The online world is ridiculous. We all know it. Most stupid “leaks” and rumors involving Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny have been planted by small minded “anti-woke” trolls in an attempt to perpetuate anti-Disney agendas and garner unearned clicks. And while I have no real dog in those fights, other than to denounce the stupidity of anyone who believes “woke culture is ruining the world,” I have to say it’s all BS. Don’t be gullible. Most of it is wrong. And the movie is perfectly fine! Enjoyable, even!
To those who are skeptical because Kingdom of the Crystal Skull sucked, I can’t say I blame you. That movie really was bad. But rest assured, Dial of Destiny is so much better. Thank goodness. This one is actually a real Indiana Jones movie. No, it’s not as good as the first three classics. But does it need to be? No! How could any movie even fathom being as good as those? All Dial of Destiny needed to be was a good, fun time at the movies with bugs, tombs, chases, and grounded supernatural activity. And it accomplishes all of that, including the fun! It also simply needed to be a nice note to end the character on, and it is.
***SPOILER WARNING: I’m about to discuss the movie in full depth, meaning potential spoilers ahead. If you want to go in surprised, come back after you’ve seen the movie.***
This final adventure brings us up to 1969. Indy is no longer the heartthrob Marshall professor that everyone thought was the coolest teacher on campus. He’s an old, retired, divorced curmudgeon who brings a bat to make youngsters turn down their music in his crappy apartment. Suddenly, with the reappearance of his goddaughter, Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), and the threat of a former, bitter Nazi scientist (Mads Mikkelsen) looming, Indy is thrusted into an adventure to go after the famed dial of Archimedes before the forces of evil can use it to change history.
First things first, from the very concept of the movie, you already know this is going to be better than Crystal Skull. Aliens have no place in this franchise. There’s nothing in this movie on par with the lows of Shia LaBeouf CG swinging through the trees, or Indy surviving a nuclear blast in a fridge. The movie brings the franchise back to basics: Nazi punching, tomb raiding, puzzle solving, and exciting chase sequences. And thank God for that, because it is the core of what makes this feel like a real Indy adventure.
Director James Mangold is a fan. You can see it through every frame of the film. He’s trying his very best to capture the essence of what it takes to be a genuine Indiana Jones movie, and for the most part he does the movies he loved growing up justice without relying on overt nostalgia and Easter eggs. It has some pacing issues, and things that probably could have been trimmed. But I never once felt like I was seeing a hollow version of an Indiana Jones adventure. Tonally and spiritually it felt like the continuing adventures of the hero I loved when I was a kid, but with maybe a few less laughs (the humor is not as witty sadly).
On the contrary. At its core, this is an emotional, existential movie about Indiana Jones’ mortality. Him questioning his place in a world that’s left him behind, and whether or not he has anything to show for his life of adventure and the preservation of knowledge. In some ways it acts as a thematic spiritual companion piece to Mangold’s own Logan (albeit still an inferior one). To explore this side of Indy is interesting, but it never once betrays who this character is. Yes these emotional things are in the film’s DNA, but he’s still resourceful, intelligent, hard-hitting, hard-punching, hard-dodging Indy. The emotion adds more depth to our hero, and allows him the ability to end his journey with dignity and pathos. How Mangold resolves the conundrum of Mutt Williams and Marion is actually quite beautiful and among one of my favorite things about his contributions to the legend of Indiana Jones.
I think we should also address something I’m sure is on the forefront of every sexist troll’s mind. No, this is not a vehicle for Helena Shaw to take over as Indiana Jones. Whoever told you it was is a complete moron. This is first and foremost Indy’s movie through and through. So if you’re a feeble-minded jackass who thinks the presence of strong women in a movie “will ruin your favorite franchise hero,” you can sleep easy because no one else is wearing the fedora but Indy (also, more importantly, you should grow up and try to find help). No, Mangold gives us the best of both worlds. We get one of the best female characters in the Indiana Jones franchise, but also keep the focus and important arcs on Indiana Jones.
And Harrison Ford’s still got it! He gets back in the fedora without missing a beat. Watching Ford banter with Waller-Bridge, punching bad guys, using the whip, solving puzzles while spouting facts about history, and emotionally musing about the past shows that it really is all about the mileage. He gives a broken soul to this character that no one else in the world ever could, and it just serves to remind us how much we’re going to miss him as Indiana Jones. It’s also nice to see him reunite with Jonathan Rhys-Davies’ Sallah, in a small but warm and welcome return.
