Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny fails to recapture the glory days of its franchise by barely trying to do anything novel at all. A flat, lifeless, and sometimes downright ugly looking movie, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny might appeal to those seeking a burst of low aiming nostalgia more than its predecessor did, but in nearly every technical, narrative, and performative respect, it’s a worse movie than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was, and far more cynical in its reason for existing. Say what one might about filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ final go around with the hat and whip toting anthropologist, but that film had a sense of humour, ideas that were in line with the previous franchise entries, and some fun performances. This one just has a tired looking Indiana Jones, and that’s about it.
Dial of Destiny moves the period-set franchise to the year 1969, where an increasingly grumpy and old Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is still teaching, but has largely left his field studies and adventuring days behind him. He’s going through a contentious and drawn out divorce, and the world has seemingly left him behind. Jones is forced back into the fold when his estranged goddaughter, Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), pays an unexpected visit to inquire about an artifact that her father and Indy’s former colleague (Toby Jones) went mad trying to find: the dial of Archimedes, a MacGuffin with the potential to change the course of history. It turns out that Helena isn’t altruistic or academic in her interests, but is instead a profiteer keen to steal the relic and sell it off to the highest bidder. The dial is also sought after by, you guessed it, a psychopathic, high ranking Nazi official turned NASA scientist (Mads Mikkelsen) who wants to use it to restore the Third Reich to power.
Right from the World War II set prologue, it’s clear that Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny won’t be playing on the same level of any of Spielberg’s films. It kicks off with an extended action sequence largely set aboard a speeding train, featuring an okay-ish looking, CGI de-aged Harrison Ford made up to look like Indy in his prime. These effects, while still not convincing in the slightest, have been done worse before, but everything else about the sequence is falling flat. It’s largely wall-to-wall CGI, and most of it ranges in quality from passable to flat out tough to watch (especially when they leave the confines of the train). To steal a bit of a phrase, there’s no practical magic to be found here. It’s not adventurous, it’s cartoonish, and in all the wrong ways. Even when the iconic John Williams score kicks in, it feels like an arbitrary addition to a scene that hasn’t earned such a rousing callback. It’s a bad start, and at least on a visual level, things tend to improve, but it’s a harbinger for all the missteps to follow.
Directing duties for Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny fall to James Mangold, a competent enough journeyman director known for making successful, well liked, but not exactly world changing movies (Logan, Walk the Line, Ford v. Ferrari). He’s precisely the type of person one turns to when they want something that’s polished and very good, but it doesn’t have to be excellent. In a lot of ways, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, with its unbearably clunky and forced script (co-written by Mangold and several other writers one turns to when studios want “polished, but not great”), isn’t up to the director’s previous standards. Outside of a nicely staged chase sequence set during a large scale parade and protest, there aren’t any scenes in Dial of Destiny that stick out for their originality. Most of what’s on display here are simplistic rehashings of Indy’s greatest hits, and without the zeal and ingenuity of a Spielberg or Lucas behind the scenes to take some bigger swings, a lot of the fun is gone. People have long debated the overall merits of Crystal Skull’s much maligned “nuking the fridge” or Temple of Doom’s infamous skydiving with a raft sequence, but those were sequences that were executed with a sense of fun an adventure. Here, the climax is no less ridiculous than those aforementioned set pieces, but Mangold’s direction is so charmless and serious that it sucks any potential fun right out of the concept.
This lifelessness extends to the cast. Ford isn’t exactly phoning in his performance as Indy this time out, but when he’s asked to rework some of his famous catchphrases, he makes Michael Keaton’s recent and equally lacklustre nostalgia act in The Flash look outright giddy in comparison. Nothing much is made of how old Indy has gotten outside of his dislike for that newfangled rock and roll sound, so Ford just plays the whole thing straight, which is kind of a boring choice. Mikkelsen’s villain is so cliched and stock that it barely registers, ditto Boyd Holbrook as a one-note psychopathic henchman. Toby Jones injects some life into this, but he’s only in a couple of scenes, and Antonio Banderas has never been more wasted in a role as an ace deep sea diver that would need more screen time to even be called “thankless.” Jonathan Rhys-Davies and Thomas Kretschmann show up for a cup of coffee each, and there’s even an endearing Short-Round replacement character, in the form of Helena’s resourceful hench-kid, Teddy (Ethann Isidore, making the biggest impression of anyone here). No one except for the kid is bringing their A-game, and it shows.
Then there’s the matter of Bridge, a talented performer and wit who delivers what might be the worst – or at least the most miscalculated – performance of the year in this film. Painfully miscast as a charming rogue, Bridge seems less cunning, dangerous, and sly than Miss Frizzle behind the wheel of the Magic School Bus. Every line is delivered in a curiously similar fashion, and Bridge absolutely will not stop smirking her way through the entire film, even when called upon to get slightly serious. Bridge’s badly calculated performance is like being forced to sit through a neverending Jimmy Fallon sketch on Saturday Night Live where he keeps breaking character. Not once does Bridge read as convincing in the role, and her chemistry alongside Ford is nonexistent. Bridge is a proven talent, and being a hot commodity probably led to her casting in the first place, but the work she turns in here is downright wince inducing.
But at least a wince is an emotional reaction to what’s going on, and most of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny doesn’t register even that much across its unnecessarily and unconscionably bloated two and a half hour running time. (One of the other keys to this franchise, as exhibited by all that came before it, might lie in capping the running time to somewhere in the ballpark of two hours flat.) The cinematography when it isn’t being ruined by unconvincing visual effects is nice. The score is nice. The set design is nice. But all of that is polish on a film that has no heart, humour, or sense of wonder. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is just more content for the mill, and easily the lowest point yet for a franchise that likely won’t see another entry any time soon unless its rebooted.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, June 30, 2023.
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