When Harrison Ford first appears in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, you can’t take your eyes off him, and not really in a good way. The year is 1944, and Indy, captured while trying to sack a Nazi stronghold, doesn’t look a day over 46, an illusion that director James Mangold and his 80-year-old star have come up with with the latest and most sinister digital aging have promoted technology.
The effects are quite amazing and all the more spooky and confusing (why does this Indy look so young but sound so raw?). If this is film magic, it strikes me as the magic of a decidedly dismal vintage, and not just because of the murky haze that seems to cloud the finer details of cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s images.
Who or what exactly are we seeing here and why? As Indy embarks on a familiar round of death-defying exuberance, you might find yourself skimming the slightly worn but artificially smoothed contours of Ford’s mug and asking yourself that very question. It’s still a beautiful mug, of course, and that’s one of the reasons why this well-worn series, originally conceived by director Steven Spielberg and creator George Lucas as a kind of parodic homage to the weekend action-adventure series they made as kids loved so is still in its fourth decade.
But there’s something harrowing about seeing Ford’s face transformed, even briefly, into a special effect – a mix of images pulled from the depths of the Lucasfilm vault, in the latest example of the man-made burglary Big budget filmmaking intelligence.
If you find these things in any way problematic, ethically or aesthetically, Mangold (one of the screenplay’s four writers alongside Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and David Koepp) is convinced you’re too engrossed in the plot to give in them more than a passing thought. And maybe caught in your own nostalgia, too: the runaway train that accompanies the first of Indy’s many high-speed melee combats in the background is also meant to transport us quickly and lovingly back in time.
Despite the fake digital scenery, the busy, tense-free action, and Spielberg’s absence from the director’s chair, the film aims to provide a hodgepodge of well-known Indy blockbuster delights. There are jokes to be cracked, Nazis to be punched, explosives set off and ancient artifacts to be discovered and stolen – nothing is more coveted than the Antikythera, also known as the Dial of Destiny, a clock-like instrument from the time of Archimedes and rumored that he was able to detect “time rifts”.
With cinema being like a sophisticated time machine, the film interrupts World War II and speeds on to 1969, where it ends up in the sad spectacle of Indy (Ford, now sans digital airbrush) drinking and languishing in his New York apartment. Regret and loss are visible in every line of Indy’s weather-beaten face, in every line of his limp body.
His long career in academia is coming to an end, as is his marriage to longtime love and fellow explorer Marion (Karen Allen). As Vietnam War protesters and moon landing revelers flood the streets below his window, his predicament becomes clear: what place does Henry Jones have in a world increasingly dominated by present dangers and future frontiers? , fulfillment and meaning in the past?
It’s an existential question whose cultural and commercial implications inevitably draw on this ailing franchise: More than four decades after Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) became a smash hit and helped set the stage for the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster, In our superhero-crammed, action-packed cinematic landscape, is there still a place for the handsome charmer with fedora, whip, and dyspeptic grimace?
Dial of Destiny clearly wants us to believe that it is, even if the evidence it gathers over the next two and a half hours proves inconclusive at best and unconvincing at worst. Funnily enough, the film is at its best when it challenges its own argument, when it immerses itself, even self-critically, in the notion that time and the films themselves may have passed Indy by.
Spielberg had already considered this possibility — and staged a symbolic passing of the torch from the underground cavern — in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the lucrative but little-remembered 2008 film that starred Shia LaBeouf as Indy’s boisterous, long-lost son, Mutt.
With Mutt’s deliberate absence here, the role of quarrelsome adversary and possible heir to the throne falls to Indy’s goddaughter, Helena Shaw (“Fleabags” Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a quick-talking, fleet-footed dynamo who shares Indy’s job as an archaeologist but playfully has her own duplicitous, mercenary agenda.
Before long, Indy and Helena are cracking second-rate jokes and mapping their way from New York to Tangier to the Aegean Sea – all as part of their quest to find the Dial of Destiny and prevent its potentially history-changing powers from falling into the wrong hands.
No hands could be more wrong than those of Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen, solid but predictable), a bitter SS officer determined to rewrite the end of World War II. Nazis, of course, have long been Indy’s most trusted nemesis, and while her frontline villainy feels like a somewhat memorized gesture, it also represents one of the story’s few points of contact with the real world. (A brief scene in which Voller disguised as a black hotel worker exudes an underlying coldness that the rest of the film can’t quite deal with.) More often than not, though, the use of Nazis signals an ostensible return to basics, if that’s the word for an elaborate, often haunted series of tongue-in-cheek nods to the original Indiana Jones trilogy.
Almost every punch, every joke, every character dynamic, and every violent outburst has a clear backstory. Teddy (Ethann Isidore), Helena’s plucky teenage sidekick, is Ke Huy Quan’s version of “Short Round” in this film. Toby Jones does a typically fine job as one of Indy’s archeological allies, whose incipient insanity is reminiscent of John Hurt’s Crystal Skull character. John Rhys-Davies returns in some welcome scenes as Sallah, Indy’s faithful sidekick from The Raiders and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).
There’s the expected distraction fights, scurrying crawlies, and a fresh reminder of Indy’s disgust with snakes. There’s also an oddly uncomfortable echo of one of Raiders’ most famous moments, when a jealous, scimitar-wielding ex-fiancé seeks revenge on Helena in Tangier.
For the most part, Dial of Destiny attempts to eschew the exoticizing First World view and monkey-brained racist stereotypes that have so often tarnished the series, particularly 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
The new film might also have done well to slow down the many endlessly toned-down car chases, which, like most heavily green-screen action sequences, are all about high speed and low risk at the same time. Only George Miller in full-throttle Mad Max mode can truly rival Spielberg when it comes to this kind of vehicle-hopping mayhem, and Mangold — a solid Hollywood craftsman who’s done strong, genre-bending work (” 3:10 to Yuma, The Wolverine, Ford vs. Ferrari) – never embraces the overused action film signature.
That’s hardly his fault, given how ungrateful it is to put a personal stamp on an industrial product as mechanized and fanservice-oriented as an Indiana Jones sequel.
In a way, Indy was swallowed up not only by the action-comedy film formula he helped normalize, but also by the daunting, depersonalizing trends in 21st-century studio filmmaking.
The greatness of Raiders and parts of the original trilogy lies in qualities rarely seen in films anymore: their light-hearted exuberance, the gripping physicality of their plot, and the palpable chills of their practical implications.
And, of course, it was also largely due to Ford, whose dogged stubbornness and equally dogged sympathy inspired a desire to follow Indy into every booby-trapped fortress, every spider-infested cave, and, yes, every disappointing sequel he came across .
Ford’s sheer movie-star charisma is the one flame this film can’t quench. As retro entertainment, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is all fits and starts; Its expert script bogs down in drawn-out treasure hunts and leaves some of its more interesting supporting cast (Antonio Banderas as Indy’s fisherman friend, Shaunette Renée Wilson as a government agent on Helena’s heels) surprisingly short.
But as a meditation on Indy’s (and Ford’s) mortality, on the passage of time and the plasticity of the film medium, it’s an unexpected, even accidental, resonant work, especially as it gradually finds its footing in the final section and sprints to a fast-paced, audacious climax to.
I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that from certain angles the fabled Antikythera looks like a dusty old can of film roll (speaking of rare antiquities). Nor can I deny that I shed a few tears over a pivotal scene in which Indy, like many aging film protagonists, learns to enjoy his moment — and to realize that moment was always meant to be fleeting.
His pop-culture immortality is more than certain, of course, and it is in that tension that Dial of Destiny’s sneaky poignancy emerges. It’s worth remembering that Spielberg and Lucas dreamed up Indiana Jones, Accomplished Man of History, to keep their own favorite chapters of film history alive, only to end up writing some not insignificant film history themselves.
Dial of Destiny might be little more than a footnote to this story, but it’s not nothing. It’s a convoluted if branded addendum, a tainted oddity, a not-bad epilogue, and, intentionally or not, a lament for the film industry that once existed. Its seamless, largely soulless digital wizardry reminds us of everything Hollywood can now, but also everything it can no longer and may never do again. It belongs in a museum – in other words, in a cinema.
“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”
Evaluation: PG-13, for violent and action sequences, speech and smoking
Duration: 2 hours, 34 minutes
Play: General release begins June 30th