Ever since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls came out 7 years ago, it’s gotten the (much deserved) reputation as an absolute atrocity and a desecration to the reputation of a much-loved franchise. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls has been commonly divorced from the original trilogy as a separate and inferior entity. Most fans lump the earlier trio into one group, praising them all as masterpieces, unlike the disastrous 2008 sequel. However, that may not be the whole truth. The second film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was also a mess of a film with plenty of flaws, silly scenes, tonal problems, rip-off moments and bad characters.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) was an absolute masterpiece of the action genre, and commonly sits high in most Greatest Films lists. Written by George Lucas and directed by Steven Spielberg, it made Harrison Ford into one of the biggest leading men of the 80s. The second sequel Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) was a wonderful follow up, recapturing the spirit of the original and co-staring former James Bond, Oscar winner Sean Connery. However, in between was a financially successful but creatively dreadful sequel called Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which totally missed the mark. Is this 1984 sequel worse than Crystal Skull? let’s see.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull opens with Indy (Jones) and his buddy being captured by Russian troops in the 1950s, (Led by Oscar winner Kate Blanchet, using an accent that would make Boris and Natasha laugh) who coerce him into helping them find a box with alien artifact in a large warehouse of unidentified, classified stuff, similar to the warehouse where the Ark of the covenant was stored in the first film. Deducing that the artifact is magnetic, Jones uses gunpowder, which is so attracted to the artifact—despite being in a crate, buried under other crates, several dozen years away—that it floats on air and leads them right to them coveted item. Jones takes his opportunity to escape, and despite being betrayed by his pal, he manages to make it to out, while the ‘well-trained’ Russian troops miss him repeatedly with numerous shots. He luckily stumbles upon a handy jet supercar that propels him across the desert, leaving the bad guys in the dust. (Not that they care. They have their alien thingie.)
Jones finds a fake town and it takes him a while to realize that he’s in one of those mock towns built in the desert to see what nuclear bombs will do to houses in the desert. (The answer is…it destroys them!) With a nuke about to go off, indy hides in a refridgerator. Well, I don’t have to remind any of you about this scene, do I? Nope, the now infamous scene that inspired the term Nuke-the-Fridge sees indy escape a nuclear explosion by being launched by that explosion several miles, and landing unharmed in the desert. I could write a whole article on what’s wrong with this scene but it’s all been said and I don’t need to rehash the obvious lunacy of it. Anyway, that closes out the act 1 opening of Crystal Skull.
Now for act 1 of the Temple of Doom. After an odd musical opening, Temple of Doom begins with a long sequence that strangely pays homage to the James Bond series instead of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A tuxedo wearing Jones, again played by Ford, confronts some vague criminal kingpin named Lau Chi in a Shanghai night club, to procure a diamond in exchange for a priceless artifact. (Shouldn’t the archeologist be more interested in the artifact?) To ensure payment, Jones holds a random innocent woman named Willie hostage (who is annoyingly played by Kate Capshaw). Jones is then poisoned, loses the diamond and ends us in a visually comical melee where Jones is shot at (but they always miss him) as he runs around the club after the vial with antidote to the poison, as it gets kicked around by everyone like a soccer ball. Jones escapes with neither diamond nor artifact, for some reason dragging along the hapless (and useless) Willie. Jones gets a ride in a car driven by his little kid sidekick Short Round. (Yes, he has two comedy sidekicks in this film.) The trio escape in a plane and flee Shanghai, but the plane is sabotaged by Lau Chi, who we never see or hear about again in this or any other film. To survive the fall, Jones comes up with a plan that rivals his Nuke-the Fridge moment.
They JUMP OUT OF THE AIRPLANE IN A RUBBER LIFERAFT, fall hundreds of feet, land unharmed on top of a mountain, slide like that Jamaican bobsled team down the slope, fall off a high cliff, plunge all the way down to the river, land unharmed again, and drift to safety, without a scratch or even a sprain. Now I ask you, is that any more logical than the notorious Nuke-the-Fridge moment?
