Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
Watching Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, I found myself—somewhat regretfully—thinking of another film depicting the last adventure of an aging hero, Richard Lester's Robin and Marian (1976).
At the end of that movie—spoiler alert for a nearly 50-year old, somewhat forgotten film—a painfully over-the-hill Robin Hood (Sean Connery) has just won his last heroic battle against improbable odds, finally defeating the (equally past-his-prime) Sheriff of Nottingham. Afterwards, Robin lays in bed, having his wounds tended by the love of his life, Marian (Audrey Hepburn), and reliving the glory of the battle. He never thought he'd have another day like this, he says—"the years whittle at you"—but he begins talking excitedly about how maybe there are still great battles ahead after all. They can go back to the forest, and Marian can nurse him back to health the way she used to, and then they can have more adventures together, "a life to sing about!"
Then Robin notices his legs have gone cold, and, as Marian states down at him wistfully, he realizes that she has poisoned him, and herself. "Jesus, Marian, why?" he asks her, horrified, and she quietly tells him, dying herself, that it's because she loves him. She loves him, she says, "more than sunlight, more than flesh, or joy, or one more day." And after a moment Robin smiles, realizing the wisdom of her actions. "I'd never have a day like this again, would I?" he says, and she fondly, sadly, shakes her head.
I saw Robin and Marian as a child, probably around the same time I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. At the time—as an 11- or 12-year-old boy—I hated that ending. (Robin Hood could still have more adventures! He had just proven that!) But of course now, as a 53-year-old man, I recognize the terrible wisdom in that screenplay from the great James Goldman (The Lion in Winter).
We always want the adventures of our heroes to go on forever. But there inevitably comes a point when all the good days are gone. Our heroes were larger than life once, but eventually they can only grow smaller, and their legends can only diminish with each attempt to get back on the horse, to get back in the ring, to relive the glory days one last time. Every hero reaches a point where, if we really love them, the only thing we can do is let them go.
There is no such moment—no such wisdom—in James Mangold's Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. If there had been, perhaps there would be some justification for its existence. Our old friend Dr. Jones (Harrison Ford) punches a lot of Nazis throughout the film—as he always did, and always should—but the movie is painfully conscious of the fact that Indy's real enemy is time. (The first sound we hear in the film is a clock ticking, and the story is crowded with significant timepieces, watches, and that titular device—which turns out to be a semi-self-aware metaphor for the film's understandable but unnatural desire to roll time back.)
So time is the enemy, but at no point is the film willing to concede the fight. There are moments in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny when its hero seems to know it's far past time he stopped, but the film (like the franchise) just won't let him, forcing the aging hero (and the aging actor) to keep fighting, to keep marching, to keep dancing joylessly to music he and we can no longer hear. The film acknowledges time but refuses to accept its realities or accede to its reasonable, inevitable demands. And so Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny diminishes its hero's legend exactly by refusing to do so. It refuses to surrender, but that defiant denial of reality increasingly seems more pathetic than heroic. That moment of resignation and acceptance and wisdom never comes in this movie, which means it should have come—to someone—before this movie was ever made.
To be clear, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is not a terrible or unwatchable movie. In fact—given its many challenges, and the impossibly high standards it would be judged by—that it works as well as it does is something of a small triumph. But that's exactly the point: "small triumphs" are not what we want for our heroes. Small triumphs just make them smaller. Certainly, this movie is better than it could have been. But it would have been even better—for the hero, for the fans, for everyone except those making money off it—if this movie had never existed at all.
To be fair to James Mangold and everyone involved in making Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, the problem did not begin with them. Creators George Lucas and Steven Spielberg left Indiana Jones with the perfect ending, back in the third film of what I still think of as a trilogy: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Indy had completed his greatest adventure, he had rescued and reconciled with his father, and he had drunk from the Holy Grail, creating the possibility in our minds that he might stay strong and vigorous forever. Then, Indiana Jones did what every hero should get the chance to do: he rode off into the sunset. That is where they should have left him in our memories: off having endless adventures that we could imagine but never see.
