Directed by James Mangold
Written by Jez Butterworth, John Henry Butterworth, David Koepp, and James Mangold
France, 1944. In the waning days of World War II, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is doing what he does best: getting captured by fascists and making lifelong enemies. He makes his daring escape and rescues his compatriot, the much mousier archaeologist Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), in the process discovering that the artifact they came to save from Nazi occultists, the Lance of Longinus, is just a forgery anyway, though this does not mean they don't have to deal with this trainload of Nazis. In the ensuing battle, he makes that lifelong enemy, Nazi physicist Jurgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen); and in the bargain he gets his hands on a very real ancient artifact, one half of the fabled orrery built by Archimedes two centuries before Christ, which Voller knows is a very special orrery indeed, possessed of powers of spatial measurement far beyond that of the usual mechanical computer. One may say it measures spacetime.
But time waits for no man, not even Indiana Jones, and so we arrive in New York, 1969, where the old professor now teaches, his life more of a shambles than we've ever seen it, or than we might have imagined. Into his languish steps Shaw's daughter, and Indy's goddaughter, Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who bounces around like the bright-eyed students Indy once taught, but only until she gets what she came for, which is the half of Archimedes's clock still in Indy's possession. Hot on her trail are Voller and his goons, for while Voller has spent the intervening quarter-century pretending to be reformed and useful to the United States government, his ultimate goal was never anything besides acquiring enough influence to retrieve this half of Archimedes's machine and to find the other. Helena has made that her mission as well, and Indy, not merely betrayed by his goddaughter but framed for murder by Nazis, sets off to forcibly reassume his godfatherly duties and keep this incredible artifact out of his adversary's clutches. He has never managed to do this even once in his entire career of fighting megalomaniacal antiquities hoarders, and he's not likely to start now.
I am not completely happy with my now-seven-year-old reviews of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, less out of substantive changes in any of my opinions and more out of stylistic concerns; but this "place, year, breathless summary" was the format I used to begin all of them, denying not only my habit of wildly meandering prefaces, but also of getting sarcastic with the plot summaries, though Indy plots are surely vulnerable to all manner of snark; and I did this to underline the extreme specialness of those films to me and the mythic stature of Indiana Jones in my mind. I did it to emphasize that I take them seriously.
I am not sure that Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny deserves even this reheated reverence, when reheated reverence is its primary strategy and it still mostly gets it wrong; but give it this, it takes Indiana Jones with the gravest seriousness. It takes Indiana Jones as seriously as cancer, to the extent that I'm slightly surprised that Indiana Jones does not, himself, have cancer. It's the last Indy movie, so they claim, for now—it's undoubtedly the last with Harrison Ford, though as far as the likeness of Harrison Ford goes, that could be another thing that might only be "for now"—and it is the first not to be directed by Steven Spielberg. You could practically choose any moment at random out of its 154 minutes—you could just point to it being 154 minutes—and pull out a representative example of how its actual director, James Mangold, does not really "get" Indiana Jones or adventure filmmaking in general, and believes it to be largely synonymous with 00s/10s Bond films, and there's no reason to expect him to have any other perspective on that since he's never made an adventure film except, possibly, Knight and Day, a 2010 Bondian spy film. His last franchise film was Logan, and I surmise that somebody, God knows who, thought a Loganesque Indiana Jones film was the best move here. Superficially, there's sense in that: both seek to close the book on an iconic hero who has seen better days. I will simply say that Crystal Skull did this already, but Crystal Skull did it with whimsy and straight-faced silliness, and insofar as Crystal Skull is the most widely-disliked Indy film—a claim that, admittedly, is far less secure now than just two weeks ago—Mangold's brief, if not his own instinct, was to make it less whimsical, and less silly, and less fun, in every possible way. Until the end, that is, which is fucking bananas, but which the film seems mildly embarrassed by, since I can't imagine any other reason besides "I hate it, but we've got to film this movie to hit a deadline," that this ending isn't at least a whole act all to itself; accordingly, it winds up being the least bananas version possible of the bananas concept that the entire preceding 125 minutes had been leading up to.
