Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny Is a Failure

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is a fiasco for two reasons. Admittedly, one reason is purely personal, and so that’s on me. The other, though, is totally the movie’s fault.

Dial of Destiny is the fifth movie in the Indiana Jones franchise, an action-adventure series that began and seemingly ended in the ‘80s as a perfectly self-contained trilogy. The third film was even subtitled The Last Crusade and featured our intrepid, titular hero riding off into the sunset. Nothing else needed to be said, right?

19 years after the “final” 1989 theatrical adventure, the original creative trio–series creator George Lucas, director Steven Spielberg, and star, Harrison Ford–all returned for another Indy adventure only to prove that no, nothing else needed to be said about the character.

So here we are, another 15 years later and another go at an Indy adventure, this time with only minimal involvement from Lucas and Spielberg. I hoped this movie’s existence was based on course correcting from the last adventure, an apology for what went wrong the last time. I mean, Harrison Ford is 80 years old, what else could sway him to once again don Indiana Jones’s iconic fedora, leather jacket, and whip?

Money, probably.

But I’m not that cynical. Harrison Ford has plenty of that (…money, I mean, though a healthy dose of cynicism as well, it seems). Plus, his grouchy demeanor and apparent displeasure at being on movie sets, preclude him from doing something solely for the cash.

My hopes for Dial of Destiny’s course correction were dashed almost immediately, though. The original trilogy of films had muscular action sequences with real stunts: dudes dragged underneath trucks, jumping from a horse to a real tank, actual motorcycles careening off cliffs with stuntpersons freefalling through the air.

Dial of Destiny kicks off with a twenty-minute sequence featuring a (*sigh*) de-aged Harrison Ford. Motionless, the effect is quite good. Lots of details on the face. Once things start moving, though, all bets are off. It looks painfully awkward: a too big head on a normal size body, a weird cg blur over the face. The opening sequence’s main event is a lengthy chase/fight on a train. The entire sequence is accomplished through thoroughly unconvincing CG. Worse, the avalanche of computer graphics completely erases any semblance of danger, which wipes out all hopes for excitement. On the big screen were explosions, gunfights, John Williams’s iconic score blaring in the background; in the auditorium, a dude started vaping. Not a good sign.

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Even moving to its present day of the 1960s, the whole movie is shellacked in a thick miasma of CG. But the computer graphics imagery isn’t the movie’s real dilemma. The problem here is the director, James Mangold. He simply doesn’t have a feel for action. As befits an Indiana Jones movie, Dial of Destiny is filled with it–mostly chases on a variety of vehicles both organic and in-, mostly I assume because Harrison Ford is too old to be involved in any other kind of action–but they’re largely pointless endeavors because they lack narrative drive or reason. The chases begin and end seemingly at random. It’s never clear who’s chasing whom and why, and they don’t build to anything. Mostly, they just…end.  They’re just there to fill the setpiece quota expected from an Indiana Jones film.

So much of the movie does just that: fill a quota. Since the original Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is known to hate snakes, and so he had to face a tomb full of them in that first film. So what do we have here? Indiana facing eels under water. In Temple of Doom, Indiana had to face a room infested with bugs, so Dial has to have a sequence with bugs also. And again, like the action sequences, none of these moments are presented with any aplomb. Remember how the bug sequence in Doom kept escalating? The ceiling began lowering, threatening to crush our protagonist while squeezing even more bugs onto him. Then someone had to stick their hand into a hole swarming with even more creepy crawlys to pull a lever and stop the crushing. It built tension, anxiety, and the audience’s gag-reflex. Here, in the fifth film, the bugs show up, crawl on our hero a bit, and just as quickly disappear when he turns a corner. How are the bugs in only one small section of a cave? They read the script, obviously. The same happens with the eel sequence. They show up without build-up, harass only Indiana for some reason and not his diving mates (like Steve Zissou and his leeches), and then just disappear.

Add a painful repetitiveness to the general lackluster presentation and you have yourself one lame-duck adventure movie (Do me a favor, count how many times an innocent person is threatened with a gun to the face during the film’s runtime). What really grinds my gears about the film, though, is that its very existence stands in direct contrast to what the Indiana Jones movies were made for in the first place. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg loved the heroes (square jawed, indestructible) of matinee adventure serials (think Zorro, Lone Ranger…) of their youth. Indiana Jones was their homage to those heroes and movies. They were built to be pure action-adventure escapism. An 80-year-old Indiana Jones, grappling with old age, the death of loved ones, feelings of uselessness and alienation from a society that’s moving on without him is bold, yes, and preferrable to pretending he’s still a spring chicken, but it’s antithetical to what the character of Indiana Jones was created for.

It’s a bait and switch. I’m at the tail end of 45 years on this earth. Every day I’m reminded that I’m getting older. It sucks. I need escapism more than ever. Indiana Jones by its very nature is an explicit promise of that break from reality. Instead, this new “adventure” gives you a dour two plus hours that reminds you with every passing frame of the ravages of age. I would say it’s time for this franchise to hang up its fedora for good, but it never should have picked it back up in first place.

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Pavel Klein

Pavel Klein is a member of the Florida Film Critics Circle and author of the film-centric blog