Tag Archives: Temple of Doom

Spectacle and Sequel

This is some screenwriting/story theory geekery here, but I think that if you like movies you’ll probably be interested in this. It’s a theory I’ve developed about why some movies work and some don’t.

There are certain movies that I call Spectacle Movies, which throw out all the craft of storytelling and instead focus on the spectacle. Either with compelling visuals, thrilling action, hilarious comedy, or engaging song and dance. If the spectacle is spectacular enough, the movie can work despite having massive logic problems and flawed, cliched, or non-existent story and character development.

Examples include the original King Kong, Marx Brothers, Raiders of the Lost Ark, most musicals, and (though I wasn’t personally a fan of these) 2001 and Avatar. These aren’t stories. They’re showcases for tangentially connected bits.

Just to be clear, I’m not using Spectacle Movies as a pejorative. Two of my all-time favorite movies are Raiders of the Lost Ark and Singin’ in the Rain, which are both horribly crafted stories if you ignore all the ways the movies are awesome. Singin’ in the Rain literally has an entire sequence that consists of someone saying “I thought of a good song and dance number,” and then it cuts to his imagination for ten minutes. But it works, because it is a really good song and dance number.

But spectacle isn’t a binary thing. It’s a continuum. With the exception of straight drama, all movies have some element of spectacle. And the more spectacle a movie has, the more story and character problems it can get away with.* For a well-crafted story, adding spectacle will make a good movie better. (We all love Jurassic Park, but who would remember that movie if we never actually saw the dinosaurs?)

I would define spectacle as “Showing something amazing that the audience hasn’t seen before.” The more a movie can do that, the better it will be. This is true regardless of the quality of the underlying story.

Now lets talk about sequels, and why sequels so often leave the audience feeling empty.

Movies that get sequels are almost always movies that have a lot of spectacle to them, whether or not they also have good storytelling. There are two reasons for these. The first and most obvious reason is that spectacle movies do well at the box office, especially internationally, and financially successful movies attract sequels. But the more subtle reason is that in a well-crafted story, the end of the story is the end of the story. The problems are resolved. The character has completed an arc, and no longer has room to undergo a completely new arc.** Whereas spectacle movies end when the bad guys are defeated and the explosions stop. But you can always find new bad guys to generate new explosions.

But remember when I said that a key element of spectacle is showing something we’ve never seen before? That presents an inherent problem with sequels, because by default the sequels are showing us exactly what we’ve seen before.

So sequels tend to lose the spectacle aspect that made people like the original. Which means that as a baseline sequels are going to be much less compelling.***

There are two ways for a sequel to overcome this: It can either ramp up/change the spectacle, or it can improve the story.

Examples of movies that ramped up or changed the spectacle, so it was still showing us something we hadn’t seen before, are Aliens, Terminator 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and Avengers.

Examples of movies that improved the story are Spider-Man 2, X-Men 2, Toy Story 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Terminator 2, and The Empire Strikes Back. (T2 and Empire both ramped up the spectacle and improved the story.)

But most sequels just give us more of the same. More of the same doesn’t work for spectacle. And without a story to carry them, they’re left with nothing. Which is why most sequels are so bad. They may be commercially successful, and in fact usually are, which is why Hollywood keeps making them. People show up based on how much they liked the original.

But I judge the quality of movies based on how much the audience cares about them. By that measure most sequels fail. Which is why Transformers 4 had a hundred million dollar opening weekend but only 16% on Rotten Tomatoes. (And keep in mind the Rotten Tomatoes percentage is only from people who saw the movie. Meaning that among people who *thought* they would want to see a movie where a giant alien robot truck rides a gianter alien robot dragon while waving a huge sword, only 16% actually did enjoy it.)

* For example, the 2009 Star Trek was obviously much dumber than Looper. But Star Trek keeps you moving too fast with exciting action to think about how little sense it makes. Whereas Looper is slow and contemplative, which leaves you with time to contemplate all the story and logic problems.

** The only example I can think of of a successful sequel to a movie that didn’t rely on spectacle is The Godfather 2. And that only half-worked by focusing on flashbacks of a supporting character that didn’t have an arc in the first movie. In my opinion, the Michael half of Godfather 2 didn’t work and aside from one or two scenes was entirely forgettable.

*** One interesting point here is that perceived quality depends on the order you see a film. We all think Raiders of the Lost Ark is great and Temple of Doom is mediocre. But if we saw Temple of Doom first, would we think that was the great one? Or consider the 1964 movie A Shot in the Dark, which is a sequel to the 1963 The Pink Panther, and recycles all of the jokes from the original. If you watch The Pink Panther then Shot in the Dark, you’ll think Shot in the Dark is boring and pointless. But if you watch Shot in the Dark first, you’ll think Pink Panther is the boring and pointless one. (Or if you don’t like 1960s slapstick humor, you’ll think both are boring and pointless.)

Movies We Still Care About – 1984 – Part 2 (N-Z)

(For an explanation of this, read the Introduction.  Other posts in this series can be found here.)

As I mentioned previously, I am now splitting up the discussion of films for each year in order to keep the length of the posts manageable.  This post covers 1984 movies that started with the letters N-Z. The full yearly lists will be included with each post.