So as far as our random grab-bag of incorrect, cargo cult ideas about how to build an Indiana Jones movie goes, we don't even have to look further than this one's prologue for a good example. (Really, we don't have to look further than the studio acknowledgements in the first thirty seconds: Paramount was involved in some way, yet there is no match dissolve from its logo.) I do not, contra everybody else in the universe, hate this prologue on principle: it's correct to be very terrified of the future but we'll be consumed by it anyway, so for the time being, fuck it, I'm willing to concede that the de-aging they use on Ford is not bad and, indeed, might be "too good," though by this I mean "too much," as they accidentally used too much Raiders reference footage and not enough, I don't know, Regarding Henry reference footage; Ford looks younger or at least smoother than he does in The Last Crusade. There are some quibbles with the implementation but I was ready to call the more vicious critiques hyperbole until Digi-Indy spoke, and a voice scarred by eight decades of use emerged from this pile of otherwise pretty-well-assembled bits, with no further effort whatsoever expended to peel off even one or two of those decades.
I got used to it, and while it only says that I am too generous, I won't even complain too much that the compositing in this nighttime scene is worse than the fifteen-year-old and famously-poorly-composited daytime of Crystal Skull (or, hell, worse than the thirty-nine-year-old, pre-CGI compositing of Temple of Doom); or that parts of it look more like a pretty good Indy video game; or that after an opening few shots where I found myself enjoying cinematographer Phedon Papamichael's go at doing a Douglas Slocombe, because whether it ever gets there or not, it at least doesn't look like any old 2020s movie, we slide remorselessly into one of the film's several cinematographer-proof pre-viz sequences that, in this case, is much what John Frankenheimer's The Train would feel like if it were a 2023 CGI blockbuster. Anyway, I was going to use the train action sequence as my example, and this is my essay so I still can, but I could point to something even earlier, when Indy is still captive and about to hanged by Nazis, fortunately saved by a piece of ordnance that crashes through a castle roof, and instead of exploding sits there menacingly.
I am not Steven Spielberg, so I cannot tell you what Steven Spielberg would do with this; but this seems so much like the kind of thing his genius would have done something with, whether that be gags, thrills, spills, or all of the above. I guess there is "a spill," though I'm not even entirely sure what happened and why Indy didn't blow up. The train is a better example, then (though it's likewise staged a little confusingly), because on this count I can picture something like what Spielberg would have done with an anti-aircraft gun accidentally spewing fire across the trailing cars of the train while it traverses a big mountain curve; for Spielberg, this would be a grand guignol, with lots of gleeful and expository insert shots of the action, and it would probably be hilarious. Mangold executes this with stern severity: Nazis get blasted one at a time in as long a take as happens in this movie, as their positions intersect with the busted AA gun's trajectory, and even the specific rhythm of the gun helps sap the fun out of it, this whoomp (half-second pause) whoomp (half-second pause) that just makes it feel like we've stumbled into an actual war movie about killing Nazis. I cannot speak to all the screenwriters here—well, Mangold is one of them—but I know that David Koepp, at least, "gets" Indy, but it feels like those three writers handed Mangold ideas that he didn't execute like Popcorn Spielberg and really didn't quite execute like himself, for there's not enough push in the other direction to make it feel like the slaughter is morally weighty, either. (Much later, there's a drowning death that is explicitly yet perhaps satisfyingly cruel, but is presented with the clammiest possible indifference.) I said spoilers, so let's get it out there that the joyously gory death of the master villain that is such a significant part of Indy formula is neither of those things here.
