“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” Movie Review
The sequel that Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny most reminds me of is Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. That might seem strange because the Lucasfilm productions, released twenty-one years apart, share little in terms of personnel, content, and function. There’s no cringey romance poised to become future memes and Dial is not meant to sit sandwiched between two installments whose gaps it bridges. No, the reason for the comparison is like Clones, Dial is the fifth film in the franchise and it may well inspire the public to re-evaluate its immediate predecessor, a widely ridiculed revival from which it is most certainly a downgrade.
After opening to generally favorable reviews and performing very well at the box office in the brief window in between the first Iron Man and The Dark Knight, 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull somehow became a laughingstock. Popular properties often inspire extreme reactions and all the more so when they are revived for a new generation and thus judged impossibly against childhood nostalgia. I’ve never understood the hatred that many hold towards Crystal Skull, which stuck close to the series’ playbook in catching up with its hero amidst the Cold War paranoia and greasers of the 1950s. The film boasted a stellar cast, strong set pieces, and the high production values of a film by Steven Spielberg and his trusted collaborators. Like the similarly hated (and gradually being re-evaluated) Spider-Man 3, it’s a fun and solid piece of modern tentpole filmmaking. If Crystal Skull seemed a bit silly with its period-appropriate sci-fi-leanings, so too did the three Indy movies of the 1980s, globe-trotting adventures inspired by Hollywood serials of the 1930s and ’40s.
Given Crystal Skull‘s meager reputation (it currently sports an unflattering 2.6 out of 5 average star rating on Letterboxd and a not much better 6.2 on IMDb), it seems odd for the franchise to continue now, fifteen years later, and to do so for the first time without Spielberg in the director’s chair. James Mangold, a respected filmmaker with a résumé that ranges from Girl, Interrupted to Logan, takes the helm and also shares writing credits with seasoned blockbuster scribe David Koepp (Spider-Man, Jurassic Park) and the Butterworth brothers (Edge of Tomorrow, Ford v Ferrari).
Dial opens with a prologue set in the 1940s, shortly after the events of the original trilogy that began with 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Archaeologist-adventure Jones (Harrison Ford) is in Europe looking to reclaim some of the priceless historical artifacts the Nazis have been plundering during World War II. Visual effects are used to de-age Ford to around the age of 40, but they fall short, leaving us in the infamous Uncanny Valley with a hero who looks like a video game animation dropped in a live-action world. It’s jarring being asked to believe the illusion right at the top, where the film has always presented some of its biggest thrills. Forgoing the usual Paramount Pictures mountain logo transition (this is the first installment distributed from the start by Disney, which acquired Lucasfilm in 2012), this sequel crafts some lively action up front, but struggles to achieve the necessary suspension of disbelief purely based on the central illusion. We recall Spielberg’s similarly visually unsettling 2011 Tintin movie and I couldn’t help but consider the fact that this youthened Indy seems less lifelike than the Audio-Animatronic figure of the character built in 1989 for the since-shuttered Great Movie Ride at Walt Disney World.
As technically unfulfilling as it is, this opening sequence lays the groundwork for the rest of the film’s narrative as it sees Indy and his newly-introduced close friend and colleague Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) seizing part of the subtitular artifact, the ancient Antikythera created by the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes milleniae ago. After they lose half of the dial, we jump to the summer of 1969, which is as recent as this film gets. Grumpy old Indy is retiring from New York’s Hunter College, where he has taught for ten years, and he’s not crazy about his hippie neighbors playing their rock and/or roll at all hours of the morning.
Recently separated from Marion, Indy is paid a visit by his goddaughter Helena (“Fleabag” creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge), the adult daughter of the now-deceased Basil who has grown increasingly interested in the legend of the Antikythera. As the two are reconnecting, Helena and, by extension, Indy become targeted by some bothersome goons. These one-dimensional henchmen, who regrettably feature extensively here, are doing the bidding of one former Nazi physicist (Mads Mikkelsen), who first crossed paths with Indy a quarter-century earlier.
Mangold and company pack plenty of plot into what is the longest entry in the series by nearly a half-hour, but not much of it warrants recapping. Old Indy is somewhat razzed by Helena and her hirsute young companion Teddy (Ethann Isidore). They are repeatedly pursued by the former Nazi and his minions. And there is room for a cameo for one of Indy’s oldest friends, Salah (John Rhys-Davies, returning to the franchise for the first time since 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).
Mangold is clearly familiar with and fond of the franchise, although he doesn’t show too much interest in remaining slavishly faithful to Spielberg’s winning playbook. At 91, the immortal John Williams is back to reprise and rework the iconic theme music with a suitable score that was once announced to be his final. Other Spielberg confidantes, like cinematographer Janusz Kamiński and 92-year-old editor Michael Kahn, sit this one out, having both been recently busy on Spielberg’s own fine back to back movies of the past two years. Mangold knows to include a scene with creepy crawlies and to pay homage to Indy’s iconic swordfight gun draw, but his trusted cinematographer Phedon Papamichael doesn’t try to ape Janusz Kamiński’s wondrous compositions, lighting, and camerawork. And the trio of editors, two of whom won an Oscar for Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari (2019), don’t feel compelled to bring this in at the established two-hour mark, although there is little to justify the bloat.
At 80 years old, Harrison Ford is the Mick Jagger of action movie stars. When he’s not being distractingly de-aged, Ford still boasts his character’s well-known wit, derring-do, and weariness. This classic personality is clearly the best thing about Dial of Destiny. Not only is the actor reprising a character he first debuted over forty years ago, but he’s doing it in a way that feels right and not exploitative or pathetic. He can’t quite move around like he used to (and the prologue’s CGI of him hopping atop of moving train cars seems almost amusingly Jack Skellingtonesque) and his shirtless scene won’t inspire much jealousy or lust outside of senior communities. But he’s still that charismatic genius, defiantly brave and perpetually thirsty for knowledge.
Beyond that, there isn’t a whole lot to enjoy here, unfortunately. Although Waller-Bridge seems beloved by the Internet for her offbeat BBC series, she does not have much chemistry with her godfather, nor does she have compelling leading lady presence. Other cast members may feel like a perfect fit for the material, just as the likes of Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone, and John Hurt did last time around. But, apart from some predictably villainous airs exuded by Mikkelsen, these new characters either leave us flat or fail to get adequately developed. How is it possible to spend two and a half hours with these characters without truly getting to know or appreciate them? This saga has always been somewhat of a one-man show, but colorful supporting characters like Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko and recent Oscar winner Ke Huy Quan’s Short Round have added welcome flavor. Here, the aging protagonist has shockingly little to work with.
Dial of Destiny checks off various boxes that are expected of a 2023 Disney summer blockbuster with a nearly $300 million production budget. The sound is rousing and the action is fairly competent. But this fivequel comes up short in the passion and fun departments. What should be Indy’s last stand feels less like a nostalgic revival and more like a surefire way for everyone to get paid handsomely. It is mostly hollow and meaningless and any criticism leveled towards the last outing applies three times as much here. Thought the “nuke the fridge” scene was bad? Get a load of the horseback romp through a busy New York City Moon Day parade, as cringeworthy, both technically and dramatically, as any sequence in the franchise.
The gap from Crystal Skull to this is shorter than the one in between Last Crusade and Crystal Skull and it also feels much, much shorter to anyone who was alive at any point in the ’80s. Ford may be the king of legacy sequels, with Blade Runner 2049 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens ranking among the best works of his highly accomplished career. This one falls short of his gold standard and after premiering at Cannes to a tepid critical reception, it may very well not even end up with commercial success, the foregone conclusion implicit at its foundation, it largely doesn’t deserve.