Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is pure maximalism, intensifying the serial spectacular of Raiders of the Lost Ark until it’s like a thousand films in one film – excitement after excitement, novelty after novelty, set piece after set piece. The whole film feels extrapolated from the first and last set pieces in Raiders, and while Spielberg may have somewhat disavowed it, or at least expressed reservations about it, that’s partly because it took him to a new place in his career – namely, to full-blown horror, which he hasn’t revisited with the same intensity since. Raiders was a classic postmodern action film, a masterpiece of pastiche, in its relentless obsession with hyperspace. In his book on the same subject, Fredric Jameson suggested that one of the key elements of postmodernism was an inability to genuinely feel historical time in a hypersaturated image economy. In lieu of temporal authenticity, Jameson speculated, directors would instead attempt to reimagine history through hyperspaces – artificial, plastic and self-referential spaces that cluttered themselves with prefabricated “historical” textures. That’s the aesthetic of Raiders, which reimagines both the historical and cinematic past as a set of infinitely reticulated, fractallated and self-involuting hyperspaces.
Temple of Doom takes that process even further, replacing the hyperspatial cave that opens Raiders with an even more explicitly and gleefully artificial “historical” space. Just to make it clear that this isn’t the same as actual history, the film begins with Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford, negotiating the exchange of a material piece of history – the ashes of Nurhachi, the first Emperor of the Manchu Dynasty. This material kernel of classical Chinese history is immediately subsumed into a complete collapse of all historical reference into a postmodern Orientalism that reduces the Middle East to a series of successive Western representations, and then overlays and combines them in the most extravagant set piece in Spielberg’s career to date, in the form of the manic nightclub where this opening exchange takes place. As dancers maniacally sing “Anything Goes” over and over again, the scene throws us into referential freefall, turning further and further inwards upon itself, until it has no point of reference but itself, in one of the most sublimely oneiric set pieces Spielberg ever composed.
In fact, this Technicolor fantasia quickly leaves the realm of mere cinema altogether, and turns into Spielberg’s version of the hyperspectacular musical sequences that were starting to flood Hollywood at this time, from Francis Ford Coppola’s postmodern Vegas in One From the Heart to the intrusion of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” into Brian De Palma’s Body Double. These neo-musicals turned to the language of music video as the best way to evoke this new hyperspace, meaning that the opening scene of Temple of Doom is also the closest that Spielberg ever came to a music video aesthetic within his films. Music videos of this era often allegorised their own postmodern conditions of production by depicting singers splintered into multiple mediations of themselves, and so it is with Indy, whose material hold on history, in the form of Nurhachi’s ashes, is dissolved into what Gilles Deleuze described as the crystal-image – a fracturing of time that unfolds as a series of crystalline surfaces, from a diamond that is unveiled as part of the exchange, to the sparkling glass of a poison antidote container, to a sea of ice, and a wave of white balloons, that cascades across the floor as the crisis hits.
This extraordinary crystalline dismantling of lived space and time paves the way for a film that becomes more hyperreal with each new complication – or in which the complication is precisely how to navigate this hyperreal environment. In Raiders, Spielberg framed this in a postmodern pastiche of the modernist reverence for mass transit, evoking a world still reeling from the prospect of mechanical-global travel, in which Indy seemed to be continually moving from one manic vehicle to the next. Now, in Temple of Doom, all that energy is condensed into a single vertiginous freefall that fuses every conceivable form of transportation, as Indy and his new retinue, singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) and sidekick Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) fall from the nightclub into a car that is chased to a plane whose pilots bail out while they are sleeping. When they wake, they find the aircraft careening in mid-air, and jump out on a liferaft, which doubles as a parachute, and then as a toboggan, accelerating them down a snowy hill and out into mid-air once again, as they tumble over a cliff into a tortuous stream, where the raft finally fulfils its original purpose, and continues to propel them downwards.
That vertiginous freefall introduces the film proper, which repeats the dynamic of the opening scene – the shift from historical authenticity to postmodern hyperspace – on an even grander scale. For a moment, we seem to be back – roughly – in the world of historical veracity, as Indy discovers that the plane has crashed in India, where he is asked by local villagers to investigate a Thuggee cult who have taken over an ancient temple that played a role in the 1857 Indian Rebellion. However, the narrative quickly shifts into mythical lore, as the villagers also implore Indy to recover a sacred stone that was stolen from their own shrine, and that has caused their local river to dry up. Finally, the film embraces total anachronism, as Indy, Willie and Short Round trek to the Temple of Doom, and discover a series of rites and rituals that are much more aligned with the Caribbean and South America, rather than anything to be found on the Indian subcontinent. Even more anachronistically, Indy learns that the Thuggees’ grand plan is to overcome the Jewish people, followed by Muslims, and then Christians, making the filmanother mythical showdown between Judaism and its antagonists.