But while I think the sullenness of the filmmaking is probably more important, none of this is likely to impress itself upon you as the very, very serious state of Dr. Henry Jones Jr. in 1969, which irks me a great deal, as in the empty space between now and the last time we saw him in 1957, Indy's happy ending has been dismantled piece by piece by a screenplay that wants to hurt Indy in ways that even an insane obsession with repudiating Crystal Skull doesn't totally explain. Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen, all hundred twenty seconds of her) is gone, their marriage abandoned because that's a natural reaction to the death of a child, and so, yes, Mutt Williams (two or three lines of expository dialogue) is also gone, the greaser anti-authoritarian punk having enlisted in the United States Army to die out of father-hating spite in Vietnam. Dial of Destiny isn't finished: Indy has somehow gotten a demotion to a worse university, his students hate him, and I distinctly remember that at one point he lived in a house. He now lives in a shitty apartment where hippies wake him up with hippie music. He's retiring, and frankly, in these circumstances, it's astounding that the movie doesn't make his colleagues hate him, too. Because Dial of Destiny is still not finished: the Apollo 11 crew has just returned home and Indy, in his bitterness, sneers at the fucking moon landing, something something Wernher von Braun, and it's all just direly cynical.
Then his goddaughter betrays him and nearly gets him killed. I'll say this for Dial of Destiny: of the numerous attempts recent popcorn filmmaking has made at grappling with an action hero's old age, this actually engages with it, and whether that's good or not, or a justification for a fifth Indy movie (and third final Indy movie), at least it does it, rather than mouthing several lines of dialogue about it like in Skyfall or The Dark Knight Rises and then never thinking about it again. In this regard it benefits from Ford's many years on our planet, insofar as the movie has no choice but to acknowledge them. Constantly. What it doesn't justify, and this is the truly irksome thing, is how age has not merely withered Indy physically, but how much it's rendered him psychologically and even intellectually helpless. There's a bit where Indiana Jones tries to call the police—and that's reasonable enough, but a chase sequence happens because Indy is begging a police officer to assist him—and the movie just jams on this like a Nazi repeatedly punching a wounded arm, because it realizes how utterly pathetic we can't help but find it in a hero like Indy; and, I don't know, writing it out that way almost makes me respect Mangold's direction a little more, because in this case at least he does know what he's doing.
Then again, I hope you weren't very interested in the part where Indy is wanted for murder, because the movie sure as hell doesn't resolve that. Probably because they changed the ending three, four, five times; it's a Goddamn Disney film, isn't it?
Anyway: once Helena enters the picture, it does get moving. Not terribly fast, but no longer stewing in an end of life drama, and the sequence that finally kicks things off, though likewise inflected with Mangoldy cruelty (Indy is wanted for, like, three or four murders), is pretty good. Notably for this film, it's actually creative, with some elaboration of its basic "Indy's riding a horse again but it's New York in the middle of a parade!" idea that feels a little bit like Spielberg, even if Spielberg would have better-established the geography of the parade and used it to escalate the tension. (Reaching into our grab bag again, then: Voller's refrigerator-sized goon (Olivier Richters) steals a parade car by throwing the driver into the street but the female passenger's still there hysterically screaming and this... isn't really used in any way.) We get some decent globetrotting, another chase in Marrakesh, and various adventures in shipwrecks, caves, and ruins, albeit not particularly expressive shipwrecks, caves, and ruins in terms of their production design, and all of them rather generically lit; and, you know, even beyond the whole "this one's about a machine" thing Dial of Destiny has going, there is a dispiriting absence of any expressionistic sacredness to the imagery that Mangold and Papamichael cook up, an enormous contrast from the unsubtle marvels of Spielberg and Slocombe, and even Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski. (And let's reach into that grab bag one more time: there's a creepy-crawly vignette in the cave that drops some CGI centipedes upon our heroes, such as you might well find in an Indy movie cave, and I almost said out loud in the middle of the movie theater, "Okay, Dial of Destiny, I see you have the bugs; now what?")
But for the most part the action scenes are adequate (they never top the New York sequence, unfortunately), and I'm not going to despise a movie because it wasn't edited by Michael Kahn, for most movies are not even if most movies would be better if they were; the action, and the whole movie, gets a multiplier by way of John Williams taking one more valedictory bow for his medium-defining career, though while I have heard people refer to "new themes" here, and I have no cause to doubt those people, I swear I don't know what they mean by this. The adventuresomeness that finally kicks in would probably be closer to winning me fully to Dial of Destiny's side if I enjoyed the adventurers more: at some point during this fifth encounter with the paranormal they probably needed to cut bait on Indy's skeptic crap, yet somehow he's more skeptical here than even in Last Crusade; and just to throw the kid in here somewhere, Helena's Short Roundesque sidekick Teddy (Ethann Isidore), and I use the term "Short Roundesque" to describe his archetype rather than his non-existent personality, is basically only ever an afterthought; and so there's Helena and Waller-Bridge, whom I... liked okay.
