Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is Lucasfilm’s latest chance to ruin your childhood. But will it? Read on for my thoughts…
Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is an aged archaeologist/ professor whose globe-trotting adventure days are far behind him. He’s in the process of a divorce, he lives alone, and he feels out of touch with the world around him. But Jones is whisked back into action alongside young adventurer Helena– Jones’ god-daughter– to protect and preserve the ancient Dial of Destiny from Nazis.
I fully expected this film to disappoint me, piss me off, and leave me further jaded with Lucasfilm’s direction. Their handling of other beloved properties (namely Star Wars) has, to put it mildly, been unimpressive. But I trusted in the direction of James Mangold, star Harrison Ford, and composer John Williams to give us some semblance of a respectful send-off for Indy.
Multiple of these concerns were alleviated straight away, from Dial of Destiny‘s opening text. What do you know: they used the same style as the old movies? Good, good. Someone paid attention to the details. The next 15-20 minutes continually satisfied the Indie fan in me with its high-contrast lighting, improvisational tone, classic sound-effects, and fast-paced action.
But let’s address the elephant in the room though: these first 20 minutes feature a de-aged Harrison Ford, made to resemble what he looked like back in the 80s. The child me in me rejoiced at the chance to witness a facsimile of Harrison Ford in his prime in a new movie. But the critic in me wasn’t entirely convinced by the effect. The face actually looked great for the most part (though is still uncanny-valley)! Yet it was Harrison Ford’s 80-year old voice which spoiled the illusion, whenever he spoke– which was thankfully very little in that sequence.
Harrison Ford is as good as ever in this role! Jones has always been cynical and world-weary, which Ford delivers with excellence, but there’s also newfound vulnerability to him. We’re given an Indy whose decades of tragedies have softened his edges, led him to re-evaluate his priorities, and whose wisdom has grown to new heights. Don’t get me wrong: he’s still a bull-whip cracking, jaw-breaking, death-defying badass too. Though Ford (and the script) wisely scale back Indy’s stunt-work, as the character’s age for these crazy situations already strains credibility.
I’m glad the script acknowledges Ford’s age, yet doesn’t treat him as weak. ‘Cause Ford himself is up for these stunts, so why shouldn’t Indy be? Yet I wish Indy’s struggles with age weren’t relegated to one-off jokes, and a good scene where Indy can’t climb a wall. ‘Cause this story is clearly about aging and regrets, yet only scratches the surface of the former.
As to regrets: Dial of Destiny effectively showcases the things Indy WISHES he’d done with his life. They felt true to the character and resonated with me as a long-time fan of this franchise. Dial of Destiny allows Indy to find some emotional closure in his life, so that we might as well (for Indy anyway).
I can’t call Dial of Destiny‘s addition to Indy’s story “necessary” (as Last Crusade and Crystal Skull already offered good enough closure for my tastes) but it leaves the character in a more definitive place, with which I am satisfied. The ending offered an strangely anti-climactic, bittersweet, and fitting conclusion to the story of a legendary character.
NOTE: I can see a good chunk of people hating the ending as much as they hated the end to Crystal Skull. But I don’t mind either end, ’cause they don’t feel much more weird to me than anything in the original trilogy.
But what of Ford’s supporting cast: Phoebe Waller-Bridge makes an impression as Jones’ adventuring partner, Helena Shaw. I can’t say said impression is entirely good though… Waller-Bridge plays the character with charisma, and some wit, and intriguing ingenuity. Though Shaw is also arrogant, un-empathetic, and opportunistic.
For once, I believe the later traits were given to a “young upstart” trope by design! They make her hard to root for, yet also give her room to grow, and allow Jones to shine as the film’s moral centre (instead of having her be objectively right about everything and make Jones look stupid, as many other modern films would try). I only wish her arc was more clearly defined– ’cause she had potential and splashes of intrigue, but her story failed to stick its landing.
Then there’s Dial of Destiny‘s villain: Voller (Mads Mikkelsen): a Nazi scientist, humiliated by Germany’s defeat in the war, and out to rectify Hitler’s so-called “mistakes” through use of an ancient relic. Mikkelsen brings gravitas to an otherwise paint-by-numbers villain. The only thing which stood out to me about this character is his obsession with science and mathematics. It’s mildly interesting, and all he’s got going for him.
Voller’s biggest issue is tied with that of the titled “Dial of Destiny“: that being, their point is unclear. Neither Voller’s plan nor the Dial are explained till the film’s third act. And, by then, we’ve long-since stopped caring about the “why” of it all. These storytelling problems derail the narrative flow, and relegate this film to a series of loosely-connected set-pieces.
How were those set-pieces though? Good, mostly. Yet there’s nothing here which stands out as much as prior franchise outings (for better or worse). But Mangold helms the action competently. Stunt-work is impressive; cinematography and choreography combine for some solid sequences. But the downfall of these action scenes is the same as 90% of mediocre action films: choppy editing, some obvious CGI-work, and poor sense of geography. It’s still better than most action films though.
The great John WIlliams is set to retire from film composition after this movie. But he picked a hell of a final project on which to go out. I haven’t been so rivetted by a score in a LONG time. He tapped into the legendary energy of his 80s work to produce one more special work of art. William’s music elevates every scene beyond its flaws to make them NEARLY great. Most magic to be gleaned from Dial of Destiny rests with Williams’ contributions to the film.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is like a middling attempt to recreate some old family recipe: you followed the ingredients and procedures to a tee, but it still tastes off. James Mangold, try as he might, can’t compare to the magical touch of Spielberg. His direting is more than competent, but lacks that child-like wonder and awe which defined the rest of the franchise. This plot is for old Indiana Jones fans, who might wish to confront the realities of nostalgia and aging, versus for the children in us all who wanna see a cool adventure movie (with some heady depth for good measure).
The film also suffers from the same issue which plagues multiple legacy sequels: in that it’s more inspired by previous entries in the franchise than the media which inspired those entries. The original Indiana Jones was inspired by cheesy B-movie adventure serials from the 30s, whilst Crystal Skull was inspired by cheesy B-movie sci-fi films from the 50s (all with Lucas and Spielberg’s masterful creativity serving to elevate them into an art form). Dial of Destiny, meanwhile, is merely inspired by Indiana Jones movies– which leads to a case of the snake eating its own tail. DoD’s less diverse influences create a more shallow and unoriginal product than its predecessors.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny won’t piss people off as much as you might think, but it’s not as good as you’d have wanted either. It’s just… fine. And that’ll break some people’s hearts. But I’ll take “fine” over “outright awful”.
Dial of Destiny isn’t Indy’s best outing, but it’s Worth a Watch.
IN-DEPTH ANALYSES OF THE ABOVE, AND MORE, ON THIS EPISODE OF CLOSE UP:
What’s the best legacy sequel you’ve seen? What did you think of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know.
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Till next time,