Upon a recent watch of the first two Indiana Jones films over Christmas, I couldn’t help but notice part of the reason why “Temple of Doom” is often, with good reason, considered the weakest of the first three films. “Temple of Doom” is simply a less subtle, more blatant version of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”
First, let us get the obvious disclaimers out the way. There are some very big surface differences between “Raiders” and “Temple.” The films have different settings, character and antagonists. “Temple” also has a much shorter time frame, happening over the course of a few days, with only one overt time jump. From Shanghai to the palace, Indiana and crew are in near constant danger. In “Raiders”, Indiana escapes the villains cleanly in each location, only to run into them later. However, this just shows that “Temple” is louder and faster than the already fast-paced “Raiders.”
Hidden behind these surface details, however, lies films with very similar plot structures, and even moments, with the key change being that “Temple’s” are larger, but less intimate. In my opinion, these similarities go further than obvious in-jokes and references, they show a recycling of the plot and character arcs of the first film, to the detriment of both. Here are some examples:
“Raiders of the Lost Arc” has three villains, a smooth, clever one who is the main villain to Indiana (Belloq); a scary, quiet one (Toht); and a leader of a small army (Dietrich). Whilst none of the three are especially memorable, especially Dietrich, who is generic with little characterisation, their combined force gives the film a sense of scale, and stops the film from seeming like cartoon, with a super villain. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” instead combines the three villains into one. Mola Rama is quiet and sinister, similar to Toht, is connected to the more mystic side of the plot, similar to Belloq, and leads a cult of thugee soldiers the same way Dietrich leads the Nazis. This, whilst creating a more memorable foe, does have the unfortunate effect of making a super villain when compared to “Raiders” trio of evil, over the top, but still related to reality.
“Raiders” big action sequence is a series of set pieces: escaping the Well of Souls, defeating the mechanic and soldiers in and around the plane, and then the seminal truck chase. This is a very clever way of breaking up the chase and giving the audience different types of action, instead of just having Indiana Jones fight endless streams of generic Nazis. “Temple”, not to be out done, has four set pieces, one after the other, one corresponding to each of “Raiders’s” sequences. To wit, there is escaping from Mola Rama, physically and mentally, fighting a thugee guard on a rock press, a mine cart chase which is louder and larger than the original truck chase, and a final fight against Mola Rama and his cult. Again, “Temple” is bigger, more violent and less personal than “Raiders”
Even one of the more subtle aspects of both films, Indiana Jones’s character arc is overdone in “Temple” In “Raiders of the Lost Arc”, Indiana begins as a mercenary figure, treating Marion Ravenwood coldly when they meet in her bar. All he focuses on is getting the Arc. Through losing and regaining Marion, interacting with Belloq, and fighting the Nazis, he gains a sense of duty. He shows this growth by looking away from the Arc at the end, which also shows how he is a better man than Belloq, capable of putting others above treasure. In “Temple”, he goes through a similar arc, but it is more blatant. Indiana interacts with Chinese gangsters, exchanging treasure for money; talks to Willie Scott about “Fortune and glory”, before threatening to throw the stones away in front of Mola Rama. Finally, he gives the stones back to the village instead of collecting them for money the way he did at the beginning of the film with the ashes of the emperor in Shanghai. This is the same arc, just more obvious. It also has the unfortunate effect of retroactively making the first film’s arc seem pointless, or making Indiana Jones seem to revert back to his original ways between films.
Overall, I do not believe “Temple of Doom” is a bad film, or even mediocre. It is a good adventure movie, with some masterful action. However, even in good movies, we can see some of the flaws of sequels. A desire to make everything bigger, larger and cooler at the cost of some of the originals heart and soul. It is the same reason “The Hobbit” film trilogy is less interesting than “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, it is too large and unwieldy for its own good. Even when the damage does not ruin the film, as in “Temple”, it still causes damage. Overall, this shows why sequels should try to create a separate identity to the original. There is a reason why another Lucasfilm sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back”, is so popular.