It goes without saying that James Mangold is no Steven Spielberg, just as it would be wildly unfair to hold any Hollywood director to that standard. Conversely, there’s something admirable about the fact that Mangold has found the chutzpah to close the book on the Bearded One franchise. What him no find was a compelling reason to reopen that book in the first place.
Not only is “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” an almost complete waste of time, it’s also a meticulous reminder that some relics are best left where and when they belong. If only previous entries in this series would have taken the time to point that out.
Back to Mangold for a moment: it’s important to note that the failure of his latest film has much less to do with his directorial talents than with when he was asked to apply them. Mangold is as worthy heir to the Spielberg crown as anyone working at the studio level today, and “The Dial of Destiny”‘s most electric sets – all crammed into the first 45 minutes – display the same charismatic flair and behind-the-camera expertise that he helped the likes of the vastly underrated “Knight + Day” hit that high above his weight class. No, the biggest (or at least most obvious) difference between Spielberg and Mangold is that one of them would never have allowed themselves to make something so stale, and one of them probably had no other choice.
Of course, that’s partly Spielberg’s fault. Or yours. Arriving at a major inflection point in the movie fan economy, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” instantly became synonymous with the sacrilegious treatment of beloved Hollywood franchises. That 2008 fiasco made its fair share of Mutt Williams-sized blunders, but the thoughtful clamor to “bomb the fridge” overshadowed a deliriously well-directed thrill ride that dared to reconcile the contradictory impulses that had defined Indiana Jones from the start: family and adventure.
In an awkward preview of what ‘The Last Jedi’ would do so masterfully a few years later, ‘Crystal Skull’ dared to inflict a significant change on an iconic character, and the backlash was so intense that the director of most hit in Hollywood history he was too scared to pick up the fedora again. And why should it? That movie left its hero he with happiness he never admitted he ever wanted. “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” rips it off them and gives them virtually nothing of value in return.
An empty slog from a film that exists only to smooth over the stray fan grievances that have fragmented the franchise’s audience over the past 15 years, ‘The Dial of Destiny’ is a globetrotting adventure film so sure-footed that even its 80-l year-old hero never seems to be in significant danger (a more accurate ‘Star Wars’ composition would be ‘The Force Awakens’, but that legacy sequel had the luxury of promising something new, while this one only dedicates itself to untie the perfect knots in loose ends).
In retrospect, the worst part is that Mangold’s lengthy prologue dares to promise anything more, as “The Dial of Destiny” begins with an aging Indy stealing a certain artifact from the Nazis at the end of WWII. The tech is still a little wonky here and there – appropriate for a franchise that favors the limited powers of science over the whims of magic – but there’s no denying how much fun it is to watch a young Harrison Ford punch a brand new lineup of Nazis , and even battle some of their own atop a speeding train alongside fellow archaeologist Basil Shaw (Toby Jones). Mangold fills the entire sequence with delightful little embellishments that help overcome some dark and dodgy CGI; some involving a very heavy bomb is worthy of any film this franchise has ever produced.
The artifact in question is Archimedes’ Dial, a mathematical tool thought to be capable of opening cracks in time. Nazi scientist Jürger Voller – an all too obvious Mads Mikkelsen, playing a Wernher von Braun type who is arguably the most boring villain Indy has ever had to face – certainly believes in the power of the device, and when the story picks up in 1969, he is still desperate to find the missing piece that could allow the jumpstart to fulfill its mysterious purpose. Indy, meanwhile, has no such motivation. His marriage to Marion Ravenwood in shambles and his son out of the picture (feel free to breathe a sigh of relief), Indy is trudging towards retirement as a professor at Hunter College and the “get off my lawn” vibes have never been so strong . Nor was his relevance ever again in doubt; His students used to wink love notes with their eyelids, and now they sleep through the lesson.
The good news is that across the room is a perky British-accented brunette who seems completely invested in the material: Basil’s daughter and Indy’s goddaughter, Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who brings an brilliantly jaunty to the role, even if the script is never anywhere near as funny as she is). One minute they’re picking up a few shots, and the next they’re pulling away from Voller’s coterie of forgettable henchmen (Boyd Holbrook, Shaunette Renée Wilson, a really big guy whose name I don’t know) on a world-tour run for the latest McGuffin .
It’s a ride that will take the cast from Tangier to Sicily (between far stranger places) as the lopsided script struggles to erase all the necessary obligations. There’s a great chase between a motorcycle and a horse, a random guy who adds even less to the plot than usual now that Indy is a doubly father figure, and plenty of Nazis getting punched in the face. He got off the planes. And he crashed in the train tunnels. Some things never change, but at least this film’s simple nostalgia has a metatextual purpose behind it, as “Dial of Fate” is deeply rooted in a simple idea that explains both its plot and its pitfalls: you can’t change the past, but you may be able to revisit it for a while.
That means familiar beats and some fan-service cameos. It also means a crippling fear of making choices that might retroactively change something about the franchise or challenge what its iconic hero means to people (it should go without saying that Ford is still Indy to the core, even if the teary speech he gave before the the film’s Cannes premiere was far more emotional and moving than anything he was asked to do in the film itself). Aside from a wild—and wildly inert—climax that might make purists pray for the days of Irina Spalko and her disembodied alien heads of hers, there’s nothing here to surprise anyone. And this is true in both the macro and micro dimensions, to a degree that proves increasingly deadly every time Voller shows up somewhere minutes after our heroes. “My god,” Indy gasps at one point. “We are witnessing history.” But no one involved in this film ever dares to make their own.
At the end of the day, “The Dial of Destiny” isn’t about adding new levels to the Indy legend, it’s rather about refining the ones it already had. Like the relic at the heart of this film — which interested Helena is constantly trying to sell to the highest bidder — the real issue here is to restore a cinematic icon’s full value before it’s gone forever into the sunset. You can hear how desperately Mangold, Ford – and even executive producers Spielberg and George Lucas, the latter of whom would no doubt smile at the silliness of the film’s grand finale – desperately wanted Indy to come out on top of the public imagination, and “The Dial of Destiny” unnecessarily digs up ancient history to make this happen.
“Yesterday belongs to us,” someone says at one point, and when it comes to Indiana Jones, yesterday always will. The problem is that he has already done it and today it seems like a complete waste of time.
“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Fate” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Disney will release it in theaters on Friday, June 30.