Back to Crystal Skull: Indy is approached by his illegitimate some Mutt (Shia Labeouf) but Jones doesn’t tell him that yet, and the kid doesn’t both to tell him the Maiden name of his mother, so Jones doesn’t know that his ‘Mary’ woman is actually Marion Ravenwood from Raiders. Mutt enlists Jones’ help to find his captured mother who send him a letter with vital information, and only archeologist Indy can decipher it. They are accosted by two armed men in suits, but escape by causing a greaser brawl in the malt shop. (All this scene needed was Fonzie.) This somehow leads to a motor cycle chase through the public library, where Jones’ students ask him questions about the homework as he escapes killers. Jones and Mutt then hide out in the most obvious place imaginable; Jones’ house. Luckily, their pursuers never think to look for them there, giving Jones a chance to translate some Mayan scripture and realize that Mary/Marion is being held in a town in South America. The movie copies the airplane/map imagery from Raiders, as the duo fly to the rescue.
Back in Temple of Doom, Jones befriends an Indian mountain village because evil doers have stolen their sacred stones (leading to a drought) and kidnapped their children for slave labor. (Wouldn’t the adults be more useful for slave labor?) Again bringing the whimpering Willie along, we get more comedy relief as she moans and complains about her situation (I miss Marion Ravenwood!) and partakes in the racially insensitive dinner scene with fried bugs, eye soup and monkey brains.
Back in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; Jones and Mutt are in Generic Town, South America where they find a magnetic mummy that hides the eponymous Crystal Skull, which everyone wants. Jones is captured by Natasha Blanchet, who tells him that the Crystal Skull is of alien origin, but Jones scoffs at that. (Magic rocks and 1,000 year old knights—sure, makes sense. But aliens? Ha!) They form another short doomed-to-soon-betray-you alliance, and Jones is reunited with his lost love Marion Ravenwood, discovering that Mutt is his love child.
Back in the Temple of Doom: In the palace of the Maja Raja, Jones and his unfunny sidekicks find a secret passage filled with bugs. This is supposed to be the equivalent of the serpent cave from Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s nowhere near as memorable or interesting. Then they find the titular Temple of Doom, where human sacrifices to Shiva are under way, led by a High Priest and his cult. Jones and company try to rescue the captured children but immediately get captured, leading to the worst part of the film. The whole middle of the film is composed of long scenes of torture. Jones gets tortured, Short Round gets tortured and the enslaved children are continually whipped. This is horribly unpleasant to watch and it goes on far too long. What happened to the fun and breezy adventure of Raiders? Jones is then brainwashed by some sort of potion, turning to the dark side.
Back in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: Jones, Marion and Mutt get into some jungle adventures, because Tarzan wasn’t available for this film. Trying to escape, Jones and Marion fall into quicksand and the one thing junior decides to uses to pull them free is a 6 foot snake, supplying the obligatory ‘Indy-is-scared-of-snakes’ scene. They are recaptured by the Russians and tied up in a truck where Marion accuses Indy of disappearing off the face of the Earth after the events of Raiders, which is odd since The Last Crusade supposedly took place only a few years after Raiders and Indy was still a professor in good standing at his college, teaching classes there every day. I guess Marion didn’t look for him very hard.
Anyway, the trio are still bound in a truck but get rid of the one guard assigned to watch them, and take over the truck which, by another stroke of luck, is at the rear of the convoy. Then, in defiance of the laws of physics, the tree-cutting truck that was in front of the convoy suddenly gets behind them and tries to slice-and-dice them. Then they switch vehicles to a bizarre boat car, young Mutt gets into a sword duel with Miss Awful Accent, since he found a handy rapier in the back of a soviet army truck, all the while balancing between two moving jeeps.