But then Spielberg and Lucas and Ford brought Indy back, almost 20 years later, for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). That film—which featured the welcome return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, and the less welcome introduction of their previously unknown son "Mutt" (Shia LaBeouf)—was met with decidedly mixed reviews from critics and a lot of disdain from fans. In retrospect, Crystal Skull isn't quite as bad as its reputation. Fans complained about overly preposterous plotting (aliens), and ridiculously unrealistic set-pieces (such as the notorious scene in which Indy rides out an A-bomb blast in a refrigerator), but such complaints could be lodged just as fairly against any film in the franchise.
For my money, the biggest issue with that fourth installment might have been that we original fans weren't twelve years old anymore, but we wanted something that made us feel as if we were. What we got wasn't terrible: it just wasn't necessary, and (after 20 years) it couldn't possibly be as satisfying as what we'd gotten before.
Now, 15 years after that, we get a fifth unnecessary installment, the first without Steven Spielberg at the helm, and the first with no story input from either Spielberg or Lucas. We pick up in a prologue set at the end of Indy's native milieu, the Second World War, with a bit of wish-fulfillment for both the film and the fans: an Indiana Jones (and a Harrison Ford) restored to youth and vitality through the imperfect miracle of digital de-aging technology.
(The effect is distracting, but not badly done, and I wonder whether everyone might have been better served if they'd employed it throughout the entire film. Certainly, the special effect is no more distracting that the computer-enhanced backgrounds the film utilizes constantly. And it's no more unnerving than the illusions and contrivances necessary to convince us that an 80-year-old man can, or should, gallop on a horse ahead of a roaring subway train, go deep-sea diving in the Aegean Sea, or skydive out of an airplane over Sicily.)
It is on this flashback mission that Indy first encounters Nazi scientist Dr. Voller (Mads Mikkelsen, looking bored), and we first learn of the existence of our movie's MacGuffin, the Antikythera, an ancient and mysterious mechanism built by Archimedes. As artifacts tend to—at least in Dr. Jones' version of archaeology—the so-called "Dial of Destiny" has supernatural powers, and must be kept out of Nazi hands. Along for this ride is Indy's more traditionally professorial colleague Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) who will, we learn, become obsessed with the power of the Antikythera.
It is also in this prologue sequence that we get a sense of both the thin pleasures and deeper disappointments the film will provide. The entire opening is a delightful marvel of classic Indiana Jones thrills, as Indy careens from frying pan into fire and back to frying pan, over and over. One cleverly designed set-piece and stunt after another, this is cinema as a non-stop Rube Goldberg machine: it's very Spielbergean, it's very Indiana Jones, and it's exactly what we paid our ticket money hoping to see.
But. (You knew there was a "but" coming, didn't you?) But James Mangold is no Steven Spielberg. And that would be fine: no one should expect him to be. Yet he tries to be. Mangold (Logan, Ford v. Ferrari) is an excellent director of action and suspense sequences in his own right, but here he is not trying to direct like himself, but like the Spielberg of forty years ago. We can feel him aping the beats and shots and rhythms of Spielberg, but it doesn't quite work: as well-versed as he is in the house-style, and as well-designed as the stunts are, none of it has quite the same snap. (There is absolutely no universe in which we would have gotten an Indiana Jones movie that didn't try to be a Steven Spielberg movie, but I can't help but wonder what a completely fresh take from Mangold might have looked like.)
And it doesn't help that nearly everything is computer-generated, and all of it is a little fuzzy, and nothing feels real. The long sequence on the Nazi train is thrilling, but it's also incredibly dark: stunts and scares and gags fail to land properly because we have a lot of trouble seeing them. (This is a problem that occurs throughout the film: the later underwater sequence in almost unintelligible.) It is probably useless to bemoan the prevalence of green-screen environments in Hollywood, but it almost always looks murky, and it never has any weight. (As much as we miss Spielberg's hand at the wheel here, we also miss the late, great Douglas Slocombe, cinematographer on the first three Indiana Jones movies.)