Movies We Still Care About

  • Amadeus
  • Ghostbusters
  • Gremlins
  • The Karate Kid
  • Neverending Story
  • Nightmare on Elm Street
  • Police Academy
  • Red Dawn
  • Sixteen Candles
  • The Terminator
  • This is Spinal Tap

Other Notable Movies

  • Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  • The Muppets Take Manhattan
  • Revenge of the Nerds
  • Romancing the Stone

Best Picture Nominees:

  • Amadeus (Winner)
  • The Killing Fields
  • A Passage to India
  • Places in the Heart
  • A Soldier’s Story

Top Grossing Films (US)

  1. Beverly Hills Cop
  2. Ghostbusters
  3. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  4. Gremlins
  5. The Karate Kid
  6. Police Academy
  7. Footloose
  8. Romancing the Stone
  9. Star Trek III: The Search for Spok
  10. Splash

Rotten Tomatoes Top Movies

  1. The Terminator (100%)
  2. Amadeus (95%)
  3. Repo Man (98%)
  4. Blood Simple (94%)
  5. Ghostbusters (96%
  6. This is Spinal Tap (95%)
  7. A Nightmare on Elm Street (96%)
  8. The Karate Kid (90%)

Movies We Still Care About

Neverending Story

I don’t have any commentary on this, and would put it in the “Other Fond Memories” section, except that i want to post this Neverending Party skit from Robot Chicken.

 

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Another of those slasher horror franchises that have reached the level of mythology.  This was interesting in that unlike Halloween or Friday the 13th, which feature (literally) faceless killers, Freddy Krueger is a real character who is able to make threats and quips.  That makes it a lot funnier than the other franchises.  And in my opinion, it also makes it a lot scarier.

As a real person, you don’t have any reason to fear Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers.  You’ve never been in a situation where you thought they were chasing you.  But late at night, when you’re falling asleep, and your rational thought is giving way to the realm of dreams – that is exactly when you think that Freddy might come after you.  Which is what makes these movies so terrifying.  Plus the children chanting the rhyme is damn creepy:

 

Sixteen Candles

The first of the John Hughes movies that would dominate the mid to late 80s, this perfectly captured the feelings of teenaged angst and alienation that we’ve all gone through.

The Terminator

One of the best intense action movies of all time.  In fact, if you look at my glossary page, it’s actually the example I give of the quintessential intense action film.  This established James Cameron as a titan of filmmaking (his only previous directing credit was “Piranha 2: The Spawning”) and Arnold Schwarzenegger as one of the biggest action stars of all time.  It’s also the origin of Arnold’s catchphrase.

It became part of our culture, and not just in art and entertainment.  As a matter of policy, people will still reference Skynet when discussing social and technological issues such as artificial intelligence and the power of tech companies such as Facebook and Google.

For a reminder of how intense this movie, just watch the final scene:

Better yet, watch the whole movie.

This is Spinal Tap

This more or less created the mockumentary genre, and is still the best example of the category.  One could even make the argument that every mockumentary since 1984 has been a futile attempt to imitate the genius of Spinal Tap.

This is also an excellent example of why you can’t necessarily judge a film’s quality by box office numbers.  There were 116 films that outgrossed Spinal Tap in 1984, and most of those have been completely forgotten.  But the legacy of Spinal Tap endures, to the point that everyone understand what “turn it up to eleven” means, even if they haven’t seen the movie or know where the reference is coming from.

Other Fond Memories

(These are movies that fit the category of “Movies We Still Care About,” but for which I personally can’t think of anything interesting to say. Please don’t take a movie’s inclusion in this category as any sort of criticism.  You are encouraged to voice your thoughts on these films in the comments section.)

  • Police Academy
  • Red Dawn

Other Notable Films

Revenge of the Nerds

This was popular in the 80s, but few people still watch it today.  I think the reason it hasn’t remained popular is because it is very mean-spirited.  The heroes of this film use chemicals to torture the genitals of their rivals, and install hidden cameras to spy on women in the shower and bathroom.  One of the heroes commits a flat-out rape, disguising himself as a woman’s boyfriend in order to trick her into having sex with him.  This rape is played off as a silly prank, and ultimately a good thing because she ends up liking it.

In the 80s, when people had a different sensibility, this worked as a revenge fantasy.  (Hence the title of the movie.) But modern audiences won’t tolerate such loathsome behavior from the heroes of a silly comedy.  Plus, in the 80s nerds were considered to be at the bottom of the social order.  But for modern adults, nerds are at the top, running businesses and becoming billionaires.  It’s a truism that people will root for an underdog who is punching someone bigger than him, but not for an overdog who is punching down.  So this abusive behavior no longer works in movies.

I know a lot of nerds, and very few of them still care for Revenge of the Nerds because of its mean-spiritedness.  But many still do love Real Genius, a movie with similar subject matter from 1985.  That treated its subject with affection, and thus has a lot more staying power.  (I highly recommend watching Real Genius if you haven’t seen it or haven’t seen it in a long time.)

