Old Man Yells at Klaus — Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
When I was 12 years old, my family and I took a Spring Break vacation to Florida to go to Disney World. It was one of the greatest weeks of my life, and now that both my mother and the close family friend who was the impetus for the trip are gone, I hold on to those memories even more dearly than before. One of the odder moments that sticks out to me nearly 30 years later is when we took a tram tour of what was then called MGM Studios (it’s been Hollywood Studios since 2008), and at one point the guide stopped the vehicle and pointed to a soundstage where she said that the powers that be were already hard at work on Indiana Jones 4, slated to be released the next year.
This was 1995. We were already six years removed from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which even as a kid I recognized as pretty much a perfect ending to Indy’s adventures. And while my pre-teen self would have chomped at the bit for a new entry, as an adult I’ve learned the value of leaving an audience wanting more. When there’s that nostalgic anticipation, whatever we imagine in our heads always turns out better than what we actually get when the studios decide it’s time to cash in with a legacy sequel.
Obviously there would be no new quest for Dr. Jones that year, or the year after, or even for a decade after that. We eventually did get Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008, which would have been the perfect example of this very concept, except that no one could have predicted just how bad it was. Terrible acting, a story that insulted the intelligence of every single fan of the franchise, CGI effects that look even more dated than the blue screen splicing from the original trilogy in the 80s, reducing the entire journey to just being aliens, and Shia fucking LaBeouf combined to not only make an awful Indiana Jones movie, but arguably one of the worst movies of all time. I could say more, but the South Park episode where they depict Indy as literally being raped pretty much covers it.
So now, 15 years after that disaster, we have Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, billed pretty heavily as the final film in the series, and designed to be a proper sendoff for the character, although notably Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are hardly involved, serving in nominal Executive Producer roles only. I mentioned when I included the trailer in this month’s TFINYW column that while overall it seemed innocuous, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were being set up for another major disappointment. And sadly, I was right. Most of my fears were confirmed (John Rhys-Davies relegated to a cameo along with Karen Allen, Phoebe Waller-Bridge being treated in a very creepy manner as a sidekick, and the titular “Dial” being a really stupid name) and then some, and on the whole the entire escapade is an exercise in futility, proving the people responsible have learned nothing from the last entry’s massive mistakes. To be clear, this isn’t as bad as Crystal Skull, but only in the same way that Jurassic World Dominion wasn’t as bad as Fallen Kingdom. It’s not an abject failure, but here at the midway point of 2023, it is the worst movie of the year so far for me.
The ostensible plot focuses on a now-retired Dr. Jones (Harrison Ford) becoming disillusioned with life, only to be confronted by his goddaughter Helena (Waller-Bridge), who claims to be an archaeologist herself. The daughter of Indy’s heretofore unseen and unmentioned colleague Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), Helena wants to enlist his help to find the Antikythera, believed to be the world’s oldest analog computer, because the mechanisms developed within were used to predict weather events, eclipses, and other orbital phenomena in ancient Greece. Indy and Basil found half of it back in 1944, where they took it from a Nazi scientist named Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), who in the film’s present of 1969 (shortly after the Moon Landing), is also hunting down the pieces. It turns out, however, that Helena is only interested in profiting off of selling the device rather than its historical value, and betrays Indy at the first opportunity, until the needs of the plot require them to work together and for him to try to assuage her cynicism and greed.
All of this feels like the makings of a decent adventure, but there are several elements that ruin any attempt at fun, not the least of which is that the Antikythera was discovered in 1901, and it was found in multiple pieces, rather than the two that conveniently snap together for the purposes of the movie. A lot of the wonder of such a story is lost when you realize that what they’re searching for has already been found, and the underlying mystique that they believe in fully disproven. But really, the true problem with this film as a whole can be summed up in three quotes from the picture itself, so let’s break it down from there (with the caveat that I’m probably paraphrasing because I don’t remember the lines verbatim).
“History is a series of blunders. It’s just a matter of who makes them.”
This line is spoken by the main baddie, Voller, in a role that sees Mads Mikkelsen more wasted than the actual Oscar-winning movie about him being wasted all the time. On the surface, this seems like a clever witticism, but in practice, it’s complete horseshit. Not only does it foreshadow HARD how Voller’s going to be hoisted with his own petard, but it also serves as a meta warning for all the ways this movie is going to fuck up.
You can tell from the opening sequence just how lazy things are going to be. The film begins in 1944 as Indy and Basil are captured by Nazis, including Voller, who believe they’ve discovered the Lance of Longinus, the spear alleged to have pierced the crucified Jesus Christ to make sure he was dead. It turns out to be a fake, but Voller has in fact found half of the Antikythera, which is lost in a river during the ensuing scuffle.
If this is your first time seeing an Indiana Jones movie, then first and foremost, I’m very sorry. Second, these 10 minutes might seem thrilling. There’s some clever subterfuge, a couple of decent effects, and John Williams’ score soars like we all knew it would. But really, it’s scattershot and poorly constructed. Two stand-in actors and de-aging CGI is used to make Indy look like he’s in his 40s, but we still hear the voice of an 80-year-old man pass through his lips, killing any chance the illusion had of working. A shot that I suppose is meant to look dramatic and cool shows a Nazi emptying out Indy’s bag, prominently displaying the classic fedora and whip, but it’s presented as some sort of ominous sign when we’ve already seen Jones for the previous five minutes. He’s been revealed, so why is there a teaser shot? If the Nazis were interrogating a prisoner whose face we couldn’t see, and then this shot happens to clue us in that it’s Indy, THEN it becomes exciting (and it probably saves a few million on the de-aging). But the way it’s done here, it just looks like the film’s been edited out of order.
