Lest the sun not rise again, Indiana Jones must return, he must gallivant to another side of the globe and retrieve the magical MacGuffin, and he must do this in perfect conjunction with John Williams’ leitmotifs, lest the shadowplay fail, lest the ritual remain incomplete, and Tezcatlipoca reveals his displeasure. It’s strange to be thought of as a god, but that’s how studios treat the mysterious “mass audience” that will consume their most expensive creations. The mass audience’s appetite is unknowable, but its power is enough to destroy any studio if they are displeased with their offerings. Village elders recall what has appeased this god in the past, but sage wisdom is not enough. And so, another dance as Indy — the moves are right, but the tempo is wrong.
To clear the air a bit, it’s worth highlighting two rather bothersome discussions that seem to accompany each review, not only of this movie, but nearly every franchise film. The first deals with what this picture’s director, James Mangold, pointed out when presented with negative reviews: that each piece seeks to compare his Dial of Destiny to the others in the franchise rather than evaluating this as a standalone venture. This review will also compare Mangold’s work with the four previous Spielbergs, as this is the only meaningful way of talking about franchise pictures. Just as every human is given historical meaning through their place of birth, their religion, their families, their education, and other arrays of identities and values that are bigger than any one person, so too an Indiana Jones movie gains meaning only through historical factors of its birth, which includes its progenitors. That also includes the second discussion, which is the business side of all this. Talk of market research, IP, capital, and the cynical timing of remakes and sequels seems like the language of the trades and business papers, but it’s all also the pulmonary system of franchise films and must be mentioned.
That said, this thing can at least be a good time. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas approached the series as if making an adventure serial from their childhood, so James Mangold’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny could simply be yet another thrilling episode of Indy and the gang. But, Indiana Jones is now a mythos, and now this film will be seen as the sendoff to one of the most beloved protagonists in cinema history, correcting the public disappointment of 2008’s Crystal Skull. Like it or not, that stupid concern, the definiteness of it all, prevents this from being just another Indy adventure. And, though Mangold could have ignored this anyway, he doesn’t.
The film opens with quite the feint. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, magisterial) boards a train filled with the type of people he’s been known to dislike: Nazis. His face, de-aged, manages to avoid the uncanny valleys associated with such VFX tech, but his octogenarian voice breaks the illusion. He meets up with old friend Basil Shaw (Toby Jones, delightful) and discovers half of a powerful relic, the Antikythera, which, when combined with its other half, offers (arguably spoiler territory) godlike powers. It’s aboard this train that he also meets Nazi physicist Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen, a believable Aryan), who wishes to use this relic of Archimedes to do predictably Reichish things.
With the magical object and bad guy introduced, the film thrusts forward to the present day, where a weathered Jones jolts awake to the sound of his young neighbors blaring the Beatles. He’s divorced, his son died in Vietnam, nobody swoons at his lectures, and, worst of all, he does not live in an apartment befitting the legendary Indiana Jones. But, after some prodding from Shaw’s daughter Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Indy’s off to recover the Antikythera, by traveling the globe with some help from old friends. There are plenty of homages to the previous films throughout the adventuring scenes, even an homage to Ke Huy Quan’s Short Round found in Ethann Bergua-Isodore’s scamp, Teddy. Like always, there’s a bit of the supernatural that bolsters the climax’s action sequence, though this one is much closer to a Paradox Interactive cutscene than the face-melting conclusion of Raiders. And Mangold, sensing his responsibility, gives Indiana Jones a dignified retirement.
Thankfully, there are no winks, no nods, and no sarcastic, out-of-place, self-referential quips that usually plague franchise films. Mangold and his collaborators have a serious temperament and have no patience for the kind of writing that more befits fanfiction and forum posts. And, Dial of Destiny subsequently hits all the notes — it’s an Indy film through and through. It’s enjoyable in that way.
But this self-seriousness casts a gloomy veil over the project, as a purposeless Indiana Jones waddles from adventure to adventure out of a sense of duty, the kind embedded in an elderly neighbor who struggles each year to hoist an American flag for the Fourth of July rather than one located in his usual joie de vivre. This, combined with the dull yellows of the image and boring CGI sets, is a seriousness lacking in Spielberg, who would never make a film out of mere duty. But, Ford’s somber, aged Indy could be read as meta-critique of these legacy sequels. Do we really want Indy to come out of retirement, just to dance for us again? If so, ecce homo.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 25.
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