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Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

Directed by James Mangold
Produced by Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy, and Simon Emanuel
Written for the screen by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, David Koepp, and James Mangold Based on characters created by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman
With: Harrison Ford, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Antonio Banderas, Karen Allen, John Rhys-Davies, Shaunette Renée Wilson, Thomas Kretschmann, Toby Jones, Boyd Holbrook, Olivier Richters, Ethann Isidore, and Mads Mikkelsen
Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael
Editing: Michael McCusker, Andrew Buckland, and Dirk Westervelt
Music: John Williams
Runtime: 154 min
Release Date: 30 June 2023
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1
Color: Color

Raiders of the Lost Ark is not only one of my all-time favorite movies; I don't think it's hyperbole to call it one of the greatest films ever made. So any sequel is going to pale in comparison. That was certainly true of its first follow-up Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Released just three years after Raiders in 1984, Temple of Doom (technically a prequel) was a huge hit but was and is heavily criticized, even by its makers, for its tonal inconsistencies. That second film is simultaneously a much darker and more goofy movie than its predecessor. And, unlike Raiders' brilliant ability to mine tropes, themes, settings, and characters from the cinema of a bygone era, Temple of Doom’s homages to the earlier years of Hollywood often play as racist and misogynistic.  Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) is a far more beloved sequel, but it still has plenty of detractors because it returns to its source to such an extent that the result is as much a weak retread of Raiders as a new adventure. Almost twenty years passed before we got the fourth film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), which seemed to be made because the original team of director Steven Spielberg, writer/creator George Lucas, and star Harrison Ford wanted another Indi movie as much as the movie-going public did. But that picture was disliked and even despised for its lazy storytelling, ham-fisted comedy, ill-advised climax, use of CGI effects, and cloying "wholesomeness." After the disappointment of Crystal Skull, you might think there would be nowhere for Indiana Jones to go but up, right? If only. 

Billed as the final adventure for the character—though it will more likely be the final adventure for the actor who brought this character to life (unless Indi continues on as a CGI Harrison Ford, which is entirely possible)—Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is a dull, lugubrious slog devoid of anything remotely inventive or joyful. Like Crystal Skull, it mostly serves as a reminder that the creators of this series should have either called it a day after the characters rode off into the sunset at the end of the initial trilogy or made a whole lot more of these movies, reuniting every 5 to 10 years to mount a new, small-scale Indi adventure more along the lines of the Saturday-matinee serials that inspired the original film.

This latest film is the first not directed by Spielberg or co-written by Lucas, though they both serve as executive producers and had some hand in developing it. One might think the only way these two cinematic titans would hand their beloved creation over to someone from the next generation would be because a filmmaker they deeply respect had an incredible idea for where to take the character. That's what I assumed going into this, knowing only that James Mangold directed it. Writer/director Mangold has had a solid career with films ranging from critically acclaimed indies like Heavy (1995), Cop Land (1997), and Girl, Interrupted (1999) to Oscar-nominated fare like Walk the Line (2005), Logan (2017), and Ford v Ferrari (2019). He even helmed a terrific remake of his all-time favorite movie 3:10 to Yuma (2007).

But Mangold and his co-writers, Edge of Tomorrow and Ford v Ferrari scribes Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and the ubiquitous prestige franchise screenwriter David Koepp (who also penned Crystal Skull), seem bereft of inspiration or even connection to this series. Their unimaginative script feels like an assignment rather than a dream project. In fact, other than Ford's late-in-life embrace of the old characters that made him an icon and his acceptance of his status as one of Hollywood's most endearing and enduring movie stars, there seems to be no reason for this movie to exist except for the fact that Disney paid a whole bunch of money for the rights to this character when it bought Lucasfilm.

Dial of Destiny takes place in 1969, but it's rooted in the WWII iconography that has characterized most of the series' installments. Once again, the main villains are Nazis; but these are the contemporary conception of Nazis—guys who want to go back and give fascism another chance by correcting all of Hitler's mistakes. Mads Mikkelsen plays the lead baddy here, a former Nazi scientist who defected to the US to help launch the space program. But even the great Danish leading man can't do anything with a character that simply isn't there on the page. The screenwriters just hope audiences will know who Wernher von Braun was and combine him with their memory of Mikkelsen's portrayal of Le Chiffre in Casino Royal.

