Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny opens in theaters on June 30, 2023
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is very much about trying to recapture the series’ lost spark, both in its filmmaking and within the world of the story, but these impulses are set at odds. It’s the tale of a former adventurer who needs to stop living in the past, but the only way it works is by firmly rooting itself in nostalgia. Indiana Jones, the character, needs to move on, but Indiana Jones the franchise won’t let him.
The Dial of Destiny begins with a de-aged Harrison Ford trying to retrieve an artifact from Nazi plunderers in 1945, alongside his previously unseen colleague, the floundering Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), only to find that an entirely different artifact – the titular dial, said to be a creation of Greek physicist Archimedes – is now in play. Shaw’s role, while small, is a fun one, but he’s given the unenviable task of quipping opposite a positively dead-eyed Ford. His digital face-lift may look fine in photos, but when it comes to motion and delivering lines of dialogue there’s no life behind young Indy’s face.
This robotic retread of a familiar icon – one that’s become unfortunately emblematic of Disney, between the Lion King remake and Luke Skywalker’s appearance in The Book of Boba Fett – sets the tone for much of The Dial of Destiny. Its opening action scene reads like a typical Indy adventure on paper, with smooth maneuvers aboard moving vehicles to evade goose-stepping, treasure-hunting baddies. However, the action presented by director and co-writer James Mangold is immediately missing the visual clarity and rhythm that Steven Spielberg and series editor Michael Kahn brought to each of the first four movies. Granted, as with Star Wars, perhaps the case can be made that this fictional universe transcends a single group of storytellers, but Dial of Destiny isn’t so much familiar iconography told through new cinematic language as it is a poor imitation of what came before it.
Everything feels ever-so-slightly wrong in its 25-minute opening sequence, with cuts and shot selections ordered “correctly” enough to convey a sequence of events, but never fine-tuned enough to make its images land with any impact. Add to this the sheer murkiness of what’s on screen (much of the CG-heavy action is obscured by nightfall, or natural elements like fog) and what you’re left with is a spectacle you can barely see, and an adventure movie that feels distinctly un-adventurous in its creation.
On the plus side, the story at least begins in an interesting place once the prologue finally comes to a close. The year is 1969 and the Apollo 11 astronauts have just returned from the Moon, but while the whole world looks towards the stars, and to the future, a drunk and miserable Indy remains stuck in the past – which is to say, he still teaches archeology. There are also major regrets keeping him from living in the present or looking beyond it, but these warrant only a passing mention over an hour into the story (even though they answer pressing questions that might be on the minds of long-time fans).
These are all half-hearted attempts at contrasting Indy with the central antagonist, Dr. Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), a former Nazi and current U.S. government scientist under Operation Paperclip. Mikkelsen delivers a straightforward performance in line with the by-the-numbers material he’s given, but despite there being little to remember about his embodiment of Voller, the character stands out as an Indy nemesis whose own obsession with past failures has led him back to his old foe.
But where Voller’s fixation with the past leads to unsavory outcomes, Indy’s similar perspective on his personal failures is one the film largely accepts, and never really brings into conflict with Voller’s. They’re two sides to a coin in theory, but Dial of Destiny never tempts this sad, broken version of Indiana Jones with the power to instantly fix his problems – a power the mysterious Dial may very well possess – so it foregoes the catharsis it seems to crave from having Indy eventually look beyond what’s been shackling him to events gone by.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny Gallery
Ford gives it his all, carrying Indy with a mournful sense of reflection, but the rest of the film never rises to his level. It comes ever so close to making the Dial of Destiny mean something in the grand scheme of things, especially as the climax approaches. But a last-second swerve renders the symbolic idea of the Dial – a clock-like artifact representing time itself – little more than wasted potential.
With the help of Basil’s now-adult daughter, Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Indy once again ends up on a global treasure hunt in competition with his Nazi enemies. But Dial of Destiny lumbers from scene to scene, with action that never quite manages to be exciting. There was a glimmer of mischief to the fights and stunts in Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies, which quickly established their stakes and physical geography before hitting swashbuckling highs. The action in Dial of Destiny is dull by comparison, whizzing by too quickly to land, and with physics too cartoony to leave a lasting impact. At one point Indy runs atop a row of train cars, and the exaggerated movements of his digital stunt double are indistinguishable from those of Woody from Toy Story (fitting, perhaps, since he’s more children’s action figure than flesh & blood human being in this movie).
Just as unclear as the action is the character of Helena, who is framed as a pseudo Indiana Jones successor – a Bond-esque adventurer with a roguish streak, and even her own kid sidekick – though it never quite figures out what to do with her. On one hand, her money-above-all-else motive clashes with Indy’s more altruistic “It belongs in a museum!” approach to ancient artifacts. On the other hand, her father’s past obsession with the Dial is just as much of a driving factor in her involvement with the plot. These warring motives don’t so much clash or cause personal drama as they simply exist in separate scenes, as if entirely different drafts of the story had been smashed together. She’s never torn between selling an artifact and using it to fulfill her father’s lifelong work; she simply feels one way in one scene, and feels another way in the next.
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This fracturing of Helena’s character is more passing annoyance than central flaw – more plot convenience than plot hole – but it represents the way Dial of Destiny is made from the ground up. Its drama is cobbled together from ideas that are meaningful in isolation – Indy, Helena, and Voller all have complicated outlooks on the past – but they rarely come into contact (let alone in ways that drive the story). Similarly, its action is the result of borderline-functional filmmaking that presents events in sequence, each in their own individual shots, but it seldom presents a causal relationship between them (let alone one where two consecutive images, or the cut connecting them, result in added emphasis or impact). Haphazardly strung-together close ups drive the action, but a wider picture almost never emerges (if it does, it’s barely comprehensible).
A returning John Williams remains a saving grace, providing grand musical motifs and familiar tunes at just the right moments. However, the camera rarely creates meaning on its own, except when there’s a familiar brown fedora somewhere on screen, at which point it charges towards it like a happy pup reuniting with its owner – a shot that repeats on at least four separate occasions. But there are only so many times it can say “Look! It’s that iconic hat you recognize!” before the well runs dry. Nostalgia is the one trick Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny has, and it isn’t a trick it performs particularly well in the first place.