From a supporting perspective, serving as a very capable co-star is Waller-Bridge. Her Helena Shaw is smart, and quick witted, but also tough. She’s definitely the best, and strongest female Indy character to ever come along, never once veering into the lame damsel in distress territory or Nazi villain. She’s funny and charming, but also likable. The movie really rises and falls on the chemistry between Ford and Waller-Bridge, and for the most part it delivers. There’s also newcomer Ethann Isidore, playing Helena’s scrappy young partner, Teddy. His character is an attempt to recreate the magic of Short Round as the scrappy kid-sidekick who can handle himself. He definitely falls short of Short Round’s likability, but Teddy is still pretty resourceful and isn’t a bad addition to the canon, with at least one or two standout scenes.
On the villain side of things, Mads Mikkelson does what he does best — uses his charisma and charm to elevate otherwise unmemorable characters. I will admit, his scientist character, Dr. Voller, is slightly different because, as a foil for Indy, he’s also a man driven by knowledge and regret. That part about him makes him feel a bit more human than past villains only after riches. It’s more on par with the Rene Belloq-type of villain. Thankfully not hammy or ridiculous like Cate Blanchett’s horrible Irina Spalko. But also not as menacing or memorable as Toht, either. He’s somewhere in the middle, and a bit bland. He’s aided by Boyd Hollbrook’s Klaber, with Hollbrook giving, once more, the smarmy “villain you want to hate” performance we’ve seen in films like Logan.
The action in this film is truly the standout, as it tends to be in most Indy movies. The movie starts out with a really terrific, classic-feeling Indy sequence involving the escape from a Nazi castle, and a chase atop a train. There’s a terrific horseback chase sequence in the second act, and another tuk-tuk chase sequence that’s thrilling, but overextends its welcome by a hair. However, admittedly my favorite parts were towards the end, when we see the Jones party head to Greece to uncover the ruins of Archemedes tomb. This is a classic “Indy 101” sequence complete with rickety bridges, fast running water, booby traps, and creepy crawlies. It really had shades of the original film, and it felt great seeing Indy do this stuff again. And the twists that occur during and following this sequence are rewarding.
Now granted, with a MacGuffin called “The Dial of Destiny” it’s easy to presume there’s something about time-travel involved in this. And the end delivers on that presumption. But it does so in a way that’s thematically relevant to Indy’s character, and emotionally tied to 40+ years of investment we’ve had in him. It’s weird, but with a great and poignant impact, and in a way that reminded me more of the Knights of Templar ending from Last Crusade versus the confused silliness of the aliens from Crystal Skull.
Let’s also get to the heart of a matter that I know is a hot button topic for our readers regarding this franchise: the treatment of POC. You’ll be happy to know nothing about Dial of Destiny is as overtly terrible as any of the racist scenes from Temple of Doom. But we do see a bit of disregard for POC characters. Whether it’s flat out killing characters of color easily, or short changing the roles of standouts like Shaunette Renée Wilson or screen legend Antonio Banderas, the film doesn’t exactly showcase a whole lot of lessons learned from its now-controversial past. Better in this case still equals not great. But thankfully these are from minor parts of the film.
On a technical perspective, once more we also get a rollicking, rousing score from the man, himself, John Williams. Now if I’m going to be honest, it’s neither Williams’ best score in recent years, nor the best score of the year. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t reverberate throughout the film with fine Indy flair. The movie sounds like classic Indy. And I’m all here for that!
What, unfortunately, doen’t feel as much like Indy are the CG effects in this movie. Particularly the de-aging effects they used for the film’s intro and a few scenes in the middle. This is where the film struggles most, because rather than hire a body double and deep fake, like they beautifully did with Mark Hamill for Luke Skywalker in The Mandalorian and Book of Boba Fett, they decided to go with what seems to be a fully CG’ed “young Indy.” If that isn’t what they did, then wow, it sure looks like it was. And that’s not good. If they perfected the tech and gave us a convincing young Indy, like Marvel Studios did in Ant-Man, Civil War, or Captain Marvel, that introductory scene would have been an Indy all-timer. Unfortunately the shoddy effects really broke the illusion for me, and that was a huge distraction. I wish maybe they released this during Christmas and spent a few more months refining those effects.
Let’s be honest. The glory days of the man with the hat and the whip are behind us. That’s something not only true in real life, but also inherently written in the narrative of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, which makes it all the better. As far as real life is concerned, we can’t expect things to ever be the same as classics like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, or Last Crusade. So if that’s your expectation, I encourage you to temper it right now. But, out of the gate, thankfully, Dial of Destiny is worlds and universes better than Crystal Skull, and deserves its place as part of the franchise, even if it has to settle for fourth best. It’s fun, emotional, and most importantly feels like a true, solid Indiana Jones movie. And that’s something Mangold managed to accomplish that even Spielberg couldn’t in 2008. We’ll miss this adventurous curmudgeon. But at least he’s going out on a high note with his dignity intact, and his hat still firmly on his head.
Overall Score (on an entertainment level): B
Overall Score (on a representation level): C