Possession of the Crystal Skull goes back and forth as each side snatches it up and then has it stolen from them again. At one point, the Russians are escaping with the Skull, and since Tarzan is still not available, Mutt SWINGS ON VINES AND RECRUITS A GROUP OF ANTI-COMMUNIST MONKIES TO JOIN HIM. Mutt catches up to the fast moving cars, so he and his new monkey allies can take the skull back. Killer ants then get involved, eating all the extras but politely walking completely around the main characters. (Ah, the power of a contract that offers sequels!) Our heroes then drive the boat car off a cliff, land on a twig-like tree which gently bends to lower them safely in the water so then can water-drive to a water fall, where they again fall for an apparently fatal distance but once again land unhurt; surviving to get to the final act.
Back in third act of Temple of Doom; Sidekick Short Round has saved the day, curing Indy by burning him with a torch, which leads to an escape sequence using oar cars in a mine shaft. This is the films answer to the famous truck chase scene from Raiders. This sequence is actually rather fun, despite the silliness of playing tug-of-war with Short Round’s whole body. The film ends with a confrontation on a rope bridge, where Jones’ latest bluff fails (As they usually do) and he ends up dangling from the broken rope bridge along with the evil high priest of the cult, while the rest of the cult shoots arrows at him but—surprise—miss every shot. The one-dimensional high priest falls into the river of convenient alligators and soldiers arrive on cue like the cavalry. Finally, Jones returns the kids and the magic stones to the village, and Jones kisses the girl and lives to participate in further adventures.
Finally, we get to the third act of Crystal Skull: Our intrepid heroes reach the hidden pyramid of the Crystal Skulls, getting through death traps and mounds of sand. After they get in, they find the pierced-on-spikes heads of previous interlopers. (So who re-piled the sand and reset the traps after the previous guys got in?) Once there, they discover that this pyramid is the lair of hibernating aliens with some sort of hive mind. Apparently, some ancient Spaniard pierced the traps, snuck into the pyramid, decapitated one of the aliens without the others noticing and left, taking the head with him, which then turned into crystal. (Uhhh, okay!) By replacing the head on the headless alien, it comes back to life. The hive mind is reconnected and the aliens awaken, returning to their ship and flying away, back to their planet, after a mere 300 year delay. (I can see the welcoming committee now. “Say what, Gorblatt? You’re centuries late because someone stole your head?”) Anyway, Natasha and the bad guys are all killed, Jones marries Marion, and it looks like Mutt is preparing to take Indy’s mantle and hat—but not so fast! Indy may have another adventure in him yet. (If it’s anything like this one, don’t bother!)
So those are our two bad Indy films, and both are as bad as they sound. So which is worse? Well. I have to say that Temple of Doom probably has more flaws overall than Crystal Skull; however, Crystal Skull has bigger flaws—when it screw up, it REALLY screws up! True the jumping-from-the-plane-in-a-rubber-raft scene is just as ludicrous as anything in Crystal Skull, (Including the Fridge sequence) but the majority of the scenes in Temple are only annoyingly dopey, not as mind-bogglingly stupid as the scenes in the latter half of Crystal Skull. Even Temple of Doom didn’t have Short Round calling monkeys to help out.
On the other hand, as brainless as Crystal Skull is, it doesn’t have any extraneous scenes of torture, especially with children. Nothing in Crystal Skull is as distasteful and uncomfortable to look at as that middle section of Temple of Doom. It’s just too unpleasant for an Indiana Jones movie.
Both movies had weak villains (Too bad, since Kate Blanchet is such a talented actress under other circumstances) and annoying sidekicks. (Mutt, Short Round and Willie.) But I think the deciding factor is the fact that Crystal Skull had aliens in it. Aliens just don’t belong in an Indiana Jones movie. Even Harrison Ford said that. So, for that reason alone, I guess I’ll have to go with the conventional wisdom and say that Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls in the worst Indiana Jones movie of all—but its close. Both are terrible. Still, at least we have Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Last Crusade to enjoy.
Putting them in order of best-to-worst, it’s…(1) Raiders of the Lost Ark, (2) the Last Crusade, (3) Temple of Doom, and (4) Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls.