Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny Aims Equally for Closure and Nostalgia

Movies Reviews Cannes Film Festival
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny Aims Equally for Closure and Nostalgia

There’s a lot riding on James Mangold taking up the mantle from Spielberg to craft a new, and no doubt last Indiana Jones film starring Harrison Ford. It’s all the more fitting, perhaps, that the storyline of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny explicitly evokes a love of the past and the navigation of an uncertain future, where the newest McGuffin has less to do with metaphysics and more with mathematics, as if this iteration has been scientifically arranged to evoke nostalgia and closure at the same time.

From its opening scenes, we know we’re in for something both familiar and markedly different, a mash-up that works well most of the time. The opening action sequence is bold and brash, but the flurry of shots lacks some of regular Indy director Steven Spielberg’s more calibrated shot choices (and for those wondering, neither the Disney castle nor the Paramount mountain is utilized in ways we’ve come to expect). There’s applause for a chase through a ticker-tape parade, then marks deducted for claustrophobically a motorcycle/horse chase is captured. We have a train chase like in The Last Crusade, but this time at night and in the dark, evoking what came before with a new palette. Over and over, there are these echoes to what came before, refusing to erase even what some find most egregious about the last chapter. (I, for one, defend Crystal Skull for being at least as effective as Temple of Doom.)

That’s embodied literally as we’re introduced to a de-aged Ford, and the results are at times remarkably good. At others, they still lean towards the uncanny. His voice is that of a raspy, aged man, but the smirk is there, and even the heavy CGI manipulation can’t fully rid the glint in his eye. Mads Mikkelsen is a fine choice for a Nazi baddie, while Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Helena does her best as Indy’s fundamentally an underwritten goddaughter. Helena’s motivations change more often than the hands on the dial of Archimedes, and we never truly buy that she’s motivated by anything other than the spirit of her father’s obsession (sound familiar?). Waller-Bridge’s acerbic air simply doesn’t convince when it leans towards the narcissistic or diabolical, especially when a perfect tonal performance is being set by Mikkelsen’s Toht-like take. A surprise appearance by a grizzled Antonio Banderas is minimally impactful, while the return of John Rhys-Davies as Sallah is more welcome than expected. And Ethann Isidore plays Teddy, a Short Round-like sidekick for Helena who feels even more redundant. 

The motivations of the baddies are even more convoluted than usual, and Mangold leans into a body count that feels less Saturday morning serial and more slightly chastened ‘70s shoot-em-up. There was always a sense of catharsis watching Nazis die painfully in Raiders—with plenty of carnage, from the car chase to the most memorable of fist fights in front of a Flying Wing—but Spielberg held the true horror until the opening of the Ark, making that carnage feel all the more intense. Here, none of the violence seems to really matter, as loads of henchmen are wiped out in relatively uninteresting ways.

Every Indy film has always been a series of setpieces bridged by moments of witty dialogue and recovery, and it’s the latter that feels forced in this iteration. While obvious allusions to the character’s age are made, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny never quite settles in to embrace the man-out-of-time shtick that’s obviously at hand. Most of the film plays this way: A nod to what came before, then quickly moving past, all a little disjointed.

Yet this takes nothing away from the moments that do work, the sense of genial gravitas that Ford can still convey. John Williams’ score shines as always, and his new themes provide the appropriate levels of fanfare. Key leitmotifs return at expected moments, but there are more subtle allusions that uber-fans will pickup. The same can be said for dialogue and situations, where a song originally performed in front of the Bantu Wind is heard offscreen. The most surprising moments come in the last act, where the most obvious choice is diverted, even as it evokes similar sentiments to the close of The Last Crusade. That is not meant as criticism—the whole point of the serialized format is to give the audience what they expect, in a slightly new way, and then leave them wanting for more. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny’s closing elements toy with the film’s center, showing most clearly the power that this final chapter can evoke, even if there are plenty of middling moments along the way.

Rather than leaning into the retirement narrative, Dial of Destiny tries to have it both ways, with a man out of time called to make the difference that saves the world…one more time. We can’t revisit our first experience with this character, with the same eyes with which we first saw him, nor can we truly revel in the past, free from how the present shapes us. At its best, Dial of Destiny approaches this conundrum head on, allowing Ford’s wrinkles to evoke the mileage that this character has travelled. At times it feels like mimicry of what has taken place on the big screen over the last four decades, while in many other ways it’s a fine send off for this iconic character, one far more satisfying than other goodbyes that Ford’s been focusing on over the last few years.

There’s a plot point in Dial of Destiny where a playing card is forced on a mark—a situation where, no matter what you choose, you’re going to get what the dealer wants you to get. When that’s spotted, the magic goes away, and you see that you’re being manipulated as much as you’re being entertained. The same, it seems, for this film. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny may be the least of the Indy films, but it’s still a worthy chapter that does more to expand than to stultify. The mixed result from Mangold is almost inevitable, and the near-impossible expectations were never going to fully bring us back to that sense of wonder and joy we got from a masterpiece like Raiders. Yet, when the old man puts on the hat and the leather jacket, and cracks his whip, you can’t help but enjoy the ride through the ages, one last time.

Director: James Mangold
Writer: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, David Koepp, James Mangold
Starring: Harrison Ford, John Rhys-Davies, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Antonio Banderas, Shaunette Renée Wilson, Thomas Kretschmann, Toby Jones, Boyd Holbrook, Ethann Isidore, Mads Mikkelsen
Release Date: June 30, 2023

Jason Gorber is a Toronto based film Critic and Journalist, Editor-in-Chief at That Shelf, the movie critic for CBC’s Metro Morning, and others. He is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association and voter for the Critics Choice Awards Association. He also knows for a fact that CASINO is Scorsese’s masterpiece, and has a cat named Zissou.

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