To be fair, that headline is probably harsher than I mean it. It implies that this latest entry into the iconic franchise is more tied to “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” than any other entry, and that would be an insult to “Dial of Destiny” and a compliment to “Crystal Skull,” something I’m not inclined to given years of resentment. Yes, I am of the belief that the previous entry is a stain on cinema, something that no amount of revisionist history can save from its baffling choices and poorly constructed narrative. Of course, that caused me to approach “Indiana Jones and Dial of Destiny” with a cautious optimism, fearing the worst but hoping for the best. That’s not without merit, either.
The absence of Steven Spielberg, an aged Harrison Ford, and the inexplicable choice to premiere the film at Cannes all seemed to compound on my worst fears. “Dial of Destiny” may not be able to recapture the magic of its more beloved predecessors, but does deliver the adventure fans could hope for and seeks to add an emotional send off for the ever iconic adventurer.
Directed by James Mangold (“Logan,” “Ford v Ferarri“) and written by Mangold, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (“Edge of Tomorrow,” “Cruella“) and David Koepp (“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” “Kimi“) the film sees Harrison Ford return as the titular character Indiana Jones, adding Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Toby Jones, Mads Mikkelsen, and Boyd Holbrook to the cast along with cameos from Antonio Banderas, John Rhys-Davies reprising his role as Sallah, and one other we won’t mention til more people have seen the flick.
The film follows Jones as an aging professor set to retire. he lives alone and seems trapped in the past he spent his life chasing and the current world of 1969 rapidly changing around him. When his goddaughter (Wallar-Bridge) suddenly returns with new information about an ancient artifact called The Dial of Destiny, Jones is wrestled back into one last adventure before his time is up. They are of course pursued by Nazis, some from Jones’s past who are also in search of the artifact that is said to be able to literally turn back time. It’s a race across the ancient world to uncover the last big find of Indiana’s career before the Nazis get their hands on it to correct the mistakes of the past and win the war.
I guess if you were to break down any “Indiana Jones” film, they all follow a very similar formula. At their core, they are tried and true adventure stories, lead by one of the most charming and last true movie stars of our era with (usually) an unrivaled director at the helm. Though “Dial of Destiny” is riddled with faults, they are not nearly as egregious as the previous entry, nor as they as retroactively dated as with something like “Temple of Doom.” There are some bold choices and plenty of missteps, but “Dial of Destiny” seems to understand the core of what makes Indiana Jones so special, and for that it succeeds as being a solid entry into the franchise even if it’s not the best and rather middling overall. On the surface, it is a genuine adventure story that feels perfectly in line with the framework of the franchise, and the first hour in particular largely capture some of the best parts of the series.
Mangold is also aware of the aging star, and imbues his narrative with some existential themes for Jones to wrestle with in addition to fighting off Nazis. These aren’t obvious reads, but “Dial of Destiny” does lend itself to some deeper, more meaningful interpretations under its surface of wild adventure and globetrotting macguffin hunting. Where does Dr. Jones fit in a world that is simultaneously celebrating the future with the Moon Landing and protesting the Vietnam war instead of celebrating the fight? What does a man who has spent his whole life uncovering the past do in a world now obsessed with the future? This juxtaposition of past vs future is perhaps some of the most mature themes in an “Indiana Jones” film, and elevates “Dial of Destiny” as a piece of cinema trying to find a place in the new world for an old icon. It is what gives the film its true heart, and when viewed through this lens of finality and self discovery, it becomes one of the most intriguing watches of the franchise to date.
Despite that, “Dial of Destiny” doesn’t quite bring it all together, and one has to be a rather astute cinephile to appreciate the aforementioned thematic highlights. Very few of us come to an “Indiana Jones” film for the themes of life and purpose. In the great words of Nichole Kidman, “We come to this place…” for adventure and to be entertained. On that front, “Dial of Destiny” stretches it runtime well beyond its necessity, and unfortunately suffers from an over convoluted plot that rarely feels cohesive. The film also doesn’t have a climax or a resolution in its third act, and makes some bizarre choices for where the story goes and what happens to the characters. Ford is as in full form as he can be at 80 years old, and does provide some of his best work when things get a little more emotional. Waller-Bridge is a delight, sharp and witty in her delivery and also working hard to add complexity to her character both in her pursuit of the artifact and her relationship to Jones.
Milkkelsen is a formidable foe, a sort of Nazi anti-Jones who has the same pursuit and purpose and obsession with the past as Jones just with wildly opposing motivations. The problem with Mikkelsen in “Dial of Destiny” isn’t that he under delivers, but more so that he can play this role in his sleep. Evil German Nazi Scientist is kind of Mads wheelhouse, and while the film uses him well, you can’t help but feel like he’s on autopilot. And then there’s Holbrook, who is inexplicably a devout Nazi henchmen for Mikkelsen’s character but also not German at all. It is never explained, and his unquestionable loyalty and role in this whole “win the war by correcting Hitler’s mistakes” is never even addressed. We’re just suppose to accept that an American with a southern drawl is a devout Nazi. Which, ok fine given our current climate that doesn’t seem so far fetched, but for 1969 it seems miscast and undercooked. “Dial of Destiny” also makes a lot of assumptions of audience knowledge of the time period. We’re suppose to recall that Operation Paperclip was a thing, and that we wouldn’t have the moon landing without Nazi scientists. There’s also a weird CIA subplot that goes nowhere, as well as some vital events that happen in the first act of “Dial of Destiny” that amount to nothing by the film’s ending.
Perhaps the most glaring issue in “Dial of Destiny” aside from its overly long runtime and bizarre narrative choices towards its final act is the absence of Spielberg. That’s not to say that Mangold is out of his depth; he’s got a knack for filming action and clearly has a love for the character and story. But there is a wonder that is missing here, and much like “Crystal Skull” has that pristine shine that brightens every frame and cheapens everything. I get it, the previous entry was directed by Spielberg, but anyone who has done a shred of research knows that he had very little say in pretty much anything and might as well have been a producer on the project at best. “Dial of Destiny” lacks whatever intangible vision Spielberg brings to his projects, and is what distances this entry from the best like “Raiders” and “Crusade.” But that’s not to say it’s bad, just that it lands somewhere exactly in the middle overall. It’s got some great adventures, but also makes some choices that hold it back.
Overall, “Indiana Jones and The Dial of Destiny” is a middling experience that thrills when it really gets going but drags when it gets bogged down by its own ambition. There’s some genuine heart here, and if you’re truly invested in the Indiana Jones story you will be moved at some pivotal emotional moments. It isn’t the best of the franchise, but it certainly isn’t the worst. And if this truly is the last we see of Dr. Jones, there are worse ways to say goodbye than “Dial of Destiny.” It’s messy, overwritten, and little too much movie for the story, but overall “Dial of Destiny” is a flawed film but a fine watch that at the very least will remind you why you love the character, and why John Williams is one of the best composers in the business and this last score of his is pitch perfect.
Oh, and as final note, the deaging really isn’t that bad, and is the least of my hangups with “Dial of Destiny.” It looks fine and serves the story pretty well in its prologue.
It may be the Dial of Meh-stiny, but “Indiana Jones and Dial of Destiny” has a bit more to say than you’d expect and delivers just enough adventure to be a fun movie going experience.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
“Indiana Jones and Dial of Destiny” is now playing in theaters. You can watch the trailer below.