Spielberg takes us on this journey from historical space to hyperspace through the architecture of the temple, which remains the most extravagant and flamboyant set piece – and set – in his career to date. As in any Spielberg film, this space has residues of naturalism, but Spielberg has never cut against them quite as rigorously or as brutally as he does here. We get a glimpse of this in our first experience of nature in the temple – a succession of snakes, eels, beetles and disembodied eyeballs, all arranged into a luridly artificial dinner. The most naturalistic moment in the film – wind blowing through a vase of flowers – then leads to a vast reservoir of space beneath the main part of the temple, and a different kind of space from the realistic trappings we have seen so far. Raiders already felt like a nascent amusement park ride, and we see many of the same features here that made it so – an exotic trajectory, as Indy, Willie and Short Round make their way through a series of caves; suspensions above grotesque surfaces, as when Willie reaches her hand into a beetle-and-scorpion-encrusted hollow to turn off a lever; and rapidly constricting spaces, as when Indy and Short Round are trapped in a cave whose spike-and-skull-studded roof starts to descend at an alarming rate.
If this passage through the cave invokes Raiders, then the destination is all Temple of Doom’s own – the Kali Mai set piece, one of Spielberg’s greatest ever achievements. This is the closest he ever came to full-blown horror, and it is masterful, detailing an arcane rite in which a man’s heart is torn from his chest, while he remains alive, and then thrown into a pit of fire, at which point he too burns to death. Where Raiders invokes the crowds and stunts of silent cinema, now we truly have spectacle on the scale of silent cinema. In true postmodernist fashion, Spielberg overlays this with a later kind of cinematic spectacle, returning to the intense colour palette of the opening scene in an effort to outdo Technicolor, as he amps up the fluorescent red light with every new spectacular threshold. As Indy, Willie and Short Round watch the ritual unfold from a cave opening high above, they become ciphers for the audience, witnesses to a new iteration of blockbuster cinema at its most primal moment of inception.
At the same time, the three characters are unable to remain mere spectators, since the Kali Ma sequence suggests a new synergy between audience and viewer. Raiders anticipated virtual space as a realm that was both more and less embodied than cinema – “unreal” at one level, to be sure, but also mediated through the tactility of a console. The Ark became a cipher for that console, and was described by one character as a “transmitter…a radio for talking directly to God.” That virtual and vicarious experience of space climaxes here, in the central component of the Kali Ma spectacle, which permits the victim to be both alive and dead, present and absent, dependent on their heart even as it is removed from their chest – a figurehead for a new kind of bodily permeability as a function of mediation, since it feels like the ritual is only feasible when spectated and participated in en masse by acolytes. Accordingly, for the only time in the franchise, Indy becomes an unwitting part of the culture he is studying, and for a few minutes is absorbed into the centre of the Kali Ma cult, emblem of the new world order that the film’s aesthetic so vigorously embraces and celebrates. Conversely, once he awakens again, Indy has to repress this with the most brutally violent sequence in Spielberg’s career, culminating with the harshest child-on-child combat as well, a particularly disturbing prospect for those of us who first saw it at the cinemas as children.
Yet the very nastiness of this violence speaks to Indy’s inability to ever fully extricate himself from that singular synergy with the spectacle he is watching – and the audience’s inability to think of ourselves as separate from the screen we are watching anymore. As a result, the last act of Temple of Doom not only returns us to the vertiginous freefall of the opening sequence, but intensifies it so dramatically that we have now shifted entirely from cinema to amusement park ride. Rather than watching a film, we are experiencing a ride, to the point where this set piece almost seems to render subsequent rides redundant. All the diverse modes of transport of the first film, which were condensed into the freefall of the first act here, are now further burnished into a mine train that also functions as a plane, flying over broken stretches of track, and a boat, navigating the water that starts to flood the cave system. It all ends with the sheerest cliff of the film, where Indy, Willie and Short Round cling on for dear life as a flash waterfalls spills out behind them, and then one last major set piece, a yawning rope bridge across an impossibly deep chasm that offers us a culminative freefall.
Throughout Temple of Doom, Indy’s whip has been less a weapon than a way of articulating and orienting himself to this new spatial freefall, and in this final scene he fuses whip and bridge, telling Willie and Short Round to cut the ropes, while relying on his whip to keep them all safe. Spielberg now entirely dissolves vertical and horizontal cues, the last residues of an older historical space, as the three characters hang on to this same bridge as it dangles down the sheer cliff face, leading to one more battle for this new permeable hyperspace as the cult leader tries to remove Indy’s heart one last time. It’s the perfect ending to a near-perfect film, and while some critics have noted that Indy’s combative screwball rapport with the one-dimensionally shrewish Willie gets tiresome, the film probably wouldn’t be the same without it. No doubt, it’s misogynist (“Biggest problem with her is the noise”), no doubt Indy sees women as just another anthropological curiosity (“You’re a scientist – so what kind of research would you do on me?” “Primitive sexual practices, years of fieldwork”) and no doubt Spielberg’s divorce played a big part in the tonality of the film, which may explain why he has distanced himself from it all these years later. Yet just as the film paid unexpected dividends in introducing Spielberg to his future wife in Capshaw, its very bitterness cuts against Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality, and propels him to places he hasn’t been before or since – that is, to full-blown horror. For me, then, it’s the best Indy film, and one of Spielberg’s best too, so elegantly does it blend his signature with everything it seems to set itself against.