In keeping with Lucas and Spielberg's obsession with family narratives, not to mention all studios' obsession with trying to appeal to a larger audience than just middle-aged nostalgic fanboys, we're introduced to Indi's goddaughter Helena Shaw. Played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Helena takes up where Shia LaBeouf's Mutt Williams (Indi's son, whom we met in Crystal Skull) left off. In the interim between pictures, Mutt was killed in Vietnam. That handy offscreen death knocks out two birds with one stone in that we don't have to think about LaBeouf again, and we've got a nice generic backstory to fill the greying and retired Dr. Henry Jones, Jr. with sadness and regret. When Helena shows up, she lures a cantankerous old Indiana Jones on one last adventure.

God bless Ford for showin' a little backbone here. The eighty-year-old actor gives this his all. I'm not exactly sure how old Indi is meant to be in this film. Assuming he was thirty-five in Raiders, that would make him about sixty-eight here, and Ford is such a sexy octogenarian he can almost pull that off. We also get to see Indi in his prime during the tedious and overlong opening sequence, which employs the same de-ageing technology used in The Irishman with the same distracting results. The VFX artists clearly spent a hell of a lot more time de-ageing Ford than they did Mikkelsen, whose skin resembles a Ken doll in this expository action sequence. Both John Rhys-Davies and Karen Allen reprise their roles from the earlier films, but the screenwriters can think of nothing for these wonderful actors to do with their characters, both so beautifully conceived in the original picture. 

Where this film crosses over from just a boring disappointment to a film that (I think) will really anger people is in the last half hour. The McGuffin everyone is trying to find in this adventure is a literal time machine. It's not an HG Wells-style science fiction time machine, but it might as well be. The titular Dial of Destiny is the Antikythera mechanism (or Archimedes's Dial): believed to be the first known analogue computer, which was used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses decades in advance and track the four-year cycle of the ancient Olympic Games. In this movie's fanciful conceit, the dial was invented and built by the Ancient Greek mathematician and astronomer to locate rips in the space-time continuum that a person can jump through Time Bandits style. Despite the massive exposition dumps that weigh this movie down, none of these far-fetched metaphysics is well explained. That's a good thing, as we would probably tune out of the movie a lot earlier if we knew where it would end up. But when we eventually arrive at the third act, it's hard to imagine how anyone connected to this project thought this was a good idea.

Dial of Destiny makes the same critical mistake that undermined Crystal Skull. These pictures have always featured supernatural elements. But part of what made Indiana Jones such a fascinating hero is that he was always portrayed as a skeptic who nonetheless had a deep respect for the local legends, myths, superstitions, and beliefs surrounding the ancient artefacts he pursued. Though he has no firm ideology or faith tradition himself, he acknowledges that there are forces beyond the power of human understanding, and he's witnessed much that can not be explained by the science he practices. That's a damn good basis for a swashbuckling adventurer. And what makes the otherworldly aspects of the first three movies work so well is that even when they are visualized and literalized on screen, the aura of mystery remains intact because the objects are never quite the thing those trying to obtain them think they are. In Crystal Skull, these mysterious forces are easily and disappointingly explained. In Dial of Destiny, they function almost exactly as the characters believe they will. The crazy belief these obsessive people have about the power contained in an ancient artefact turns out to be 100% correct.

Again, I think if there had been ten or twelve Indiana Jones movies instead of five, the filmmakers wouldn't have felt the need to keep one-upping these supernatural plot devices, nor would they have just kept cloning the original films in terms of the relationship dynamics, villains, and types of quests. But we now live in an era where clones of movies from the past are what the big studios make. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, Close Encounters, and other major movies made by the first generation of filmmakers who grew up studying film felt so fresh and innovative because the approach to filmmaking was the exact opposite of a corporate entity purchasing a piece of intellectual property and then remaking it. The writers, directors, producers, and technicians who grew up in the 1950s and started making films in the late-'60s and '70s pulled from myriad sources. They repurposed and refashioned elements from ALL their cinematic, visual, and narrative influences, putting them together to make something that felt distinctly familiar yet entirely new. This practice is not limited to this specific generation; it's the same thing Quinten Tarantino has done for the last thirty years. Raiders was not a simple remake of the old Republic adventure serials Lucas and Spielberg watched when they were kids; it was a new kind of James Bond movie that used those old cliffhanger shorts that ran as part of weekend movie matinees as its main inspiration.