Romancing The Stone

This is an excellent movie that a lot of people have forgotten.  It’s a really solid and fun movie, expertly combining adventure, comedy, and romance.  I highly recommend that you revisit it.

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Do you disagree with any of these choices, or think that I missed something?  Leave a comment below.

Movies We Still Care About – 1984 – Part 1 (A-M)

(For an explanation of this, read the Introduction.  Other posts in this series can be found here.)

As I mentioned previously, I am now splitting up the discussion of films for each year in order to keep the length of the posts manageable.  This post covers 1984 movies that started with the letters A-M. The full yearly lists will be included with each post.

Movies We Still Care About

  • Amadeus
  • Ghostbusters
  • Gremlins
  • The Karate Kid
  • Neverending Story
  • Nightmare on Elm Street
  • Police Academy
  • Red Dawn
  • Sixteen Candles
  • The Terminator
  • This is Spinal Tap

Other Notable Movies

  • Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  • The Muppets Take Manhattan
  • Revenge of the Nerds
  • Romancing the Stone

Best Picture Nominees:

  • Amadeus (Winner)
  • The Killing Fields
  • A Passage to India
  • Places in the Heart
  • A Soldier’s Story

Top Grossing Films (US)

  1. Beverly Hills Cop
  2. Ghostbusters
  3. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  4. Gremlins
  5. The Karate Kid
  6. Police Academy
  7. Footloose
  8. Romancing the Stone
  9. Star Trek III: The Search for Spok
  10. Splash

Rotten Tomatoes Top Movies

  1. The Terminator (100%)
  2. Amadeus (95%)
  3. Repo Man (98%)
  4. Blood Simple (94%)
  5. Ghostbusters (96%
  6. This is Spinal Tap (95%)
  7. A Nightmare on Elm Street (96%)
  8. The Karate Kid (90%)

Movies We Still Care About

Amadeus

This is kind of a weirdly structured movie, in that the protagonist is the villain, and the antagonist is the hero.  You follow Salieri in his jealous attempt to destroy Mozart, and as the audience you’re compelled by this even as you’re rooting for him to fail.

A lot of the critically acclaimed and Oscar-winning dramas of the 80s have fallen off the radar screen for modern audiences, but Amadeus has remained popular.  This is partly because being set hundreds of years ago lets it avoid becoming mired in its own time period, and partly because of the stunning visuals, sets, and music of the film.  But I think the stronger reason it endures is because of its universal theme of demonstrating just how destructive jealousy can be.

As an example of how this endures in our culture, here’s a scene from the 1993 film Last Action Hero where the kid warns Arnold Schwarzenegger not to trust F. Murray Abraham because he killed Mozart.

And just for fun, here’s Falco’s song Rock Me Amadeus.

 

Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters combines the Laid-back comedy format that became popular in the early 80s with the stylings and tropes of an action-comedy, and ends up being among the best of both genres.  Written by its stars Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, and with Bill Murray ad-libbing most of his lines, it is hilarious while still having a compelling and original story.  Of the films to come out in 1984, this by far has the strongest cultural legacy and has achieved a level of Mythology. You can instantly visualize elements from this film such as Slimer, the proton packs, the uniforms and car, the song, and of course, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

As a testament to its legacy, it’s still quite common on the Internet for people to hold out hope that there will be a Ghostbusters 3, even thirty years after the original, when Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray are far too old and Harold Ramis far too dead for that to make any sort of sense.

Side note, my wife and I have had a years-long running argument over who would win a fight between the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and the Michelin Man. I think she’s crazy for even arguing the point.  Stay Puft is a 100-foot tall incarnation of the demon-god Gozer.  He’s basically Godzilla.  While Michelin Man is just a 7-foot tall stack of tires. But that’s beside the point.

Gremlins

If you were alive in the 80s, you remember how stuffed Mogwai were everywhere, and you can recite the three rules of caring for them by heart. The cultural impact of this has faded over time, but it’s a fun movie and worth another viewing.

Also, it contains a rather odd scene where Phoebe Cates tells the story of the worst Christmas ever.

Other Fond Memories

(These are movies that fit the category of “Movies We Still Care About,” but for which I personally can’t think of anything interesting to say. Please don’t take a movie’s inclusion in this category as any sort of criticism.  You are encouraged to voice your thoughts on these films in the comments section.)

The Karate Kid

Other Notable Films

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

I think that this is a movie that gets unfairly maligned.  It’s nowhere near as good as the other two movies in the Indiana Jones franchise.*  But that’s not really a fair comparison, because Raiders and Last Crusade are two of the best action movies of all time.  Temple of Doom is still pretty good.  I has a lot of fun action and characters you can’t help but root for.  I’d say that it’s much better than most action movies coming out today, and is definitely worth another look.

I wanted to embed the mine cart scene, but I could only find it online set to the song Wipeout.

* I continue to insist that there are only three Indiana Jones movies, as I refuse to acknowledge the existence of that alleged film that had aliens, fridge-nuking, and Shia LeBeouf swinging from vines with apes.

The Muppets Take Manhattan

See my comments regarding The Muppet Movie.

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Do you disagree with any of these choices, or think that I missed something?  Leave a comment below.