Indiana Jones… He just can’t stay away from those Nazis…
That’s where we find Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), captured by Nazis in 1944 as he and fellow archeologist Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) attempt to recover the Lance of Longinus from the hands of Nazi astrophysicist Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen). Nazis can’t keep from gloating, so Voller grants Jones a quick peek at the artifact before he meets his demise. Realizing it’s a fake, Jones rains on Voller’s parade (Don’t worry; there’ll be another parade soon), creating enough of a distraction for Jones to risk an escape with Shaw. But during their escape, Jones finds something on board that’s not a fake, which he snags.
Immediately we have the beginnings of the most problematic visual element of the entire film: the digital de-aging of Harrison Ford. I had a big problem with this technique in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019), and while it’s carried out marginally better here, it’s still awkward. The facial expressions look cumbersome, like they’re out of sync with the character’s movements, but even worse, the voice for a roughly 45-year-old Indy is clearly that of the 80-year-old Harrison Ford. If you’re going to digitally alter the physical appearance, do you not have the technology to alter the audio as well?
The entire opening sequence (which accounts for the film’s first 20 or so minutes) is a visual mess. Almost every moment of these scenes occurs in dark places or atop a train at night. (Maybe the idea is that darkness tends to hide bad CGI?) It’s not even conceivable that the characters, much less the actors, could see what was going on. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but I’ll just say that these scenes, like many comparable moments from earlier Indiana Jones films, depend on expert timing, and in order for that timing to work, the audience has to see what’s going on. If we can’t, the characters can’t either, and if you try to convince us they can, you’ve cheated your audience. Yes, we know this is an Indiana Jones movie that’s largely action-adventure fantasy, but for a $250-$300 million budget, we expect better.
Jump forward to 1969, where an elderly Jones now lives in New York City, teaching at Hunter College (now using an overhead projector instead of a chalkboard). The students don’t have cellphones yet, but they’re distracted enough by the return of the Apollo 11 astronauts, who are being celebrated with a massive ticker-tape parade right outside the college.
But things get even more interesting when Jones meets his friend Basil Shaw’s daughter (and Jones’s goddaughter) Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who’s interested in the artifact Jones snagged from the Nazi train, the Antikythera mechanism, aka the Archimedes Dial, or at least half of it. I won’t disclose what both parts of the dial could do when joined, but it’s a very big deal. And Ms. Shaw, also an archeologist, is eager to take the device off Jones’s hands, and not for the purposes of preservation in a museum.
Already we begin to see familiar Indiana Jones tropes: Nazis, other archeologists, mysterious devices (in multiple parts), and we’re just getting started. Soon we’ll see horses, exotic locations, a child getting involved in the story, and more.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Indiana Jones tropes, unless you’re interested in using all of them. (And if that’s what you’re here for, you’ll love Dial of Destiny.)
The problem with the film is that the tropes dominate the film. Not only the previously mentioned themes or devices, but also rescues, chases, creepy crawlies, and more. We’ve come to expect these elements and know the producers can’t have an Indiana Jones movie without them.
And again, that’s okay. But something new has to be added, and that something in Dial of Destiny is (besides Jones getting old) is Helena Shaw.
Since she is new to the Indiana Jones universe, Helena is going to receive the most character development. Thankfully, she’s an interesting addition. I won’t get into details, but she contains elements of Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) and other women appearing in other Indiana Jones movies. We know she has secrets, and aren’t exactly sure what her motivations are, but Waller-Bridge makes her compelling. She’s brazen, confident, smart, and most importantly, captivating. Helena goes into the plus column.
As the movie progresses, we see so many scenes we’ve seen over and over through the years. We know where this is going. As alluded to earlier, we also see that visually and technically the timing is frequently off. If you go back and look at the chase scenes from the original trilogy, the timing is impeccable. Not only that, there’s a flow to what’s going on visually, especially when multiple elements are in motion at the same time. With Dial of Destiny those elements either aren’t as well thought out, aren’t properly executed, or both. Not only have we seen all this before, we’ve seen it done better.
While we recognize that we’ve seen much of this previously, we also see something slightly different, which I will not disclose. Here is an opportunity to do something unique, to take some risks with this franchise that (at least allegedly) ends with this film. How this opportunity develops is rather clumsy, but it made me sit up and take notice.
The problem with any franchise movie is the recognition that it’s always a balancing act. How much familiarity do you give the audience, how do you introduce fresh elements (or characters) that will bring in new audiences? With very few exceptions that I can think of, most series/sequels stand as evidence of the law of diminishing returns. But for many fans, that doesn’t matter. They seem to understand that and are okay with it as long as they get to see their favorite heroes doing their thing and the story is at least marginally interesting. One large component of the success of any franchise is the nostalgia factor, which is something I plan to write about very soon, but not here.
When everything is said and done (or overdone), Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is a reasonably entertaining final entry (with Harrison Ford, at least) in a franchise that (with the exception of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) has satisfied audiences for 42 years. I’m glad it exists, but it makes me want to go back and watch the original trilogy to see how the magic really happens. Does that make me a prisoner of nostalgia? Perhaps. Maybe it truly isn’t the years, but the mileage. And if the mileage has now ended, the journey has mostly been good, and sometimes spectacular. Dial of Destiny isn’t spectacular, but it’s good enough.
If you enjoy my writing and would like to express your support and appreciation, you can buy me a coffee.