And it is definitely useless to bemoan computer trickery in an action movie with an 80-year-old leading man, but it all comes at a cost. (The original movies were travelogues as much as anything else, but here one wonders if Harrison Ford ever actually left a green-screen studio.) Say what you will about Spielberg, but his visual storytelling has always been impeccable: one of the reasons his action sequences work as well as they do is that we can always see what's happening, we always know where everyone is, and he always takes care to ensure that the audience can follow the cause-and-consequences of every single moment. That, sadly, is not the case in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, where we suspect a great many sequences were effectively directed (like big Marvel-movie fight scenes) by overworked and underpaid VFX artists.
After the opening sequence, we jump forward in time to New York in August 1969, the day the Apollo 11 astronauts are being honored with a parade for landing on the moon. (Time, again, is menacing Indiana Jones from every direction.) Jones, we quickly learn, is living alone, having separated from Marion after the death of their son in Vietnam. (Sorry if that's a spoiler, but the ruthlessness with which the film dispenses with the awful character of Mutt Williams—and the equally awful presence of Shia LaBeouf—was one of my chief pleasures in it.) He is living in a tiny rundown apartment surrounded by loud hippy neighbors, and about to retire from his job, teaching bored freshmen at a small university hell and gone from the hallowed halls of academia where we saw him last. His adventures are long over, and his life seems like it will follow quickly.
Then a number of variously sinister parties come knocking, chief among them Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag), Basil's daughter and Indy's goddaughter. A bit of a rogue and con-artist in her own right, Helena is looking for the Antikythera, determined to track down the object of her father's obsession. ("Wouldn't you?" she asks Indiana, in a nice moment that flashes us back to his search for his father's obsession in "The Last Crusade.") When Dr. Voller also reappears looking for the Dial, accompanied by a small army of merciless Nazi thugs, we're off to the races.
There is no need to further discuss, let alone spoil, the plot. We are back in classic Indiana Jones territory, treasure-hunting and Nazi-punching through the streets of Tangier, through eel-infested shipwrecks off the coast of Greece, and through insect-infested, puzzle-trap caves in Sicily. All of it is familiar, most of it is fine, little of it is fun, and exactly none of it is great.
Ford has always been an underrated actor, and he manages to put some actual pathos in his aged adventurer, despite a script that requires his 80-year-old character to scale walls and jump between moving vehicles like he's at least 40 years younger than he is. (The film wants to acknowledge Indy's age, but it never wants to actually deal with it.) I do not begrudge Ford his last chance to play this character—for which he has always exhibited palpable affection—but it is never fully convincing here. (He sometimes seems a little disconnected, with hitches and hesitancy in his performance. I suspect this is due less to Ford's age, and more to the fact that he probably never knew what the hell green-screen event he was pretending to be looking at.)
Waller-Bridge is an enchanting actress, and Helena's wickedly bemused energy provides a welcome counterpoint to Ford's stoic grumpiness. (If the plan is to spin the franchise off to her character, I'll watch, though I actually hope and believe that Waller-Bridge has far more interesting things to do with her career and talents.) But the relationship between her and Indiana Jones never really deepens the way it needs to, leaving an emotional void at the center of the movie that no amount of running around can fill.
Ultimately, there's just no point to it all: it's a forced and unconvincing series of improbable jumps through all-too familiar hoops, for tragically little reward. Mangold and Co. went out of their way to make Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny about the problem of time—even the preposterously unexplained magical device hinges on it—but the movie doesn't have any idea what to do with that promising theme, and it certainly doesn't have any wisdom on how to address its knotty problem. At the end of the film someone suggests that Indy is "back"—that he has now reawakened up from a long dull worthlessness of depression and inactivity. But the man is old, and his adventures are over, and running around punching Nazis should not be his, or anyone's, only worth. So the film is a cruel and unconvincing lie: there's no de-aging technology or green-screen or magical devices that can conquer time, and we'll all eventually have to find other ways to be heroic. If the film had had the guts to deal with that—to let Ford really explore this character as an elderly ex-hero learning to be old, much as Mangold's own Logan did—it might have turned out to be something worth watching.
What's that you say? That movie doesn't sound like much fun? Well, it saddens me to report that this one isn't much fun either.