Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny – Review

There will never be a better pairing in cinema history of actor and character than Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones.  To say that he was born to play the part would be an understatement.  The moment we first saw him walk out of the shadows and into the spotlight wearing that trademark leather jacket and fedora we knew an icon was born.  And this was fairly impressive for an actor like Ford who already had the character of Han Solo on his resume.  It helped that the greatest filmmakers in the industry were there to make Harrison shine on screen as the character.  Developed from the mind of George Lucas and brought to life on screen by Steven Spielberg, Indiana Jones’ debut in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is a timeless classic that still stands as a high water mark in blockbuster filmmaking.  And unlike the work that he put into the Star Wars franchise, this was a movie completely formed around him as an actor.  Surprisingly, it’s a match that almost didn’t happen, as Tom Selleck was at one time going to play the character, before his commitment to Magnum P.I. pulled him out of the running.  While Selleck might have done alright as the character, it’s hard to imagine this role without Harrison Ford.  The gruffness of Indiana Jones as well as the ability to dive into the silliness of the character are unmistakably things that Ford brought to the character that no other actor would have.  Despite having a career that now spans 6 decades and a body of work that includes many of the best action films ever made, as well as a couple very good dramas and comedies, Ford will always be known best for his performances as Indiana Jones, and it appears that he is happy with that distinction.  Ford has been vocal of his affection for the character, believing that the character is among his best work, and it’s the thing that has allowed him to return time and again over these 40 plus years that Indiana Jones has been around.

The Indiana Jones franchise as a whole has been one that’s inspired a wide range of opinions, both good and bad.  The good thing is that the Indiana Jones films are not serialized, so each movie can stand on it’s own as a stand alone adventure.  But the choices of which adventures he goes on bring out a different mix of emotions in audiences.  Critics initially were not happy with the follow-up film in the series, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), with many saying it was too dark and lacked a cohesive plot like Raiders had.  Of course, over time the movie has been re-assessed, and people of my generation who grew up with the film regard it very highly; even putting it ahead of Raiders.  The third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) was generally better received as it was reviewed as a return to form after the riskier Temple of Doom.  For the longest time, the series stood alone as a trilogy, with Crusade working very well as a fitting end to Dr. Jones’ adventures.  But, that’s not where George Lucas saw it ending.  There was always talk of another Indiana Jones movie, but it would take 19 years for it to become a reality.  The resulting film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) did bring the whole team back together, with Harrison Ford once again cracking the whip and Spielberg guiding the adventure behind the camera.  Unfortunately, the reception to the film did not get the same result as the original trilogy, and in fact the movie was widely panned by the fandom.  Time has also not been kind to the movie like it has been to Temple of Doom, as the majority of Indiana Jones fans still consider Crystal Skull a low point for the series and even a betrayal.  Many people lamented that this was going to be the final note that Indiana Jones left the silver screen on, but fortunes would change as new leadership took over at Lucasfilm.  After being brought into the Disney Company, many hoped that there was a shot of another Indiana Jones movie possibly in the works. With the revival of the Star Wars series, that possibility seemed strong, but it would take some time.  Eventually, it was announced that a fifth Indiana Jones movie would get made, and that Harrison Ford would indeed step into the role one final time.  The movie would be delayed multiple times, with the pandemic being especially disruptive, but now, over 40 years since his debut, we are finally getting the long awaited sequel Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023).  The only question is, does the movie end the series on a high note, or does it further sink the franchise to a new low?

The movie opens with a flashback to Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr. (Harrison Ford) during the final days of World War II.  He has been captured by the Nazis, who are in the process of mobilizing their stock hold of stolen artifacts to get them away from allied forces.  Among the Nazi soldiers is scientist named Dr. Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) who has been brought on to authenticate all the artifacts.  Among the artifacts, there is one that sparks Voller’s interest above all others; a device known as Archimedes’ Dial.  Jones manages to make his escape, with the assistance of another archaeologist named Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), and the two manage to steal away the Dial from the Nazis, with Shaw being particularly knowledgeable about the artifact’s importance.  25 years later, Indiana Jones is living alone in New York City, with his marriage to Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) on the rocks, and is on the brink of retirement.  His final lecture at the university is attended by a woman who reveals herself to be Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), daughter of Basil and Dr. Jones’ goddaughter.  Helena inquires about the Dial that her father and Jones found all those years back, but Indy is reluctant to share any information, knowing how the Dial ended up driving Basil crazy in his final days.  Still, Jones helps Helena find the Dial which he’s kept in storage, but they soon learn they’ve been followed by some hired guns also seeking the Dial.  The henchmen (Boyd Holbrook, Olivier Richters) are working for Dr. Voller, who has been working in America on the space program as a beneficiary of Operation Paperclip.  Voller is adamant about finding the Dial, because he believes it has the power to re-shape history, which he believes could lead to a different outcome for the war.  Unfortunately for Indiana Jones, he loses track of the Dial as Helena runs off with it, leaving him having to make a daring escape again, in the typical Indiana Jones fashion.  Despite his advanced age, Jones seeks to go into harms way to find Helena and the Dial, and solve the mystery behind it, with the help of old friends like Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and new like diving expert Renaldo (Antonio Banderas).  But, will this be the adventure that will Indiana Jones make history or become history?

