a phone, for instance. Is she trying to be funny? And she gets a grand total of zero chemistry going with her co-star -- possibly because she was saving the chemistry for behind the camera with her director. But Capshaw as a performer has her moments: the opening song is terrific and I've always loved the way she interrupts her panic attack to lust after diamonds. I imagine the writers (Lucas with Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz) wanted to create a character who would contrast Karen Allen's spunky Marion Ravenwood from Raiders. Unfortunately, they chose to make that contrast by depicting Willie as a screeching harridan. Capshaw might not be great in this movie, but keep in mind that the script is doing her no favors.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom isn't the sublimely perfect concoction that Raiders of the Lost Ark is, but it manages to overcome its case of sequelitis to deliver a tough, gruesome, thoroughly entertaining action film that is a bit better than its reputation. It suffers only in comparison to an all-time classic.

3 1/2 stars.

No comments:

John and Dave talks Oscar nomination predictions