Written by Tom Augustine.
Cast your mind back to 2008. The film world was a very different place to the one it is now, with Iron Man and The Dark Knight set to dominate the box office and, in their own ways, transform the blockbuster landscape for the decade to come. At the time, though, the blockbuster that probably enjoyed the most buzz and excitement was another film, one that touted the long-awaited return of one of cinema’s greatest heroes, Indiana Jones, in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Harrison Ford was back in the hat, leather jacket, pistol and whip. Steven Spielberg was once again in the director’s chair, George Lucas behind the story. After Ford and his cohort had ridden off into the sunset in The Last Crusade, many wondered what a new Jones film could bring to the table, particularly with an older, crustier Ford at the helm.
The resulting project has had a long and complicated life in the years since it was released to almost universal disappointment. Looking back, we didn’t know how good we had it – the film was a bit silly, certainly, particularly in later stretches, but the Spielberg touch was intact, as it always is (even in his lesser efforts). The film made some effort to marry the Boys’ Own adventures of a more straightforward era, in which there was always an easy villain in the Nazis, to the more complicated world mired in the Cold War of the ‘50s. This meant we found an ageing Indy grappling with not only the Russkis, but also modern concerns like nuclear weaponry, counter-culture, and UFOs. That’s probably not what you remember, though. What grabbed the headlines after the fact were the film’s peculiar dalliances – the groundhogs, the aliens, Shia LaBoeuf swinging through the rainforest with monkeys, the fridge (of which I, for one, am a huge proponent).
Is it the lingering distaste for Crystal Skull that makes the arrival of a new Indiana Jones, purportedly the last one (a do-over for Skull’s perceived mistakes) seem like something of a tough sell? Or is it the times we’re in, when every piece of IP is squeezed into oblivion, that takes the shine off somewhat? In 2008, the return of Indy was an enormous event, and while 2023’s Dial of the Destiny is hardly a drop in the pond of the cinemascape, one can’t deny that the buzz around the beloved character has dulled. It doesn’t help that the film had a reasonably disastrous first-look at the Cannes Film Festival, where reception landed somewhere between half-hearted shrugs and outright ire. There were promising signs amidst the chaos – Harrison Ford was, blessedly, back and seemed fully on-board with the project, as was composer John Williams. But if word out of Cannes was to be believed, it was wise to brace for a disaster.
Purportedly the last outing for Harrison Ford’s iconic treasure hunter, the fifth in the Indiana Jones series is also the first not to be directed by Steven Spielberg. What results is an enjoyable, even moving adventure – though one can’t help but miss the extra magic it might have had in the hands of a master.
Now Dial of Destiny is here, and it really isn’t as bad as all that. The high-points of the film are the aforementioned returning talents, naturally; it’s great to see Ford, one of the last true movie stars, on the big screen in the role that would come to define him, as too are the compositions Williams provides – enthusiastic, old-fashioned bombast that here proves to be a buoyant force. Elsewhere, the film is a facsimile of better films that have come before (and better directors), but it’s a decent enough facsimile for two-plus hours of adventure. In the director’s seat is James Mangold, a solid journeyman who has turned in likeable work elsewhere (Logan, Ford V Ferrari). The role he has to fill is immense. Spielberg is the father of the blockbuster, and rarely was the blockbuster machine put to better use than in the early Jones films. Even in Crystal Skull, Spielberg’s marvellous ability to handle spectacle and cinematic language was unparalleled. Mangold does a reasonable Spielberg impression in Dial of Destiny, though there’s a solid, unremarkable quality to his work that never seems willing to really reach for the stars in the way his predecessor did.
In Dial of Destiny, Indiana Jones is in the doldrums of old age, hitting retirement at the University where once he drew adoring crowds, now disinterested coeds seeking a blow-off class. At eighty years old, Ford still cuts an effortlessly charismatic figure, but this iteration of Jones has lost his mojo, looking back on a life of regrets with a world-weariness that suits this older Ford well. Where Crystal Skull found Indy’s generation at loggerheads with the next, Dial of Destiny suggests Jones is astray in the world of the ‘60s, a world that has long since moved past his type of hero. He’s pulled back into the saddle for one last ride when his goddaughter (Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge) comes knocking, seeking a reality-bending device that drove her father Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), a partner of Indy’s back in the day, to insanity. Hot on their tail are a team of Nazis, led by nefarious scientist Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), who seeks to succeed where Hitler failed.
The resulting film follows in the footsteps of past Jones adventures in many ways. Where the original films brushed up against the spiritual repeatedly, and Skull dealt with questions of the interdimensional, Dial of Destiny now focuses on another genre mainstay, time travel. The Dial – as in the dial of Archimedes, the Greek mathematician and physicist, is a fitting macguffin for a journey as concerned as this is with Jones’ regrets and the looming spectre of mortality. There’s a wistfulness to this effort which recalls The Last Crusade most of earlier efforts, but largely feels unique within this series. It’s poignant to see an older Ford wrestling with the immensity of legacy, even if the pieces around him are somewhat lacklustre.
Said setpieces – which I was lucky enough to witness on an IMAX screen, highly recommended – have a thumping quality, and are sufficiently involving if generally uninspired. Indy and Basil’s first run-in with the device is rendered in flashback, featuring a wonkily de-aged Indy in a murky action sequence that doesn’t necessarily kick the film off in high gear. As with much of Mangold’s work, it’s serviceable, but hardly memorable. The same goes for the story, save for a genuinely bonkers third act that stretches for the magic of the original series and only just falls short. Elsewhere, there are fleeting moments of cleverness – a deep-sea dive with some very menacing giant eels comes to mind – but there’s never the suggestion that we’re in the hands of a true master in either the scripting or the direction of Dial of Destiny. The villains are rote, with Mikkelsen sleepwalking through a role bereft of originality. Waller-Bridge’s spunky chatterbox goddaughter fares better, but not well enough to make a case for further adventures. Spielberg’s shoes are so enormous that it isn’t tough to admire the guts of Mangold to step up, but they are shoes that he (and likely most everyone else) will never be able to fill. It all builds to an ending that marks the very best work you’ll find in Dial of Destiny, a coda that feels fitting while movingly evoking the memories of past films. It’s a gentle farewell that suits this more muted effort, though one wonders what could have been had the whole gang united for one (more) last ride.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is in cinemas now.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
Movie title: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (Mangold, 2023)
Movie description: Purportedly the last outing for Harrison Ford’s iconic treasure hunter, the fifth in the Indiana Jones series is also the first not to be directed by Steven Spielberg. What results is an enjoyable, even moving adventure - though one can’t help but miss the extra magic it might have had in the hands of a master.
Date published: June 30, 2023
Country: United States
Author: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, David Koepp
Director(s): James Mangold
Actor(s): Harrison Ford, Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Genre: Action, Adventure