8 Ways ‘Indiana Jones and The Dial of Destiny’ Delivers The Final Insult
Jul 3, 2023   •   Mikhail Lecaros
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Jul 3, 2023   •   Mikhail Lecaros
Having previously delivered a satisfying end to a big-screen icon in the form of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine (in 2017’s Logan), director James Mangold takes on the challenge of providing an equally dignified finale for Harrison Ford’s equally iconic Indiana Jones. Can Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny end the series on a high note where Kingdom of the Crystal Skull so infamously failed in 2008?
Now recognized as one of Harrison Ford’s (Star Wars, The Fugitive) most iconic characters, Indiana Jones first appeared in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Created by George Lucas (Star Wars, Willow) and directed by Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List), Raiders was conceived as an homage to the adventure serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s. A critical and financial blockbuster, the film served to vindicate its filmmakers: Lucas, in proving he could write something other than Star Wars, and Spielberg, whose most recent effort, 1941, had gone over budget and overschedule to flop at the box office. Perhaps most significantly, the film showcased Harrison Ford as a viable leading man outside of Lucas’s Galaxy Far, Far Away.
The film would spawn two highly successful sequels in the ‘80s, with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (whose violence and graphic imagery helped institute the PG-13 rating) in 1984, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989, which brought the classic trilogy to a brilliant close. Two decades later, Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford returned for 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which notoriously introduced CGI and Shia LeBeouf (Holes, Transformers) to the franchise, forever dividing fans on which element was more execrable.
In 2016, the fifth Indiana Jones film was announced, with the title, Dial of Destiny, being revealed in late 2022. Directed by James Mangold (Ford V Ferrari, Girl, Interrupted) and premiering out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, Harrison Ford has gone on the record to say that this will be his final outing as the famed archeologist. Stepping into Spielberg’s director’s chair would have been intimidating enough, but Mangold had done good on Jackman’s Wolverine, so he had more than the benefit of the doubt going for him.
The year is 1969, and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, Star Wars, The Fugitive) is a broken man. Years removed from his adventuring heyday, Indy is a shadow of his former self, separated from his beloved Marion (Karen Allen, Animal House), and on the verge of mandatory retirement as a college professor. When his estranged goddaughter Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag) bursts back into his life with gunmen in pursuit, Indy finds himself thrust into one last adventure against an old enemy (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale, Doctor Strange).
The film begins in brilliant fashion, presenting us with a thrilling mini-adventure set at the tail end of World War II. A (somewhat convincingly) de-aged Ford is right at home as Indy, once again attempting to retrieve an artifact from the Nazis, and for the most part, it works.
Indeed, nearly everything, from the setting and mood to the cinematography, and a wonderful score from John Williams, combine for an opening that could very well have been shot in the ‘90s (had Ford, Lucas, and Spielberg not been tied up with other projects). One or two wonky CGI shots aside, the only thing that really gives the game away is Ford’s 80-year-old voice coming out his younger face, but the sequence is too much fun for that to really matter.
The meat of the film takes place in 1969, as a depressed, alcoholic Indy wallows in his Manhattan apartment, surrounded by the ghosts of his past as the world moves on without him. Mangold makes some brave decisions here, depicting the aged Indiana as a man past his prime, and not shying away from the years that have passed since we last saw him. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s biggest sin was in virtually ignoring its hero’s advanced age, with any references passed off as punchlines, at best, while using CGI-powered action to build him up as the same hero that he always was.
While Dial of Destiny isn’t any less guilty of throwing CGI at the screen in lieu of convincing action, it at least acknowledges that Indiana’s gotten on in years, and more time here is devoted to his avoiding fights than getting into them.
And therein lies the rub: inasmuch as Mangold probably wanted to make a treatise on the aging process and how time treats yesterday’s heroes, he (and the studio) also wanted to make a traditional Indiana Jones adventure, complete with globetrotting adventure, thrilling chases, and bone-crunching action. The only trouble is, Ford just can’t do most of those things anymore, and it really shows.
Thus, the action component is largely handled by Waller-Bridge’s Helena Shaw, a character we’ve virtually no investment in, much less affinity for, other than her not being a Nazi (or Shia Labeouf). She even brings along a Moroccan knock-off of Ke Huy Quan’s (Everything Everywhere All At Once) beloved Short Round, played by a kid whose unibrow is only slightly less annoying than his character’s precocious ability to get kidnapped and fly a plane.
While there is the kernel of a good idea here in Indy and Mikkelsen’s Voller being opposite sides of the same coin as individuals unable to let go of their respective pasts, the film doesn’t do anything interesting with the notion, falling back on tired tropes. This is a film that starts out saying that Indy’s too old to be doing this stuff, then proceeds to place him in a tuk-tuk chase that wouldn’t look out of place in a Jason Bourne movie.
If Dial of Destiny had toned down the high adventure and stuck to a smaller-stakes character study of a man in his twilight a la Rocky Balboa (2006) or Unforgiven (1992), Mangold may have had something interesting to say, but in trying to have his cake and eat it, he’s just (re-)covering familiar ground in the poorest manner possible, where everybody but Ford is phoning in their performances.
Even the brief instances of fan service he manages to serve up do little to improve the material (the John Rhys-Davies appearance spoiled by the trailers is as good as it gets, and it’s even more inconsequential than Billy Dee Williams’ Rise of Skywalker cameo).
Star Wars’ Han Solo may have made Harrison Ford a star, but the actor has always maintained that Indiana Jones is his favorite role, and that’s never been clearer than it is here – Ford is doing some of his best emotional work here; he gets this character like nobody else, and he isn’t letting the script’s shortcomings take away from that. When Indy mourns his son’s passing, we believe the pain he’s going through, and one bemoans the film we could have gotten, had the filmmakers sought to explore this (or any other) character beat.
Indiana Jones is a character that began as an amalgamation of 1930s serial heroes, but the humanity Ford was able to imbue him within the succeeding years granted him a staying power far greater than any of his inspirations. As such, both character and performer deserved a better ending than the one Dial of Destiny ultimately serves up.
The ending of the film will doubtless give fans and non-fans alike material to debate for decades to come, and this was probably always going to be the case. What wasn’t expected, however, is the wholesale betrayal of Indiana Jones that James Mangold elected to end his film with.
Just to be clear, Indiana Jones has never been a superhero – this is a guy who was notable for being a regular guy who got out of scraps with his brain as much as his fists, a man whose only superpowers were his unwillingness to give up, his love of history, and his abject refusal to let the bad guys win – even if it meant losing out on potential glory along the way. Dial of Destiny’s climax puts all of those qualities to the ultimate test, but because the preceding two hours did little to contextualize the character’s mental state other than a few throwaway lines, it’s difficult to get behind Indy’s final wish.
Or at least, it would have been if he’d been given the chance to act on it – as presented here, Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr., discoverer of the Ark of the Covenant, recoverer of the Sankara Stones, and last Crusader for the Holy Grail, is forced to grow up and face his problems, not through any sort of character development or realization, but with a punch to the jaw. His jaw. At the end of his final movie. The movie with his name on it.
I mean, I’ve seen some godawful endings, but…wow. Just wow.
Harrison Ford is acting his heart out for a character he clearly cares about, but the story around him is either unable or unwilling to put one of cinema’s greatest heroes to bed. If the filmmakers had more faith in their theme of moving on from the past, and the audience’s ability to comprehend it, we probably could have had something special. As it stands, we have a film that’s only slightly better than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and one that does nothing to dissuade anyone of the notion that these films should have ended in 1989.
Thanks for the memories, Harrison. Thanks for nothing, James Mangold.
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