Speaking of Bond, I went into Dial of Destiny with the same low expectations as I had for the most recent 007 picture, which was billed as the final outing for the James Bond of the past two decades, Daniel Craig. There are so many requirements for movies like this that have nothing to do with storytelling. The extratextual demands placed on franchise entertainment, especially "the first of the next reboot" or "the final (for now) instalment", are so heavy they all but guarantee a serviceable picture at best. So many boxes must be checked, so many demographics must be served, and so many dollars must be recouped that very few risks can be taken, which is why we end up with blockbusters that don't feel distinctly familiar yet entirely new. Instead, they just come off as the same but not as good. No Time To Die will not rank as anyone's favorite James Bond movie, but it scratched the itch, delivered the goods, and performed like a serviceable, even fitting, finale to a great actor's run as an iconic character. That is not the case for this final Indiana Jones picture.

It is hard to fathom how dull this 154 minutes movie is. The other Indi pictures are about uncovering mysteries and deciphering cryptic puzzles. This film is more about spewing meaningless exposition, much of it unnecessary since it doesn't pay off anything. It's even more astounding how ugly and cheap this reportedly 295 million dollar picture looks. One thing I can say for The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is that it looks exactly like the other films in the series. Spielberg's gift for shot composition and ability to cover action surpasses all other filmmakers, with the exception of Akira Kurosawa. And even though twenty years had passed and Douglas Slocombe, the brilliant cinematographer of the original trilogy, had passed away (Last Crusade was his final film), Crystal Skull looks and feels like an Indiana Jones movie. Spielberg's long-time Director of Photography Janusz Kamiński reverentially recreated Slocombe's style so that the visual look fits perfectly with the work of editor Michael Kahn, sound designer Ben Burtt, and composer John Williams, who all picked up as if two decades hadn't gone by.

The same cannot be said for this bland, artless, artificial-looking picture. Photographed with the characteristic muddy lensing by Phedon Papamichael (an inexplicable favorite of Mangold, Alexander Payne, Gore Verbinski, Katt Shea, and George Clooney), this Indiana Jones movie is not only the first one to be shot digitally as opposed to on film, it all looks like it was shot on a soundstage. This series, like the James Bond films, has always been characterized by its exciting and exotic globe-trotting locations. But everything in Dial of Destiny looks like it was shot in front of a green screen like a Marvel movie. This is not just the case in the action sequences or the major set pieces, such as the chase through a 1969 street parade honoring the astronauts returning from the moon landing; ordinary dialogue scenes look faked in the studio. Even the final emotional climax of the movie, which takes place on a hill with a castle in the background, is clearly a process shot. What the fuck, Mangold?

It goes without saying that any blockbuster that looks like it was shot mainly on greenscreens will feature many poorly staged and randomly shot fight scenes and stunts that rely heavily on CGI, bearing no resemblance to anything remotely real-world. But even knowing that, it is still astounding how much worse CGI work has gotten in the past decade. There's a high-angle wide shot early in the opening in which Indi leaps onto a moving train and starts to run along the top in which he looks comically like a pre-vis animated character. It's laughable, but it's also sad because a man running along the top of a train is an easy-to-achieve practical stunt that's been a part of cinema since its origin. Yet in 2023, in one of the most expensive films ever produced, a shot like this seems to require that everything be created artificially—so the train looks artificial, the track looks artificial, the environment looks artificial, and the hero doesn't even move through space like a human being. One of the great things about Indiana Jones is that he was never a superhero, or a time traveler, or part of a multiverse. And though he had a TV show, a theme park stunt show, comic books, and novels never really felt like part of a media "franchise." He sure does now.

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Harrison Ford makes a valiant attempt to go out swinging in the lugubriously plotted, visually ugly, and humorless finale (for now) of the Indiana Jones series helmed by James Mangold in what feels like a tedious assignment rather than a dream project.