Let’s talk about Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny!
Did anyone really want this? Like seriously, was anyone looking for another Indiana Jones movie? We had a brilliant trilogy in the 80s and 90s so it was perfectly understandable that people would have quite liked another. But then that film ended up being Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and that, alongside the type of film Indiana Jones is not really being in fashion anymore, meant everyone was done with the franchise. We can go back to the classic trilogy anytime and love them, we don’t need anymore thank you very much. But yet here we are in the year of 2023 sitting down to go watch a new Indiana Jones movie and one that Steven Spielberg is not directing. But is the Dial of Destiny any good?
During World War 2, Indiana Jones inadvertently discovers the Archimedes Dial in a Nazi hoard, something which myth says can change time. In the 1960s when Indy is retiring as a professor, he is greeted by his goddaughter Helena, who is looking for another part of the dial. However, a former Nazi scientist is also looking for it believing he will be able to change the outcome of the war.
The film starts off pretty well as we see Indiana Jones trying to steal some artifacts from Nazis before being caught. This is where we see de-aged Indiana Jones and wow, these effects have improved a lot from that quite awkward Princess Leia in Rogue One. Maybe it’s because James Mangold is intelligent enough to keep the scene dark and quick so you don’t get a long enough look at his face for the uncanny valley effect to kick in but it’s really impressive. It’s also frightening because one day, someone is going to do this for a full film and we’re going to have 90-year-old Tom Cruise doing Mission: Impossible 20 while he looks like he’s in the first Top Gun still. It marks a pretty nippy start that makes you hopeful for the film.
But like the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it gets stuck in the US for a bit. In these newer Indiana Jones films, I think they forget it’s an adventure film, not a period movie. The fact it’s been set in the 30s, 40s, 50s and now the 60s has always been pretty irrelevant. They were only there because travel was more difficult and exotic and that’s also when the serials which inspired the series were made. It also meant you could make Nazis and Communists the villains which is pretty good evil shorthand. But the last two Jones films think we want to see the US in those time periods rather than going to exotic locales. We don’t, a horse chase in the subway is not a bad idea, but it’s not an Indiana Jones idea. Thankfully it doesn’t last as long as in Crystal Skull, and it doesn’t end with a fridge being nuked, but this series needs a reminder that they are adventure movies, not action movies.
It’s around this time that we introduce Indiana’s companion for the movie, he gets one in every film, his goddaughter Helena. She’s played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and she is meant to be pretty cocky, anti-heroesque and always ready with a one-liner. Basically, she’s meant to be a Harrison Ford character. An issue with these characters is that they are far more difficult to write than they seem as they are a tightrope for the audience. If you get it wrong, you either make a bland character or an unlikable one. Helena is very rarely bland. But she can be quite unlikable at times. I get she’s someone that cares more about money than anything else, but when you’re doing that and allowing Nazis to win, you seem less like a cool anti-hero and more of a prick. At other times, she’s really funny and an entertaining mirror of Indiana. But then there’s the other times when you are done with her, so it’s a bit of a mixed bag.
The film eventually leaves America and gets to Morocco and this is when the film starts to feel like a proper Indiana Jones movie. And not just a proper Indiana Jones movie, but a good Indiana Jones movie. A botched artifact auction followed by a tuk-tuk chase in the streets of Tangiers is really good fun and the bickering between the characters, plus the daftly amusing addition of a jilted mobster not sure whether to take revenge or plead to reunite with Helena, actually adds to it. And for a while, the film continues on this sort of note. There are puzzles which Indy and Helena need to solve based in deep mythology and then another entertaining deep dive scene where eels make a stand in for snakes, which I don’t need to remind are quite disliked by Indy. For a while, you’re in hope that this is going to be a decent movie.
But then the ending happens. Look, I don’t think I’m spoiling things too much to say that Indiana Jones movies have a formula. Indiana has to go find a mythical artifact before an evil person does, the evil person ends up with it but the power ends up turning on them and destroying them. This film follows that formula because at this point we don’t just want that formula, we need it. The problem is the pacing. The film is shaping up quite nicely, both the heroes and villains have found out where the last piece of the dial is and there’s enough peril as the final chase through some caves happen. It’s all pretty good and then the film decides to go for it with a mad 30 minutes. Not only does this bugger the pacing of the movie but it just feels a bit too much. Again, this is a tightrope. What makes this ending dafter than the Ark of the Covenant melting faces off? I don’t know, but it just feels wrong and it goes on for way too long as well. It also threatens an incredibly awful ending, but it at least sees sense about that.
I also think there was some conflicting scripts when making this at some point as well. Indiana Jones is a series with very little depth. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The characters are broad brushes because they are more fun that way and the focus has always been on the locations and quests rather than some deep inspection on the soul of Indy. That was the way of blockbusters back then but it’s fair to say we do ask more of even our biggest movies now. No one would have cared about the characters or thin story in Avatar: Way of Water back in the 80s is what I’m saying. That’s why there seems to be some attempt at adding more to the character. And it’s a weak attempt. I think some scripts had a lot about the revelations about Marion and Mutt, about Indy retiring and seeing Helena, someone who reminds him of a colleague he let down in the end. But then someone realised that’s not really Indiana Jones, rewrote most of it out to keep it light. But those traces are still there in the movie, very much undeveloped and feeling quite out of place.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny has some great moments. For the middle part of the film, it feels like a proper adventure movie. It has some great creative action set pieces which take advantage of the locations it is in, a good intriguing quest and some good banter between all of the characters. But it’s sandwiched in between some pretty awful stuff. Some character work which really doesn’t work, a few set pieces which don’t belong in this sort of movie and an overlong conclusion which feels like it’s taking the mick a bit while going a bit too far with the stupidity. It’s eating a steak sandwich where the sirloin is beautifully done, but the bread on either side is stale. It feels like another disappointment and another reason to just stick to the original trilogy when binging the series.