The performance is basically one straight line that becomes another straight line when it's time for her to actually have emotions, and the roguish balance of the performance is both more credible and more fun, positioning her as a sort of Temple-era Indy, not that this necessarily means much to their dynamic; her main problem is being weighted down with too much snippiness, which my information tells me Waller-Bridge was going to emphasize anyway, and it eventually becomes vexing in the way it never really varies much in its tone. She gets what I'm pretty sure is the best scene in this movie, though, playing the part that Indy usually plays, of his erudition being ridiculously helpful to his captors, and it pays off with a nice (nicer, even, for being predictable!) twist; but she also gets a lot of dialogue that feels written to pre-emptively troll people who were going to object to a female co-lead in a movie (Jesus, our fucking culture) at all, which is just no way to write a character. It includes a laugh line said to a doomed Nazi that, in its craft and its delivery, oddly sums up a distinction that I've felt but have rarely been able to articulate about The Movies These Days, and it clarifies matters when you can directly compare it to the other Indy films, which were overseen by a man channeling Jewish fury into over-the-top cartoonish vengeance, whereas a screenplay like Dial of Destiny's is written and read by people whose personal experience with Nazism is predominantly just smug social media interactions. Or maybe it's as simple as Waller-Bridge being less able than Ford to take ragged, exhausted rage and make that funny, as she can only reach sitcom quippiness. Hypothetically, anyway, Mangold could have such fury; he does not demonstrate it. The closest is the awkwardest scene in an Indiana Jones movie, where our villain is an enormous dick to a black waiter for what feels like five minutes of racist interrogation—not about time machines, mind you, but about, like, his genealogy.
At least Voller gets the best line in this Indiana Jones movie later, though with the extremely major caveat that it's a reference to Cabaret, and it should be, "Yesterday belongs to [singular] me." Mikkelsen is reliable—a smarmy sociopath? how does he do it—but it surprised me how boring Voller got, the broad shape of his secret plan so obvious from minute ten that I expected there to be some kind of interesting twist, and it's a little deflating to suspect that the writers believed they came up with one. (His big Nazi time travel plan to kill Hitler and thereby make Germany nebulously better at World War II, assuming it worked at all, which it wouldn't because Nazi Germany would devolve into factional infighting, is effectively "I would like to see Germany nuked by the United States, several times," and this man is a physicist. With every passing scene it became more unlikely, but until his plan came to fruition I kept sort-of expecting him to turn out to hate Nazis, which would've made the movie overcomplicated and unwieldy, I guess, but more interesting.)
Nevertheless, it does give us that finale, and for a movie that has been so content to somewhat tunelessly play the hits, it's a wild swing that I wish had been wilder still, and ultimately my liking this finale makes me like the movie it's in less, because of how plainly disinterested it is in doing anything with this astonishingly bold new setting besides getting out as soon as possible, and also having incredibly dubious ideas about how ancient Romans would react to flying machines. It does, however, manage a very fine "Indy accomplished nothing but the journey itself" Indiana Jones movie conclusion; I simply wish it had had the guts to end the opposite of the way it does end, but I also wish it had just killed Marion if it was going to do what it does with her (Allen looks remarkably hot, but it's not like Marion isn't old enough to peacefully pass), given Mutt his motorcycle shop, and if it absolutely needed to disgrace Professor Jones, might I suggest a humiliating memoir, telling the truth about 1936, 1937, 1938, and 1957? I would have very much liked, anyway, if it could've committed to its weird fundamental melancholy with an equally weird happy ending, rather than just reversing it without a single original thought in its head, doing exactly what Crystal Skull already managed for this character fifteen years ago and Last Crusade nineteen years before that. Though I admit I liked the iris out. Cute.