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‘Indiana Jones and the Dial Of Destiny’ review: destined to disappoint

(WARNING! Contains spoilers for “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”)

When I was watching “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” there was one moment, near the start of the film, which really stood out to me. Indy (Harrison Ford), in a crowded and hostile bar, pulls out his trusty whip. We see the crowd of enemies duck and cower as the iconic wepaon lashes out and as its cracks ring sharply through the room. We see the determined scowl on the 81-year-old Ford’s face as he watches them back away from him, and our hearts swell, ready to watch Indy defeat this crowdful of miscreants, just like he would do in all his previous films.

  And immediately afterwards, every single person in that room pulls out a gun on Indy. He freezes, his aged eyes darting back and forth almost in confusion.

The scene is meant to be comedic, but somehow it feels off. Of course, it’s meant to be an inversion of that iconic moment in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” where he shoots a sword-wielding assassin. But it feels so wrong to see Indy on the other side of that scene, where he’s chosen the wrong weapon, where he’s failed to read his environment, where he’s making the same mistake as his own victim. And in a room full of younger, more heavily armed adversaries, where not even his most iconic weapon will save him, he looks completely out of place.

Perhaps this scene almost epitomizes what happened to “Dial of Destiny” at the box office— outpaced by its newer, shinier rivals. Disney and Lucasfilm spared no expense on this movie, with its elaborate CGI and de-ageing software that, to be honest, looked quite convincing on Ford. All of that, though, resulted in a $295 million budget and “Dial of Destiny” becoming the 13th most expensive film ever made. According to Collider, Disney needed to make $600 million just to break even; right now “Dial of Destiny” has made just $381 million. In a summer movie season that gave us the Barbenheimer phenomenon, “Dial of Destiny” seems lost in time, an ageing relic of the ’80s left behind in the dust.

“Dial of Destiny” did not deserve to bomb. Like its four predecessors, it delivers what we’ve all come to expect from the series—thrilling escapes, exotic locations, creepy bugs/snakes/creatures, death traps and supernatural artifacts—and it delivers them in spades. The problem is that it can’t decide whether to focus on these hallmarks or to focus on telling a different story; that of an old, struggling man past his prime. The opening of “Dial” illustrates this dichotomy very well. We open on a thrilling WWII escapade as Indy punches Nazis onboard a moving train, and then we get a timeskip to Indy, aged and half-naked in his dingy apartment, companing about his noisy neighbors. 

Throughout the film it’s made no secret that Indiana Jones is at the lowest point in his life. 15 years ago, “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” saw him marry his lover Marion (Karen Allen) and reunite with his son Mutt (Shia LaBeouf). In Dial, however, we are told (but not shown) that Mutt has died in Vietnam and Marion has left Indy as a result, leaving him completely deprived of anyone he might call “family”. It’s almost as if this decision was an overreaction to the mixed reception of “Crystal Skull”; I know people weren’t too fond of LaBeouf in that movie, but this felt like a bit too much. 

Anyway, because of all this, Indy lacks basically all initiative throughout the film. Rather than accept a dangerous mission to find a mythical artifact, Indy is framed for murder and forced to flee; a plot point which seems incongruous with the recovery of the titular Dial (a time-travel compass loosely based on the Antikythera mechanism). The main motivating character in this film is his goddaughter Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) who, unfortunately, seems to be going out of her way to be as unlikeable and antagonistic as possible. She’s portrayed as an arrogant, unrepentant thief, and even when she finally joins Indy’s side she loses few of her negative traits.

Speaking of the villains, even they seem somewhat lacking; in fact, it’s almost as if they’re going easy on Indy on account of his age. Previously Indy’s gone up against the might of the entire Nazi and Soviet armies, as well as an entire bloodthirsty cult. This time, he’s up against five or so ex-Nazis. The main villain (Mads Mikkelsen) has an interesting past as a Nazi working for NASA, but he’s less threatening than any of the previous villains, as most of his plans rely on waiting for our heroes to slip up or to simply chase them around. It doesn’t help that his small pack of goons are incompetent in the extreme; in fact their incompetence drives large sections of the movie forward, more so than any action on the heroes’ part.

Thus, “Dial of Destiny” was advertised as a triumphant finale, but feels more like a reminder of how the whole franchise is past its time. It seems caught between bringing Indiana Jones into the modern age using the wonders of modern moviemaking technology, and at the same time seems to emphasize how much Indy is stuck in the past, failing to adapt to even the world of the 1960s when the movie is set. Perhaps this explains the film’s spectacular bombing. Why would Gen Z bring their money to watch their parent’s idols from the 1980s grapple with old age, when they could watch Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling dancing to Dua Lipa instead?

And this raises another question—does Gen Z even care about Indiana Jones?

With the exception of his hatred of fascists, Indiana Jones has not aged well in modern times. The concept of a swashbucking, adventurous archeolgist seeking artifacts from exotic lands now smacks of imperialist and colonialist values. Even his very first scene features him taking an artifact from an indigenous people with the aim of placing it in a Western museum. And the less we say about “Temple of Doom,” the better.

Perhaps there was a way around this. After all, despite their problematic natures, audiences are still drawn to those original movies for their thrilling escapades, for their depictions of bravery and ingenuity. Perhaps Indiana Jones could be reinvented for the modern era, as an elderly, but still heroic man of action that embodies the appeal of past films while discarding the more problematic aspects.

Yet the moviemakers seem quick to dismiss this. They lean full tilt into emphasizing not only Indy’s irrelevance, but also the complete failure of his entire life. I understand that Ford is 81 and refused to be recast, but there was no need for the continuous emphasis on his age and uselessness. There was no need to preach to young and old audiences alike that Indiana Jones is not the man he used to be. What’s more, instead of rediscovering his adventurous nature, Indy seems to become more and more despondent as the movie goes on, even until the film’s final scenes.

“Indiana Jones and the Dial Of Destiny” is not the triumphant return of a heroic old man. It is the return of an old man who was once a hero. No matter how thrilling the escapes and battles, in the end it’s Dial of Destiny’s insistence on forgetting its own protagonist that remains with you.

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