Considering how much time has passed from when this series has started to where it is now, it’s pretty amazing that Harrison Ford is able to still play this part again at all.  Now in his 80’s, Ford definitely is unable to pull off some the same kind of action sequences that made the original trilogy movies so memorable.  But, as long as the movie is able to work with the limitations that the actor now faces rather than try to force him into the impossible mission of going all in again, there’s a way to make an older Indiana Jones work while still being true to the character.  One thing that helps this movie is that it’s being helmed by James Mangold, who has a history of sunsetting legendary characters in one final blaze of glory.  He helped Hugh Jackman say goodbye to the character of Wolverine in the poignant film Logan (2017), so giving him the responsibility of bringing Harrison Ford’s time as this character to a close is well within his capabilities.  He definitely has big shoes to fill, with Spielberg passing the reigns on to someone else for the first time in the series’ forty years.  Mangold has many talents as a filmmaker, but he’s not anything like Spielberg.  The question remains whether or not the injection of a different directorial vision is exactly what the series needed.  The fandom surrounding the Indiana Jones movies is a very vocal one, and making a misstep is bound to rile up some feathers.  I for one am in a minority within the fandom in that I actually like Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the most reviled film in the series for a lot of people.  Considering my tastes, I seem to like when the series takes chances and does things in a very different and unexpected way.  Temple of Doom is my favorite film in the series, so I’m a bit more forgiving of the series as even the ones with flaws have their charms.  So, considering that I am more forgiving of Crystal Skull, it would stand that I may feel more positive about Dial of Destiny than most.  For the most part, I would say that Dial of Destiny in no ways changes my view of the series, as it ultimately is a very serviceable sequel.  At the same time, it does have it’s share of flaws, but those flaws to me put it mostly on par with Crystal Skull, which is not a knock against the movie given my scale of judgement.

To expect that this movie is going to reach the heights of the series in it’s heyday during the trilogy is kind of an impossible high standard to reach.  Dial of Destiny does not have the benefit of 40 years of rose colored nostalgia to build it’s reputation upon.  Sadly, it has to contend with a very demanding fanbase that wants to feel the magic that the original movies had once again, and I don’t think it’s going to be able to live up to that for many.  That being said, can the movie stand on it’s own as a rousing action adventure.  I’d say that there are definitely moments that shine in this film, and help to at the very least remind us why we love Indiana Jones in the first place.  What I would say is the biggest problem with this movie is the bloated run time.  At nearly 2 1/2 hours, this is by far the longest film in the series, and it really doesn’t need to be.  One really longs for the economy of storytelling that Spielberg always exceled at with his direction in these movies.  The original trilogy movies have all the fat cut out and each action sequence is perfectly paced for maximum  effect; my favorite in particular is the climatic sequence of events at the end of Temple of Doom, which is an all time great example of how to build tension in a final act.  The action scenes in this movie feel too busy and complicated.  There is one scene with a cart chase through Moroccan streets that was so chaotic and repetitive that it took me out of the film for a moment.  Honestly, where the movie worked best for me was not in the action scenes, which used to be a staple of the series, but rather in the quieter moments where we see Indy doing the actual tomb raiding.  It’s in those moments where it does feel like the old glory days of Indiana Jones again.  There are good action sequences to be sure, like a very well done prologue scene on a train, and none of the action sequences are insultingly horrible by any means, but you can really feel in these moments the absence of the Spielbergian touch.  Mangold is a very capable director, but in this case his instincts are pretty uneven.

