Let me kick off this review with a mild dose of good news: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is a full notch better than The Crystal Skull, the bland, indulgent misfire that preceded it. That means a more compelling MacGuffin, snappier dialogue, and a more satisfying sendoff to one of cinema’s coolest action heroes. You know things are at least pointed the right way when an Indiana Jones flick opens during WWII, on a loot train packed with Nazis.
Now, you’ve had your spoonful of sugar. Here comes the medicine: Destiny still ain’t that great. While this is about one star higher than Skull, it still features many of the same flaws. If you hated that movie, you might just hate this one less. We’ll count the ways later, but first, let’s take a moment to catch up with Indy.
The aforementioned prologue whisks us to Germany, 1944. The Third Reich is in the first of its death throes, meaning desperation and paranoia flow through the mind of the Führer. In the hopes of turning back the Allied tide, Hitler has dispatched Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), a ruthless scientist, to retrieve the Lance of Longinus—the spear that pierced Jesus on the cross. Of course, such an artifact belongs in a museum, and that means intrepid archaeologist Indiana Jones (
Joe Pesci Harrison Ford) fights to keep it out of Nazi hands.
This entire sequence is so on-the-nose, it might as well have been built out of an Indiana Jones kit: You’ve got prime Indy, fighting his most famous nemeses for the fate of the world, and all of it set to a John Williams score. This sequence is the peak of the film, and it ain’t even close. We’ll never mind that the de-aging deepfake of Ford has flashes of shimmering uncanniness. Also, brush past the under-lighting that plagues some of the outdoor scenes. On the whole, this is the Indy sequel you’ve always wanted.
That makes it a bit of a bummer when the film leaps to 1969. “Magical Mystery Tour” fills the soundtrack, right next to breathless newsreels about the Apollo 11 landing. We now see Indy as a walking, talking relic, left grizzled and grouchy by a world he gave years to saving. He still teaches, but students answer his droning lectures with brazen yawns. People on the subway shoot him dismissive looks. It’s a little dispiriting to see such an all-time badass reduced to a mumbly curmudgeon, but I guess this is the price of spreading these movies over forty-two years.
Anyway, as you might guess, adventure always has a way of showing up for Dr. Jones. This time, it arrives in the form of Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Indy’s long-estranged goddaughter. Turns out, back on that Nazi loot train, the Lance of Longinus wasn’t the real deal, nor would it have been the most powerful artifact on board. That would be Archimedes’ Dial, a supernatural gadget fashioned by the famed Roman scientist. Helena’s father (Toby Jones), was once Indy’s dweeby sidekick, and they first encountered the dial during that fateful train mission.
The elder Shaw became obsessed with Archimedes’ Dial, until it destroyed him. Now, Helena brings her late father’s notes to Indy, hoping to finish this quest once and for all. As always, the search for this trinket has huge consequences: An embittered Dr. Voller is also after the dial, in the hopes that its magic will help give the Third Reich a second chance.
All that setup actually delivers a pretty decent adventure. Director James Mangold (who also co-wrote) can’t replicate Steven Spielberg’s ability to transmute material into something lucrative, beautiful, and essential, but he manages a passable imitation of it. Nothing in the script can equal the refreshing blast of Raiders or The Last Crusade, but it mostly gets the job done. I’m afraid that after the wholesale disappointment of The Crystal Skull, an adequate Indiana Jones movie is all can we ever hope for.
Despite that backhanded compliment, I will say Dial gets a lot of things right. The filmmakers never dodge Ford’s age, nor do they minimize what an anachronism he’s become. When students barrel out of his classroom to watch the moon lining, or when Indy celebrates his retirement alone in a bar, we feel a strange, bittersweet poignancy. Such pathos may not be what we expect from this franchise, but it’s here, all the same.
As with the 007 films, one thing we can expect from this franchise is a revolving door of sidekicks for Indy. Here, Waller-Bridge steps in for Shia LaBeouf, and she’s a huge, huge improvement. Her character, a slightly tomboyish riff on the 40s femme fatale, is way more fun. Helena never feels shoehorned into the story, as LeBeouf’s character did. Further, Waller-Bridge locks right into that vibe of silly fun where Indiana Jones movies thrive. The filmmakers also supply her with more of the action beats, thus taking some of the load from Ford. All in all, Helena might be the best accomplice Indy’s ever had.
Unfortunately, while Dial manages a serviceable takeoff, the filmmakers throughly botch the landing. I know Indiana Jones movies tend to get a little goofy in the final act, but this one hits the runway with a pronounced thunk. Without giving anything away, let me say that the movie leans too heavily on CGI, and way too much on sheer preposterousness. Like many modern action flicks, Dial goes for loud, busy, and digital shenanigans, and it diminishes the entire experience.
At the same time, that experience could only ever be so good. I’ll make the same argument I’ve always made for the Star Wars prequels and sequels: If you’re a child of the 80s or 90s, the Indiana Jones movies aren’t just movies. Much like Goonies or Ghostbusters, they’re artifacts of who we were then. They’re small samples of our collective childhood. When Indy outruns that boulder in Raiders, I’m an eight-year-old boy again, jaw on the floor.
In that way, we the audience expect something that Ford, Spielberg, and George Lucas can’t give us. Yes, it’s dramatically interesting to see Indy as an old man, out of time. But, as selfish and fickle fans, it’s not what we want. (Yes, I’ll put myself in there, too.) In our minds, Indy lives before and during WWII, thwarting Hitler at every turn. The best that Dial of Destiny can do is give us a taste of that nerdy high, but that brief blast only reminds us of a bygone era. It’s much better than the previous film, and the franchise can bow out on a much better note. If you can set aside how much you loved the original trilogy, I can promise you a perfectly okay time with this finale.
154 min. PG-13. In theaters.