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Why is “The Temple of Doom” So Much Darker Than the Other “Indiana Jones” Titles?

When The Temple of Doom (1984) was released, it received some adverse reactions due to its dark tone and difficult subject matter. While the film isn’t short on comedy and doesn’t take itself seriously, the themes of child slavery, human sacrifice, and dark magic are prevalent in the film. In one scene, a man bare-handedly rips another fellow’s heart from his chest (also a scene in another 1984 blockbuster Terminator) before dunking him in a pit of lava. The entire Thuggie shrine looks and feels like hell itself, covered in red and yellow lights, fire, and torture.

In The Complete Making of Indiana Jones book, George Lucas said “it had to have been a dark film in the way Empire Strikes Back (1980) was the dark second act of the Star Wars trilogy.” The Godfather Part II is another example of a film with a darker sequel.

Spielberg once commented on the subject, saying “George was going through a dark period. He certainly inspired [Irvin] Kershner to shoot a very dark second act in the first Star Wars trilogy and he wanted the second Indiana Jones to be very, very, dark. And I wasn’t there. I’m certainly there now in my filmmaking, as you’ve probably witnessed ever since Schindler’s List (1993). Before that, it was a bit of a struggle against common sense to go as dark as we did.”

Lucas added, “Part of it was I was going through a divorce, Steven had just broken up and we were not in a good mood, so we decided on something a little more edgy. It ended up darker than we thought it would be. Once we got out of our bad moods, which went on for a year or two, we kind of looked at it and went, “Mmmmm, we certainly took it to the extreme.” But that’s kind of what we wanted to do, for better or worse.”

Spielberg did end up marrying the film’s supporting actress, Kate Capshaw, so the darkness of the film created on the back of dual breakups apparently worked out as catharsis in the end - at least for Spielberg.