Indiana Jones: spoiler-filled thoughts on Indiana Jones & The Dial of Destiny

Indiana Jones and the Dial Of Destiny
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A spoiler-filled response to Indiana Jones & The Dial Of Destiny, as the curtain falls on a cinematic giant. Read on at your peril…

Spoilers lie ahead…


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Paul Schrader, a director born from the same era as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the progenitors of Indiana Jones, recently suggested a film needs at least two decades of space until we can truly know its worth. By that logic, Indiana Jones & The Dial of Destiny needs time to settle.

That’s not a pun, by the way, given the centricity of time as a thematic and literal device in Indy’s swan song. That’s a reality check. Our feelings and emotions about this film are going to be high, higher even than in 2008 when Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull disappointed fans en masse and is now, slowly, being re-appreciated as it closes in Schrader’s twenty year barrier. That’s not to say everyone will love Crystal Skull as they do the originals. They won’t. But time is, in many respects, a healer.

I say this because the reactions to Indiana Jones & The Dial of Destiny have been, to say the least, polarising. Some came out of Cannes wanting seemingly to burn any digital trace. Others have been effusive with praise, as the Rotten Tomatoes aggregator has moved from an initial Rotten to Fresh. Some are in the middle. That’s roughly where I sit as I divorce the fan of Indiana Jones the series from the critic analysing the content. I have a similar feeling as when I finished the final season of Star Trek: Picard recently.

As in, I found Indiana Jones & The Dial of Destiny to be simultaneously fun and engaging, but also creaking at the seams. It holds together better than Picard – a show flawed from the very beginning that never really rallied, swamped as the climax was by rampant fan nostalgia – but only just. James Mangold, taking the directorial chair from Spielberg, doesn’t entirely keep the train on the tracks. Though Indiana Jones & The Dial of Destiny has a better script and story than Crystal Skull, it is an uglier film with poorer CGI, edited often with choppy abandon, though it thankfully doesn’t rely as heavily on references to better entries in the Jones saga, certainly not to the degree Picard’s final season did.

I keep mentioning Picard because while the temptation might be to compare Indiana Jones & The Dial of Destiny to Logan, Mangold’s earlier X-Men universe conclusion to an aged Wolverine, it has more in common with Star Trek’s 1990s-era love-in. Harrison Ford and Patrick Stewart are roughly the same age. Both of their characters are forgotten legends who begin their journeys as listless men eking out hollow lives, the world advancing and morphing around them, with few friends or family to show for it. Until they are hauled back into action & adventure by young bloods sporting a historical connection to old friends, who help them reignite their zest for life and reconnect with those they love. The trappings differ. The constructs are the same.

Indiana Jones and the Dial Of Destiny

In other words, its becoming something of an old man narrative cliche. You start the beloved hero off lost and weakened before they find their way again. Here, Indy’s 1969 hippy youth era fall asleep at his lectures rather than paint ‘Love You’ on their eyelids. He barrels down at eight in the morning to his far out, young neighbour blasting out late-era Beatles, moaning at them to turn the sound down. He becomes a caricature extension of the curmudgeon everyone seems to think Ford is, when in reality he probably isn’t, accentuated for old man Indy beyond the elder adventurer Crystal Skull presented, who was in essence the same guy. Indiana Jones & The Dial of Destiny begins with Indy lacking his mojo.

To Picard’s credit, and Logan’s power as a picture, it at least stuck to those convictions, in Picard’s case initially. Mangold, and his team of writers including Jez Butterworth, work as quickly as they can to get Indy back in the leathers, with the whip and hat, and it’s largely business as usual. That’s fine. We’re not here for some kind of sonorous exploration of Indy’s inner demons, but Indiana Jones & The Dial of Destiny wants to be a conventional Jones adventure and also tackle the mythical notion of the decaying hero who undertakes one final journey.

That’s probably fitting given the MacGuffin concerns ancient Greece, the Antikythera mechanism aka Archimedes’ dial. I’m a sucker for time travel so utilising such a real-world piece of arcanum to comment on Indy’s developing years makes sense, but if anything Mangold chooses to tether it more closely to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Helena Shaw, daughter of Indy’s wartime professor friend Basil (Toby Jones). Though Jones confronting the ancient history he has spent all of his career studying, would it not have been more interesting had the dial presented a more personal experience? I was convinced it would be Henry Sr’s watch on Archimedes wrist and did wonder if we might see a younger version of Indy’s father in the denouement.

I don’t want this to devolve into a list of “things Dial Of Destiny could have done better”, because it does plenty well enough. Though Helena is essentially a hybrid of Marion Ravenwood and Willie Scott, by way of Waller-Bridge’s trademark snark (she doesn’t break the fourth wall, but I wouldn’t have been surprised), she is an engaging foil for Indy; the sassy daughter he never had. Waller-Bridge doesn’t convince me as an action star but she does go toe to toe with Ford and doesn’t wilt. Mads Mikklesen brings his usual cool, urbane villain schtick to Jurgen Voller, essentially a less interesting, Nazi version of Belloq, but he’s nobody you haven’t seen before in terms of Indiana Jones villainy.

Though there is still a touch of the uncanny valley around the de-aged Indy in 1944 (though not to the extent of Will Smith(s) in Gemini Man), prefacing the aged Indy’s adventure with our hero in his prime at the end of World War II was a choice I enjoyed. Indy attempting to rescue another Christian relic – the Lance of Longinus – from looting Nazis facing defeat dovetails nicely into Voller’s ultimate aims and indeed the underlying thematic idea of a returning Nazi threat, literally working to turn back time and revive their fortunes. As allegory with our current political sphere, it’s on the nose but just about works.

Indiana Jones and the Dial Of Destiny

Truth is, though, there are frustrating factors. Having Mutt dead in Vietnam adds to the angst, and why Indy might not be the biggest fan of the 1960s, but it also seems a cheap shot to needlessly rebuke Shia LeBeouf and create an unnecessary wedge between Indy and Marion. She didn’t need to be a main player here but given how quickly she returns to him at the merest hint he’s put his hat back on, for me invalidates the need for their separation. Indiana Jones & The Dial of Destiny falls prey to several rather pointless dramatic avenues; why, for instance, suggest Indy is being framed for murder and then never even reference it as part of the conclusion? Are these sloppy writing choices? They seem so.

It is, therefore, as choppy an ultimate product as Crystal Skull was. People will be suggesting it is light years better than that film, I suspect, while admitting clear blue water between Indiana Jones & The Dial of Destiny and the original trilogy. My instinct is that such analysis would be a mistake, this early in. I venture they are on a par. Indiana Jones & The Dial of Destiny works as a narrative better than Crystal Skull, but it never looks as good. Both, ultimately, are part of a broader lexicon of adventure cinema. All, at least, have great scores thanks to the peerless John Williams.

Like any film in a franchise in the category of legendary within popular culture, Indiana Jones & The Dial of Destiny needs, appropriately, time. The film we watched today might not be the one we watch tomorrow. And beyond it all, we should cherish the swan song for Harrison Ford in the role he will be remembered for, which has given us so much joy. I wouldn’t change the years, or the mileage, for a second.

Also on Film Stories:
Celebrating the music of the Indiana Jones films
Indiana Jones revisited: reconsidering Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Indiana Jones revisited: it’s time for Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade
Indiana Jones revisited: 1984’s Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom
Indiana Jones revisited: heading back to Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
Podcast: In conversation with James Mangold: Indiana Jones & The Dial Of Destiny, Girl Interrupted and more
Podcast: Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008) and The Girl With All The Gifts (2016)

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