Legasequels have been all the rage in Hollywood for the last decade or so. With big-budget filmmaking being firmly in the “franchise” era, it’s hard to market an original idea when the moving going public might not take to it. Why pour all of your resources into some unproven property when a classic one will bring fans back even if they hate it? While the trend has maybe been going on for longer than many think (Halloween H20 is a good example), it really has taken off like wildfire in the past few years.
It’s really no surprise that after a generally negative audience reception to the previous Indiana Jones film, Disney would go ahead and greenlight a fifth installment once it acquired Lucasfilms. This is the chance to give Indy the send-off he deserves. We can correct the wrongs of that tacked-on fourth installment. We can even remove Shia LaBeouf and cast a hot new young actor who is rising in the ranks of Hollywood. What could go wrong?
Well, admittedly not much, but then nothing really goes right either.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
Director: James Mangold
Release Date: June 30, 2023
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny opens with a flashback to Indy’s (Harrison Ford) Nazi stomping days. Towards the end of the war in 1944, Jones is captured alongside his colleague, Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) as they attempt to abscond with the famed Lance of Longinus, aka the Spear of Destiny. Captured by astrophysicist Jurgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), a daring escape sees Indy and Basil jumping train cars while killing some nazi scum and barely making it out alive. Just before most of the train is destroyed, Indy discovers on the train what is known as the Antikythera, or Archimedes’ Dial.
Flash forward a few decades to 1969, Indy is about to celebrate his retirement from teaching. After separating from his wife Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) and being deposed to New York City, Indy is pretty much done with his tomb-raiding days. Little does he know that his estranged goddaughter, Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), will walk back into his life and reignite a fire for uncovering one of history’s greatest mysteries. Cue some globetrotting shenanigans that go on for two and a half hours.
As far as setups go, Dial of Destiny is really not that different from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. While Indy is very clearly past his prime here, this film much like the fourth one focuses a lot on how old Indy is. It’s not in stereotypically comical ways like him being unable to walk or complaining about achy bones, but more that the young kids have a different view of the world than Indy’s black-and-white morality. There’s also the introduction of a few characters Indy has been friends with for years but never felt the need to mention in the past.
In the case of Helena, that aspect is fine. While Waller-Bridge is 37 years old, she is incredibly convincing as someone in their early 20s. Using that logic, Basil would have had her right after WW2 and the only film Indy would have had the chance to bring her up is Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. A guest appearance from Antonia Banderas as Renaldo, however, raises a lot of questions about what the hell Indy has gotten into over the years. They go way back, apparently, but yet this incredibly useful guy in Morocco didn’t think to help Indy when he was on the trail of the Ark of the Covenant?
Then there is the master plan from Voller about acquiring the Dial and going back in time to win the war for the Nazi Party. While that part is clear, the way he goes about sending in sidekicks and trying to infiltrate the CIA just falls apart. Voller has earned the president’s trust by helping with NASA’s space program, but then he throws away a chance to cement that trust by chasing after Indy at the first opportunity. After he fails at apprehending Indy and Helena, the US is now onto him and he doesn’t think to maybe explain himself but proceeds to kill his CIA link. How he even winds up on Indy’s trail again is just pure luck, I guess.
The characterization, as well, doesn’t do Dial of Destiny any favors. Ford is as ornery as ever and while that is a perfect representation of what Indy would be at 80, it’s everyone else that feels like they are shades of past characters. Helena, for example, channels a bit of Marion and Mutt from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and doesn’t always gel with Indy. Her child sidekick, Teddy (Ethann Isidore) is maybe not as overtly racist as Short Round was in Temple of Doom, but is absolutely less essential to the plot. Even long lost friend Renaldo exists for a single sequence and comes off more as a gap filler than someone with a storied past with Jones.
General writing inconsistencies aside, however, what ultimately brings down Dial of Destiny is its action sequences. It’s completely understandable why Harrison Ford wouldn’t be performing daring stunts considering he is 80, but the majority of the action in this film is either overly dark or poorly green-screened. A big chase sequence on the streets of Tangier is so funkily edited with Indy’s clearly super-imposed tuk-tuk almost magically shifting forward that it just looks plain bad. When all of the close-ups on characters for dialogue happen, the background doesn’t properly match up with what you were just seeing, either.
The introductory sequence in WW2 channels some of the energy of past Indiana Jones adventures, but suffers from shaky cam and shots being too close to really comprehend. While other segments later in the film are framed better, they make too many references to past films to feel unique or exciting. If you wanted to watch the plane sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark, but worse, then Dial of Destiny is happy to deliver. There’s a general lack of tension that sucks a lot of the fun out of events.
Not everything is awful with Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, though. As I said, Ford does a commendable job in the role of an aging archeologist who just wants to protect what little he’s got left. Voller isn’t all that imposing of a villain, but Mikkelsen can perform roles like this in his sleep. He’s able to elevate the often-trite material beyond what’s written in the script. There are even a few classic one-liners that cap off action scenes in a manner reminiscent of the pulpy style that past films had.
It’s just that when you get to the end and the credits start to roll, nothing about Dial of Destiny feels like it moved Indy forward as a character or even attempted to provide you with something new. We don’t always need wholly original and innovative material to have a good time, but when you’re presenting a story about one of cinema’s greatest characters, why would you think it’s okay to write a story where his involvement doesn’t matter?
I’m not going to agree with imbeciles online complaining about “woke” and how Waller-Bridge is somehow Ms. Jones, but she could have handled this entire adventure without the help of her octogenarian godfather. That’s the real crime here: this feels like the same conclusion we already had 15 years ago. That isn’t even bringing up the one minor story beat (which constitutes a spoiler) that feels so oddly hamfisted in its execution that I just don’t understand what the logic was. It does at least give us the most human moment of the film with Indy explaining to Helena why he’s sticking around. Still, the fate of this particular character being decided off-screen in a manner that feels really cheap doesn’t add much to the weight of this movie.
Indiana Jones has never been the deepest of franchises, however. The three original 80s films helped push pulp adventure into the mainstream, but they weren’t meant to examine the pathos of Indy or even reflect specific anxieties of the times they were made. George Lucas conceived of the character as a way to pay homage to the Flash Gordon serials he watched as a kid as well as give audiences clear bad guys to root against. You don’t need an explanation for why a Nazi is bad unless you’re one of those idiots hanging around outside of Disney World waving the National Socialist Party flag. Most sane people know that the Nazis were history’s biggest villains.
For Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny to fall back on old habits and provide the same thing we’ve already gotten is somewhat understandable. Times are rough and people just want to watch an old guy punch Nazis. With better action direction, this would have been a perfectly adequate way to end the series. Sadly, we’ll forever be left with that original trilogy and lament about what could have been had its two ugly step sisters strived to be more.