Though it has its moments, James Mangold's bid to recapture the franchise magic mostly feels like an act of imitation over inspiration
There's a moment halfway through Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the franchise's second, divisive chapter, where our hero swings down to a flaming altar in order to steal back the lost Sankara Stones. As he edges towards his “fortune and glory,” the film's director, Steven Spielberg, holds the camera tight on Harrison Ford's face, the actor's features illuminated by the glowing artefacts in a single, unrushed, unbroken take. Sweat drips from his brow. John Williams' incredible, choral score begins to swell. It's just a rock. But the look in Indy's eyes, the expression on his face, is one of pure awe. And we feel it, too.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, the fifth entry in the long-running franchise, is short on awe. Arriving with the agenda of being a course corrective (no more aliens), following the maligned Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, while doubling as a definitive ending for the infamous archaeologist, it boulders – after premiering at Cannes – onto our screens with a new director at the helm. James Mangold, he of Logan and Ford vs. Ferrari, inherits the mantel from Spielberg, and in places he proves himself a dab hand at throwing together an action sequence. But what Mangold cannot capture is the sense of unbridled, goosebumps-giving awe that Spielberg made his trademark. We watch, but we don't quite feel. It's always an act of imitation.
That's because, despite a new director, there's been no real attempt to shake things up. Temple of Doom was lambasted at the time for being too dark and “not Raiders,” but in retrospect time has looked kindly on its daring to be different. Dial of Destiny takes a tick-box approach to the material that can't help but feel like simple rehashing. We get everything we expect, beat by beat, until the wild swing of a climax, which arguably takes thing too far in the wrong direction, betraying the franchise rule to have “just a hint” of the supernatural. As a finale it doesn't really work or hold up to scrutiny, but in a movie that relies too much on what came before, you can at least admire the audacity.
Things kicks off during an exhilarating flashback sequence, anyway, set aboard a Nazi train, in which Harrison Ford has been convincingly de-aged to look just like he did in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. The MacGuffin this time is a dial designed by the Greek mathematician Archimedes, which may or may not have time-altering abilities, and which also happens to be the obsession of a Nazi scientist, played by Mads Mikkelson. The sequence is, in many ways, a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because – in moments – it successfully recaptures the feeling of an original trilogy foray. A curse, because the movie signals to us early on that hamming on the nostalgia is its main game.
As the film moves into the late 1960s, era of the moon landing and the Beatles, we find Indy working as a lecturer at a New York City college. Gone are the days of student adoration. He's washed up, a bit of a drinker, and no longer married to Marion Ravenwood. This sad and solitary existence is soon shaken up by the arrival of his goddaughter, Helena, played in an overtly quippy (and increasingly irksome) fashion by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose own obsession with the dial draws them both into a conspiracy that has something to do with her father, and Indy's old friend, Basil (Toby Jones).
The movie's biggest flaw quickly becomes apparent through a rush of hit and miss set-pieces – a tuk-tuk escape through Morocco; a subway-set horseback chase on the streets of New York; a dull underwater section that, in its visual murkiness, robs us of the reason we came to see the movie in the first place: seeing Indiana Jones do stuff. In these moments, we can only think back on the truck chase from Raiders and remember why it's one of cinema's great action sequence: the realness. It's this realness, this striving for a level of on-screen authenticity, that Tom Cruise has recently turned to box office gold, profiting off the back of movie-goers' growing distain for CG excess. Mangold, for all his efforts, has overlooked how critical the tangible nature of Indiana Jones is to the franchise's deeper appeal. Spielberg made the same mistake in 2008.
Even as the repeated use of the “Raiders March” tells us we should be having a blast, then, there's paradoxically a growing sense of going through the motions, mostly because the script – credited to four writers, including Mangold – lacks the wit and cleverness of those early Spielberg entries. It was this cleverness, the hinging on satisfying set-ups and pay offs (and, hey, heaps of genuinely funny one-liners), that helped to mask the fact that they, too, were essentially set-pieces machines. Here, things can't help but feel engineered backwards, as the movie struggles to hide the seams because the humour and banter always feel forced.
Elsewhere, we get a new, not very interesting variation on Short Round (more like Short Change), played by Ethann Isidore, while Indy's best pal Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) returns with no real function other than for us to say: “It’s Sallah.” Such additions aren’t enough to outright spoil the movie, exactly, but they do suggest a leaning on what-came-before that nobody really asked for – a Disneyfied, remember this? approach intended to please the masses that fails to consider what the masses might actually want (a standalone story with characters who turn up for good reason, maybe?).
The good news is that Ford is on fine, dedicated form, in what will undoubtedly be his last turn as the beloved hero. In this regard, the movie should count as something of a success. Ford delivers some of his best work in years, doing justice to the one character he publicly admits to actually giving a shit about, while also landing some unexpectedly disarming, emotional beats between all the Nazi punching and vehicular mayhem. He’s still Indiana Jones, even if the story eventually leans too heavily on Indy's “oldness” in a way that eventually strips him of his agency, often for cheap laughs.
The Dial of Destiny is, ultimately, serviceable enough blockbuster fare, with dashes of inspiration here and there (perhaps cynically, I was left thinking “well, it could have been a lot worse“). But in the end the movie is simply not worthy of its iconic hero. Times have changed for Indiana Jones, yes. But the movie business has also changed to the point where it now seems impossible to actually make an Indiana Jones movie under the conditions that it deserves to be made. The landscape is new, the tools are different. This entry might earn a momentary tip of the hat from eager fans, but it will also probably wind up, like Kingdom, as just another forgotten relic.
And what of that awe? In a way, “awe” is an unquantifiable thing. How do we relay it on screen and transfer the feeling to audiences? Spielberg has such a gift for drumming up the stuff to the extent audiences would start taking it for granted. But to repurpose a line from Raiders, Dial of Destiny's failings have a lot to do with the filmmakers merely “digging in the wrong place.” Despite the biggest Indy budget, more globe-trotting, more extravagant action sequences, and more supernatural elements than ever before, almost nothing sticks. Nothing ever comes close to that shot of an awestruck archaeologist from thirty-nine years ago, simply staring at a glowing rock.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2023. It is released in UK cinemas on 30 June.Where to watch