The spirit of adventure remains alive in this fifth installment of the legendary Indiana Jones series. I may as well say that right up top, as it’s oddly tricky to tell what is expected of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. Three of the entries in this franchise are pure classics. Despite being a hit and receiving favorable reviews at the time, the previous installment, 2008’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, has not held onto the best reputation. On top of that, two vital individuals, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the guys who came up with this whole enterprise, are not calling the shots for this fifth entry (although they are still executive producers). Could director James Mangold (Logan, Ford v Ferrari) pull off something special and give Harrison Ford’s iconic character a proper send-off? Well, this movie delivered more than just John William’s fantastic score to keep me excited.
An extended prologue set in 1944, featuring a de-aged Ford, sets things in motion. Whether or not this segment wanders too far into the uncanny valley, I had plenty of fun here. We essentially watch the third act of a lost Indy movie, which is how they all start. All of these films also rely on the latest and greatest in special effects at the time to pull off something wild amid a pulpy adventure story. As Ford’s younger face is sure to be heavily debated, I’ll just say it wasn’t too jarring for me in this age of CG-driven blockbuster cinema.
Back to the plot at hand, Nazis find a mysterious piece of a dial known as the Antikthera, originally developed by Ancient Greek scientist Archimedes. Indiana Jones, being as good as he is, goes to great lengths while aboard a train to stop the Nazis who want it, including Mads Mikkelsen’s Jürgen Voller, and bring the dial back home for his friend Basil Shaw (Toby Jones doing his best Denholm Elliot, aka Marcus Brody impression) to study. Cut to 1969. America has just landed on the moon, and Indy is ready to retire from his days as a tenured professor.
Despite The Dial of Destiny’s attempts to remind you of the young globe-trotting archaeologist, this is not a film uninterested in what it’s like for an Indiana Jones in his late 70s. It factors into this story pretty well, as you have a character wearing his remorse openly, even as he maintains a dry wit and considerable energy. Based on the new status quo established at the end of the previous movie (married and with a son), there will obviously be questions about how Indy’s life has changed. This film has those answers, and it’s an effective way to open up the character without feeling like we’re getting cheated.
Also helping are the choices regarding what a man his age is capable of. Even in the heightened realm of cinema where these characters exist (something that should never be forgotten), I appreciated the effort to keep Indy out of scenarios where his physical capabilities were wildly over the top. There is horseback riding, tuk-tuk chases, deep sea diving, and some fist fights, of course, but Jones is rarely pushed in a way that made me question what this septuagenarian was truly capable of. Still, this is a pretty action-packed feature.
The current-day plot involves Indy’s efforts to get his hands on the dial once again, as it could be the key to something amazing or disastrous in the wrong hands. His goddaughter, and the daughter of Toby Jones’ Basil, Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), is after it for reasons amounting to fortune and glory. Mikkelsen’s character returns, still Nazi, but doubling as a NASA scientist, hoping to get the dial for himself, with help from some henchmen, including Boyd Holbrook’s “shoot everyone and ask questions later” character and Dutch bodybuilder Olivier Richters as “huge assassin.”
These goals lead to a globe-trotting adventure, complete with all the familiar ideas when it comes to an Indiana Jones feature. We take multiple stops for the characters to find new clues. Some areas feature booby traps that require some quick thinking. The occasional collision of our heroes and enemies provides exciting chases, fights, and escapes. All of this is handled with a level of care I appreciated.
Ford has certainly seen his share of years go by, but as he’s said in the past, “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.” The actor genuinely likes exploring this role, even if the series is designed, as Spielberg once said, to only be made up of the fun and exciting scenes. At over two and a half hours (with credits), this is the longest Indiana Jones movie and not without some time to breathe. However, the main drive remained compelling throughout.
We learn about Indy’s position at this stage in his life, what he wants, and what he misses. As an effective contrast, Waller-Bridge is not only having a lot of fun with this role but also serving as a reminder of who Indy once was. Taking inspiration from the younger Indy we met in The Temple of Doom, Helena is not a character insisting on artifacts going to museums. She’s happy to sell them to suit her needs and even has her own Short Round (Teddy, played by Ethann Isidore) to aid in her adventures. It allows for an appropriate dynamic in this film as we follow these characters, hear them bicker, as well as find common ground when dealing with those after them or the dial.
The object in question will likely not be seen without some controversy as well. Without digging into the film’s third act, I can note how it’s not unlike how the previous films attempt to stretch the imagination to suit the bridge between gritty adventure and fantasy. Especially given the year this film is set, after watching stories resembling the serial adventures of the 30s and 40s and the space/nuclear age of the 50s, where this film goes to match what’s fitting of the 60s is understandable and taken to an extreme I certainly saw fit for an Indiana Jones adventure.
Of course, all this only goes so far when considering who’s behind the scenes. Yes, there’s only one Spielberg, and even in his off-days, he knows more about proper scene composition than almost anyone else working. Still, James Mangold clearly came open to delivering something fitting Indy’s style. Raiders of the Lost Ark clearly influenced this film, but you can say that about so many adventure films that have come since that 1981 classic.
What takes proper attempts to a higher level is seeing filmmakers that clearly understand the inspirations behind Raiders. Mangold, a lover of Westerns, among other forms of older cinema, also brings these ideas with him. As a result, while I can’t say The Dial of Destiny can line itself up with Howard Hawks, Michael Curtiz, or David Lean, it feels like the film has more on its mind than just being “another one of these.”
It helps that the film looks great. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not a film I focus energy on hating (yes, my childhood is still intact), but DP Janusz Kaminski dropped the ball entirely on capturing the rough-and-tumble quality of the original trilogy. In comparison, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael does a better job at getting the feel right. Yes, this is still an incredibly expensive Disney film that relies on many visual effects to go along with the practical staging, but it plays like a movie that is happy to get a lot of dirt on Indy’s jacket as well.
If there’s anything that doesn’t quite payoff, it’s the needless complications to the plot. An element involving the CIA’s connection to Mikkelsen’s Nazi and his men doesn’t amount to anything beyond making things hazier than necessary. Helena’s immediate backstory involving her angry fiancé is basically forced on us. And, sure, it’s asking a lot in terms of how much time is spent on certain aspects of this story. However, with less reliance on nostalgia than the previous film, and even a choice for Indy to wrestle with his legacy when it comes to how others see him and are willing to help, I wasn’t too concerned with how much this movie wanted to throw at me.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is a summer blockbuster delivering on what this original premise set out to do – dazzle me with an exciting piece of pulp fiction given a huge budget. It kept me excited when dealing with a rock star archeologist who finds himself barely escaping deadly situations and coming to new understandings regarding myths and legends. The fact that our hero is now a legend himself provides the opportunity to dig deeper into that as well. The results allow Ford plenty of grace notes as he wraps up his tenure as one of the coolest cinematic figures out there…even if he is named after the dog.