This article contains major spoilers for Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. Click here for a spoiler-free review.
It might not come as a shock to learn that many people (especially the loudest ones on the internet) do not like change, especially when it comes to portrayals of childhood heroes. A prominent reason adults go to the theater is to try and recapture the feeling of being 12 years old again and watching a certain kind of big movie on the big screen for the first time. We want to see the hero we know, not the character time has evolved them to be. However, this is exactly what Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny allows itself to challenge.
The dial of time turns, and life keeps moving on. It’s this tentpole that the entire movie rests on and why it works as a solid film on its own, not just as another Indiana Jones movie. It is also this exact reason why the movie can feel alienating for the casual viewer in search of escapism, who wants nothing more than to see Indy punch a Nazi.
Indiana Jones has been in the DNA of American cinema since Harrison Ford first cracked the whip in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark over 40 years ago. Ford has always been the soul of the franchise — you can’t think of Indy without the thinking of the man in the hat. His silhouette in a jungle, whip hanging at his side, shirt unbuttoned down past his chest with just the right amount of sweat. But if he is the soul, then Steven Spielberg has always been the heart. The driving force pumping throughout the films keeping them alive with movie magic and a palpable passion for pulp action adventures that essentially created its own sub-genre.
The film needed a heart transplant.
When Spielberg left the project during pre-development, citing creative differences with the studio, there was a lot of well-placed concern on who would be up to the task as his successor. The film needed a heart transplant, and in the end, the answer was somewhat obvious. Don’t get someone who just would make another Indiana Jones movie, go to the man who made the best “our hero got old” film in recent history, the man who directed Logan, James Mangold.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny takes it slow at first, so the audience can adjust. Not because it’s a slog, but because it is so clearly a different kind of Indiana Jones movie and knows it. In his review for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Roger Ebert described the first four movies as four pounds of sausage. “…if you eat four pounds of sausage, how do you choose which pound tasted the best?” The film makes no apologies for what it is, and Dial of Destiny isn’t exactly that fifth pound of sausage. It’s the side of macaroni that has bits of the same sausage chopped up in it. Sure, there are still jungles and a cave where Indy must solve deadly puzzles, but this film isn’t just about that. The tone of far more mature and weathered, like Indy himself.
On paper, you have a classic premise for the franchise. An estranged woman in Jones’ life reappears to gain his help in recovering an artifact before a Nazi doctor can do the same. But the film is more interested in exploring the deeper impact this and past adventures can have on Indy and how they’ve reverberated into every aspect of his present day.
A generational divide.
Again, similar to Logan, the film is about a man wrestling with the impact of time. The part-time professor and full-time adventurer has gotten old, and his good deeds and goodwill have been mostly forgotten, like the artifacts he so often treasures. Take Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character, Helena Shaw, for example. The rift between her and Indy, the generational divide, also serves as a conduit for the younger audience of today who clearly didn’t come out to watch the film in any high number. They, like Helena, have only ever heard about how great Indiana is, and few have witnessed it for themselves, and in the ideal context at that.
In the film, Indy has already become a sort of dusty relic that people either ignore or try to handle delicately. He has rowdy neighbors who don’t respect him, and one hell of a lackluster retirement party for someone who cares more about putting things in a museum than his own wellbeing. Even his teaching lessons don’t hold the same student-teacher passion we had become accustomed to seeing. The students aren’t writing “love you” on their eyelids any longer, just kids regularly falling asleep. Sure, when the action inevitably kicks off, you think to yourself “well here he is” and expect to see life reenter and rejuvenate the man we all know. However, Mangold smartly portrays Indiana not as forever youth, but indeed as an 80-year-old man who is simply trying his best.
An ordinary guy who finds himself in extraordinary situations.
In moments where we’re used to Indiana punching his way out of a corner, knocking away enemies’ guns, and using his whip to swing to safety, we get an old man whose escape attempts immediately fail. Indy falls back to his seat, still staring at a gun in his face. This sad reality is what makes the film work, because who would believe otherwise? What makes Indy so extraordinary is that he isn’t a superhuman. He is just an ordinary guy who finds himself in extraordinary situations.
One of the film’s biggest swings is indeed Helena. She is immediately unlikable to the audience. On the surface, she is everything Indy isn’t: self-interested, greedy, quick to betrayal. But the more we learn about her, the more we see just how similar the two really are. Helena has a pre-pubescent sidekick just like Indy had Short Round. She’s more interested in recovering the artifact for the sake of her father’s obsession than she lets on, even going as far as memorizing all his journals on the subject. Much like Indy with his own father in Last Crusade.
Mangold deliberately uses the character of Helena to say that no matter how different we may feel to other generations, we still share more similarities than we don’t. Passing the torch didn’t work with Shia LaBeouf in Crystal Skull, and Mangold doesn’t try to rehash the same attempt. Helena isn’t the next Indiana Jones, nor does she want to be. She is there to accentuate the idea that he is one of a kind, a man married to his own time frame who at best can only influence the next generation.
A smorgasbord of terrific pulp performances.
As is common in the franchise, we get a smorgasbord of terrific pulp performances. You have cartoonish henchmen, a brilliantly evil antagonist from Mads Mikkelsen in Dr. Voller, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge certainly holds her own with much more seasoned and talented actors. But without a doubt the standout performance comes from Harrison Ford, who might have delivered the magnum opus of his career. The amount of pain and sadness life has left him is unmistakable.
One of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the movie occurs when on the heels of a great escape at the hands of Dr. Voller, and while Helena and others celebrate the excitement, Indy takes the time to lament that one of his good friends has died. Time has shifted his perspective and Ford’s portrayal of this fragility of life has a deeper resonance than in any previous Indy film. This emotional exploration is what really accentuates the entire third act, taking what is already an outlandish premise (I mean, come on, time travel!?) and makes it less about the absurdity of the situation and more about the deep appeal that one feels toward the comfortability of the past versus the harsh realities of the present. Ultimately, it lands on the right lesson.
Indy isn’t Indy. But that’s the point.
Dial of Destiny is a good movie that accomplishes its intention to tell a story about the challenges of time. Yes, there will be hate for it because yes, this isn’t the exact Indiana Jones movie everyone wanted. But they wanted to be 12 again, which is different from wanting an Indiana Jones movie that is actually good. Indy isn’t Indy, they may say, but that’s the point. He isn’t, not anymore.
Much like a franchise villain whose ultimate demise is found in a self-absorbed desire for a prize, it is important to remember that Indiana Jones isn’t just for any one of us. The point of his obsession with relics belonging in a museum is that art and history is for everyone, even when time changes your perspective on the magnitude of said relic. Like our heroes we too will get old. Generations will look at us differently. Movies like Dial of Destiny argue, so what?
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is now playing in theaters. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of Disney and Lucasfilm. Featured image is a custom illustration by Jon Negroni.