Let’s be honest and lay the cards on the table – the Indiana Jones movies are a trilogy. Yes, there are five movies in this trilogy, so the math doesn’t quite check out, but Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny are more epilogues than anything else.
The trilogy ended with Last Crusade. It helps to think that way, because that allows the remaining two movies to not have the burden of expectation and to be their own thing. People sitting down and expecting Dial of Destiny to be able to reach the heights of those first three movies are doing themselves and Dial of Destiny a disservice. Best to know going in that this can’t do that.
Harrison Ford is too old to be dragged behind a truck or free-falling out of an airplane in an air mattress. You don’t really want to see that anyway – it would look ridiculous and the beauty of the stuntwork of those first three movies is that you can believe in all the derring-do without too much trouble.
So, if Dial of Destiny isn’t the first three Indiana Jones movies, then what is it? It’s an important question, and one that Lucasfilm cannot answer definitively. That’s a problem. Lucasfilm and Disney would like nothing better than to sell tickets based on our fondness for the original films, but Dial of Destiny, in its way, is a subterfuge. It’s a movie based on nostalgia that is trying to show audiences that nostalgia can be a bad thing, an emotion that traps people in the past and stymies growth.
What Harrison Ford and director James Mangold do here is brilliant on that level, but it doesn’t help an audience looking for something entertaining to see at the movie theater. For most audiences, I imagine Dial of Destiny is not the movie they wanted. It might be the movie they needed, but for fans of the character (and I consider myself one of them), it may be a bitter pill to swallow.
Movies like Dial of Destiny are difficult for me as a critic because I see value in aspects that may well not be what the studio was hoping to give us. As an action movie, of a piece with the original films, Dial of Destiny is wanting. The set pieces are unmemorable, filled with so much CGI, smoke, and mirrors, and those of us who remember just how exciting and dangerous the stunts were in those first movies will look at those sequences with disdain. There is so much green screen that it can be difficult to parse what is real and what isn’t. There was a sense of spatial geography to those first films that is unparalleled.
Here, it mostly feels like bumper cars, just jostling the audience to show movement instead of any real orchestrated choreography. Again, that’s a problem in your Indiana Jones movie. But it also feels subtextual – it’s as if the filmmakers are trying to implore the audience that instead of sitting here watching an 80-year-old man do things that we know are impossible, we could be exploring new art and new adventures that challenge us. If that was the intent (and I can’t be sure that it is), that’s pretty subversive.
The MacGuffin (there’s always a MacGuffin) is a mystical dial invented by Archimedes called the Antikythera. It allows those who possess it to find “fissures in time,” ostensibly to travel back in time and change the past. For former Nazi and now project scientist Dr. Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), it is an opportunity to succeed where Hitler failed.
For Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), daughter of Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), it’s all fortune and glory, a drive that a younger Indy might recognize. She feels very much like the Indiana Jones of Temple of Doom (even down to a kid companion), only in it for the riches and excitement and not for the historical significance.
And for Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) himself, it could be a chance to rectify some bad life choices and mistakes in his own life, and to heal what is wounded inside and in his marriage to Marion (Karen Allen). There are some things that cannot be repaired, and Indiana is living with the scattered pieces of a broken life, full of regret.
Dial of Destiny may not be the Indiana Jones movie people wanted, but make no mistake – Harrison Ford showed up to work. This is one of his most poignant, most emotional performances as Indiana Jones. First off, although it’s heavily CGI, the opening twenty or so minutes of young(er) Indiana Jones doing his Indiana Jones thing are a lot of fun.
I suspect that the technology will look dated in a few years, but a lot of it takes place at night and it’s fascinating seeing Ford embody his younger self (even if he can’t hide the fact that his voice has changed over the past 30+ years).
Punching Nazis in the face, robbing precious artifacts, rescuing people in the nick of time and by the seat of his pants – that’s what we come to an Indiana Jones movie to see, and the opener delivers that the best way it can. When we flash forward to July 1969, we are in a world excited by the new, and the possibilities of the future, as the Apollo 11 astronauts return home, and a bitter Indiana Jones lives alone, resentful of this new world and pining for the past.
When his goddaughter Helena shows up, looking for an old piece of her father’s in Indiana’s collection, chased by Voller and his goons, it reawakens something inside Indy, and while Helena can’t be completely trusted, it forces Indy back into the world again.
It’s best revealed in the movie about what made Indy so bitter and angry, but Ford doesn’t waste a moment of it. He has a monologue in the middle of the film that may be some of the best acting Harrison Ford has ever done, and probably the sole reason he did this movie in the first place. Those wondering about the years between Crystal Skull and now will get those questions answered, and I appreciate that Ford commits to a character that seems unlikable and unpleasant, and not the Indiana Jones we remember fondly.
That’s all for a purpose, and while the execution may not be perfect, it takes guts for the filmmakers to even attempt it. Again, for audiences wanting a return to the glory days of this franchise, it probably won’t be appreciated on the level it deserves, but it’s a brave choice by the filmmakers to even slip it past the studio brass who are only interested in continuing an IP well past its expiration date.
Where the filmmakers got it right is in the third act, which is wild, unexpected, and takes real courage to pull off. Subtextually, it’s a gutsy move, taking the audience to task on not asking more from their escapist entertainment, and simply wanting to see the same things over and over. It’s hard not to think that Ford and director James Mangold didn’t intend this from the start; Ford in interviews has always been someone who had eyes on the future and somewhat disdainful of the past, and for many that came across as grumpy or cranky.
But Ford, in his way, was telling us to look at the horizon in front of us and not on the roads of the past, which are fun to remember but not constructive or progressive. Thematically, it’s all there in the last thirty minutes of Dial of Destiny, and while it may not be the message audiences wanted to hear, it may be the message they need to hear.
I think this is a better movie than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull because there is a deeper thematic resonance to it. Crystal Skull played all the hits but offered very little that was new (although I’m still a fan of the conceit – the idea of space aliens and atomic scares fits tonally with the time). Dial of Destiny plays for many jaded people right now, wondering where it all went wrong, not realizing that the world changed, and they simply stepped out of it.
The world of Dial of Destiny is a hopeful place, but not to Indiana Jones because it’s going on without him. I imagine there are a lot of people right now who feel that way, and this movie is for them.
So, at the end of the day, is Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny a good movie? It is, but not for the reasons the audience may think or hope. I have a feeling that this movie will be best discovered later at home when people may be more receptive to the message. That’s a bad thing for your summer blockbuster movie to be, but it is what it is.
I think, in time, Dial of Destiny will be appreciated for what it tries to do, even as it fails in certain aspects (and again, I can’t help but think those failures are intentional and part of the subtext of the message). I love that the film takes thematic risks, and I love that Harrison Ford, in his final outing with this character, puts it all out there, holding nothing back. He may not be able to do the stunts anymore, but he finds the emotional center of Indiana Jones in a way that, even with his father in tow in The Last Crusade, he’s never quite managed before.
It’s not the best Indiana Jones movie, not by a long shot, but it may be the best performance by Ford as Indy, and it’s brave and exciting for what it signifies. That may not be enough for the audience, but it was enough for me.
INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY REVIEW SCORE: 6.5 OUT OF 10
The Walt Disney Studios will release Lucasfilm’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny in theaters on June 29, 2023. The film is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, language and smoking.