By now, the critics have pretty well documented the triviality and ugliness of ''Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,'' Steven Spielberg's latest thrill-a-minute movie.
Syndicated columnist George F. Will calls it ''shocking extremism in popular entertainment.'' Monitor film critic David Sterritt describes it as ''shuffling back toward infancy.'' Vincent Canby of the New York Times characterizes it as ''exuberantly tasteless.''
These and other critics have taken the movie to task for its paucity of plot and emptiness of characterization. They have found no meaningful symbolism nor insight. What they have found, instead, is a movie with little of the lighthearted adventure of ''Raiders of the Lost Ark'' (Spielberg's earlier Indiana Jones movie), or the sci-fi futurism of the ''Star Wars'' trilogy, or the ontological reverberations of ''Dark Crystal.''
Yet the film, during its first box office week, has grossed more than any other movie ever released. And a vast segment of its audience consists of children. Clearly there is something here of interest to more than film buffs. What is this phenomenon telling us about ourselves?
The answer may lie in the words ''special effects'' -- the use of state-of-the-art cinematic techniques, computer-aided design, and complex sets and puppetry to produce striking illusionism. In and of themselves, of course, special effects are not bad. Movies, after all, are pure illusion: So the prize , naturally, goes to those who can make the most bizarre experience seem wholly real.
Nor is it enough to object that the expenditures on such effects (''Temple of Doom'' reportedly cost $26 million to make) are disproportionate to humanity's real needs. That's long been true in the entertainment industry. No, at bottom, this upward trend in special effects, with each new movie falling over itself to outdo the last, is troublesome for two more important reasons:
* The trend is highly exploitative of children. Neither instructive nor delightful, ''Temple of Doom'' merely shocks -- and does so in the context of a PG (''Parental Guidance Suggested'') rating. It has all the earmarks of pornography: It manipulates thought by playing on emotions, which, although common to humanity, are degrading rather than elevating. In this movie, the emotions happen not to be sexual but visceral -- the fascination with the repulsive, the violent, and the terrifying. Most thoughtful people recognize that no adult is helped by ceding power to the sensual emotions: Hence the outcry against pornography. We need also to recognize that no child is helped by indulging the visceral emotions. At best, such indulgence leads to a sensory overload that no longer distinguishes tenderness from violence. At worst it produces a depravity that recoils at nothing.
* The trend is symptomatic of broader social concerns. We are becoming, in many ways, a ''special effects'' society -- where the message and meaning of our acts pale into insignificance beside the hype and glitter of the packaging. Elementary school teachers learned years ago that they had trouble competing with ''Sesame Street'' and other children's TV shows: They couldn't sing and dance while teaching the alphabet. In a similar way, this year's Democratic presidential candidates have learned that they are more honored for their images than for their ideas. In each case, the problem is the same: a world so dominated by a visceral fascination with ''special effects'' that the substance gets lost.
In the end, the problem is one of degree -- always the hardest sort to master , especially for the young. Eating and driving are not wrong; gluttony and speeding are. So, too, special effects are not wrong; trashy spectaculars are. Knowing where to draw the line -- how to understand restraint -- is one of the qualities distinguishing adults from children. In abandoning restraint, ''Temple of Doom'' is merely childish; in willfully and perversely doing so, it is distinctly unhealthy.