The thing that definitely lifts this movie up the most, without a doubt, is Harrison Ford himself.  You can tell that the reason why Ford wanted to come back to this role one more time was so that he could give Indy a proper goodbye.  Crystal Skull it would seem was an unsatisfying exercise for him, and with Dial of Destiny, he is clearly trying to dig a bit more into the character and bring out a sense of Indiana finally coming to terms with the history that he left behind and the history he wishes he could forget.  This movie digs a bit deeper into the psyche of Indiana Jones, seeing him grapple with mortality as time begins to take it’s toll.  He’s not the same death-defying Dr. Jones that we once knew, and I liked the fact that the movie leans into that aspect, showing that while Indy is still a force to reckon with, at the same time he is also bearing all the scars of those adventures.  And yet, the sparkle in his eye when he discovers things once lost to time found again is enough to make you fall in love with the character all over again.  Harrison Ford doesn’t miss one note, and he easily carries this movie, making us all fall in love with Indiana Jones once again.  And the way that the movie settles his narrative in it’s final act is poetic and quite fitting given the legacy of the character.  The supporting cast, while not quite as memorable as characters in years past, are still doing their best with the material.  Mads Mikkelsen’s Dr. Voller is in no way within the same category as legendary adversaries like Belloq, Toht, or Mola Ram, but Mikkelsen still gives him a presence that works well enough.  As underwritten as he is, I still found him to be a better villain than Last Crusades’ Donovan, played by Julian Glover.  Sadly, the other main lead, Helena Shaw, is not as good of a character.  Phoebe Waller-Bridge is trying her best in the role, but her smarmy, quippy attitude feels out of place in the movie, and she ends up being more obnoxious than endearing.  Even Temple’s Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), as corny as she was, still left an endearing impression.  Other than that, it’s also nice to see John Rhys-Davies, another Raiders alum make a return as well, and there are other actors like Toby Jones and Boyd Holbrook who make the most of their limited roles.

One thing that I think will likely be debated hotly about this film is the heavy reliance of CGI.  For a series that was renowned for it’s mix of practical and state of the art visual effects, to see so much of this movie be reliant of CGI is kind of disappointing.  At the same time, it was almost inevitable, as you couldn’t rely upon Harrison Ford to do as much of the on set spectacle as before given his limitations at this age.  There are some effects that do indeed look good and were necessary for the moments in the film, like with a climatic storm near the end.  One moment that I think will either anger or impress viewers is the de-aging effect on Indiana Jones in the opening prologue.  You can tell that the de-aging technology has gotten better over time, and some shots do look pretty believable.  But there are other times when it crosses into uncanny valley territory, and it will be interesting to see how audiences overall accept it.  Given that the de-aging effect happens in the best scene of the entire movie, it didn’t end up being a critical distraction for me, but there were times when it does pull you out of the scene for a moment.  I understand why they did the effect, but I have a feeling that it’s an effect that probably won’t age well over time.  Once we get to the modern day, the movie does have a good sense of capturing the time period.  It’s interesting to see how Indiana’s world has changed through the whole progression of the series, from the pre-WWII era art deco pastiche of Club Obi-Wan in Temple of Doom   to the Vietnam War era grunginess of New York City in Dial of Destiny, each era becomes a character in it’s own right within the movies of this series.  Of course, one of the other things that will indeed earn due praise for this movie other than Harrison Ford’s performance is the new score provided by the great maestro, John Williams, in what will likely be the last big studio production he’ll ever work on.  The 91 year old Williams insists that if Spielberg ever calls him for an assignment he’ll answer, but for now there is a strong likelihood this will be the legendary composer’s swan song at the end of an unparalleled career.  So it is fitting that he is putting down the baton with and Indiana Jones score.  There are some repeating themes in this film, including the iconic Indiana Jones march, but remarkably the vast majority Dial of Destiny’s score is made up of original music, showing that even in his old age, Williams still has got it.  I guess he and Harrison Ford have that in common.

For the things that count the most, mainly doing the character of Indiana Jones justice, I do think Dial of Destiny is a success.  But, it still comes up short of the series’ greatest hits.  I certainly think expecting this to rise to that level is a bit unfair, because it’s impossible to make an Indiana Jones movie feel as fresh and groundbreaking as it was when Raiders of the Lost Ark first came out.  Time has changed and so have the audiences.  It’s clear that the time has come for us to bid farewell to the Indiana Jones that we knew, because a lot of the past glory has clearly faded.  All that said, the movie doesn’t do an insulting job of trying to bring back Indiana Jones to the big screen.  It’s clear that the people who made this film put a lot of love into it.  Unlike a lot of other cash grab sequels, it does not feel cynical in any way.  I certainly felt it does a more honorable job at continuing an old franchise based on classic IP than say what Jurassic World does, and it’s certainly a better series finale than what we got from Star Wars with The Rise of Skywalker (2019).  Despite a script that features some wild leaps in logic and characters that aren’t as endearing as they should be, the movie does stick the landing when it comes to Indiana Jones and how the story puts this era of his to rest.  The final scene in the movie, without giving anything in the way, is almost perfect and is exactly the way I want to remember Harrison Ford’s final scenes as this character.  It’s poignant in the best way possible, a fitting final note to leave on.  I don’t think it will be the end of Indiana Jones entirely as a franchise.  There is always the possibility of Disney doing a James Bond situation and starting fresh with a new, younger actor in the role.  It might even be worthwhile to reboot the Young Indiana Jones TV series again.  Whatever happens, the Harrison Ford comes to a close in a satisfying, if not exactly perfect, way.  Thank you for all the years of fun over the years and for making one of the greatest cinematic heroes in history.  Fortune and glory forever.

Rating: 7.5/10