Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (PG-13)
06/08/23 23:25 Filed in: 2023
Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Harrison Ford
Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!
Fifteen years after the infamous Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), we have the fifth, and final, film in the fedora franchise.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny opens on a rainy night in Germany, circa 1944. While operating behind enemy lines, Indy is captured by Nazis…because what would an Indy film be without them? A protracted, passé action sequence ensues, pitting Indy and his sidekick, Basil Shaw (an egregiously underserved Toby Jones), against German soldiers and Colonel Weber (Thomas Kretschmann) on top of a train. With the bad guys vanquished and the artifact secured…
…we jump forward in time to the movie’s present—1969. It’s “Space Day,” and a massive crowd is celebrating the safe return of the Apollo 11 astronauts with a ticker tape parade in NYC. Just as Indy is about to retire from teaching, his goddaughter, Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), surfaces and embroils the octogenarian archeologist in a globetrotting adventure to discover the titular artifact, which, purportedly, can open fissures in time.
So, the burning question for many fans of the series will be, does Dial resemble the original trilogy or the ignominious previous film? Dial is a hard left turn from campy Crystal, a wise choice by studio execs and the film’s producers. It’s a serious film; perhaps too serious. In an effort not to come off like a cartoon (a la Crystal), Dial overcorrects, to its detriment. Though its action sequences are finely executed by director James Mangold—this is the first Indy film not to be helmed by Steven Spielberg—there’s little levity to counterbalance the movie’s earnest storytelling and somber mood. Indeed, despite its surfeit of high-octane action scenes, Dial is a joyless joyride.
At two hours and thirty-four minutes, Dial is overlong and over involved. It spends too much time focusing on the past when the more interesting story elements are in the present—namely, the fate of Indy’s son (no Shia LaBeouf as Mutt in this outing) and Indy’s strained relationship with his wife, Marion (Karen Allen, who makes a brief appearance in the film).
And speaking of the past, the movie’s climax is sure to raise a few eyebrows…and make others mad enough to throw their bucket of popcorn at the movie screen. Though not as jarringly unrealistic as the alien reveal at the end of Crystal, Dial’s time-jumping climax will surely create a debate over whether or not it “jumps the shark” (with apologies to Jaws). Spoilers: Why is Helena so insistent that the Archimedes Dial be returned to the future when she doesn’t even give a second thought to the crashed WWII plane? Hasn’t she heard of the Prime Directive (yes, Star Trek was on the air from 1966-1969)? Incidentally, the concept of a plane traveling through a time vortex has been done before, and done better, in The Twilight Zone episode, “The Odyssey of Flight 33.”
Even with her annoying stubbornness and occasional errors in judgment, Helena is the most interesting character the movie. Though not always operating on the right side of the law—Indy frequently turns a critical eye toward her shady dealings—Helena brings some much needed exuberance and irreverence to the film. Her insouciance is the proper counterweight (like a bag of sand replacing an idol) to stolid and avuncular Indy, who incessantly lectures Helena as if she’s one of his pupils.
In one scene, Indy gripes about growing old, a requisite admission one would think. Of all his failing body parts, though, what hinders him most in the film is his broken funny bone. Maybe Ford is just playing himself at this point, but his portrayal of the eponymous action hero is that of a bitter and perturbed old man who forgot to take his Geritol.
Amid its more pedestrian elements (like old Indy riding a horse through a subway), the movie has a few adult moments. In these scenes, Indy grapples with retirement, engages in self-recrimination over his son’s death and laments his relationship woes. The movie also has a couple meaningful themes; the importance of second chances and the dangers of playing God, particularly applicable to those who desire to go back in time and rewrite history, like villainous Voller (Mads Mikkelsen, the next Nazi iteration of Ronald Lacey’s Toht from Raiders of the Lost Ark).
The main theme, which is subtly woven throughout the film, is obsession. Basil spent much of his life trying to track down the other half of the Dial. Following in her father’s footsteps, Helena also doggedly pursues the Dial, although her motivations for doing so are far from scientific or altruistic. This multigenerational search for a historical object recalls Henry Jones’ (Sean Connery) obsession with finding the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Just as Henry tells Indy to “Let it go,” Indy must convince Helena to do the same before she loses her life in the reckless pursuit of the artifact.
The theme John Williams composed for the spirited heroine (“Helena’s Theme”) is absolutely gorgeous—a sweeping, romantic piece that recalls the music of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The entire score is laced with nostalgic cues and only features a few brief instances of the iconic “Raiders March” to remind us that we’re in an Indiana Jones movie. Williams’ score is an Oscar-worthy effort made even more remarkable by the fact that he was 90 when he composed it.
Back to the burning question, is Dial a good film? To answer in Indy speak, “Good, yes; great, no!” Dial ranks right in the middle of the Indy cycle of movies: it isn’t as epic as Raiders and isn’t as fun as The Last Crusade. But, at least Dial doesn’t feature chilled monkey brains or man-eating ants.
Dial is a well produced (except for the hit-and-miss age-regression CGI during the opening sequence), directed (Mangold isn’t Spielberg, but he acquits himself well), and acted (new: Antonio Banderas and returning: John Rhys-Davies actors deliver delightful performances) film that contains many elements of a really good Indy adventure. However, the movie isn’t all the way dialed in and fails to deliver the rousing series climax audiences expected and deserved.
In the final analysis, the movie just isn’t fun and only has a little touch of the ole Indy magic at the very end. Sad.
So, what have we learned from the film? You can never have too much ice cream. Old action heroes never hang up their fedoras (for long). Oh, and never bring a bullwhip to a gun battle.
Rating: 2 ½ out of 4