Then, after an admittedly comical chase through a series of train cars, we have Indy, Basil, and a German officer fighting on the roof of the train… you know, in case you haven’t seen Last Crusade. It’s bad enough that the scene is derivative, but it’s also just nonsensical. If you thought it was some bullshit to have Indy survive a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator, just wait until you see people on a moving train get hit by stationary objects and not even get hurt, much less decapitated like the laws of physics say they should.
The easily avoidable errors just pile up from there. A parade in New York City for the Apollo 11 astronauts — literally a real event that happened and can be verified with pictures and video — is interrupted by CIA agents and Nazi sympathizers chasing Indy on a horse (credit to Ford for doing a good amount of his own stunt riding) and shooting at him in the streets, which literally never happened. Again, just like with our titular MacGuffin, there’s no fun in this when we can just look up the actual history. Additionally, Helena has no dimension to her character other than daddy issues and a lust for cash, until she doesn’t. There’s no development, just a complete change in her motivations. One minute she’s a mercenary who sells antiquities to the highest bidder and makes tired cracks about Indy’s age (seriously, if she wasn’t established as his goddaughter, she’d totally be set up as a love interest, and that is just icky as fuck), and the next she’s a caring, sympathetic person, all of which is brought on by Indy guilt-tripping her and “mansplaining” that she’s not as hardcore as she thinks, and that what she really wants is a happy life with family. Way to tame that shrew, guys!
The list goes on. Voller has two henchmen, one skinny and Southern (Boyd Holbrook) and one hulking (Olivier Richters) who you can’t see without imagining Rocky and Mugsy from Looney Tunes (and one of whom goes out like an absolute chump in the dumbest fashion imaginable). Several chase scenes have no sense of geography and positioning, so that it almost becomes an unintentional joke that people can literally go in opposite directions and yet find their quarry as soon as they round a corner. Antonio Banderas is introduced as another friend of Indy’s, and all he does is talk in his Puss in Boots voice for two scenes while introducing the concept of terrible CGI eels that “look like snakes” so we can have a lazy callback.
But worst of all is Voller’s plan. I didn’t think anything could be as bad as the Crystal Skull twist that it was aliens all along, but this movie does its best to top it. Just think for a second. What could be dumber than aliens? In a universe where the main character has found literal proof of God’s existence, what possible fantasy/sci-fi trope could be more stupid than UFOs?
Yup, that’s what we’re going for here, people. Voller is pissed that the Nazis lost World War II, and has decided that the Antikythera [Seriously, where did “Dial of Destiny” even come from? Literally no one says that in the movie.] can be used to detect “fissures” in the fabric of time and be used to travel through them. Somehow Basil theorized the same thing, so I guess that magically makes it true — again, it just measured and predicted the various orbits of the Moon, Earth, and Sun… in an age where most astronomers still followed a heliocentric model of the universe — and Voller’s goal is to travel back in time and ensure German victory in the war.
Are. You. SERIOUS? What next? Is Indy going to shrink down to microscopic size to find Mark Antony’s sword lodged in Hitler’s colon?
There is literally only one “blunder” from the series’ past that this film takes time to correct, and that was the shoehorning of LaBeouf as Mutt last time out. He’s written out of the movie in a way that attempts to wring some pathos, and on a different day I might even buy it, but really all that matters is that he’s not here, and that’s enough for me.
“I’ve come to believe it’s not so much what you believe, it’s how hard you believe it.”
This comes from Indy himself, and it is just dumb. First and foremost, it robs the character of his most endearing and engaging quality, his curiosity and pursuit of the truth. The fun of Indiana Jones, apart from his roguish charm and his zero tolerance for bullshit (captured perfectly by the hilarious way he just straight up shoots the sword-wielding goon in Raiders of the Lost Ark after the guy does an elaborate display of his skills), is that he always bases his actions on what is observable and real, with a drive to seek answers wherever the clues may lead. When he does come across something supernatural, he’s awed by it, but never leaps to conclusions that can’t be verified (and again, this is a man who has found the literal Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail). That’s what makes him such a beloved character, one that children and adults the world over have imagined themselves being.
So naturally the first we see of him in 1969 is him half naked, sleeping in a recliner chair, yelling at his neighbors for their music being too loud, and dismissing their youthful exuberance about man walking on the Moon. He sees his students as idiotic and ungrateful for his time as a professor (because kids who get into college and take archaeology classes are naturally lazy and disinterested in such a niche subject that they signed up for). Hell, this version of him would rather literally live in the past, consequences be damned, than accept that he’s aging and the world is changing.
This is curmudgeonly behavior on an entirely different level, and none of it is justified. No scientist of any repute, much less Indiana Jones, would be so hostile towards astronomy. What actual scientist, regardless of discipline, would say with any credibility that looking at the stars and traveling to space is a waste of time, so let’s keep digging in the ground? It’s an especially egregious attitude when the item in question literally calculates celestial patterns. So space is okay when it’s ancient space? Get the fuck out of here!
But on a larger scale, this whole idea of “it’s not what you believe but how hard you believe it” is dangerous in the extreme. Not only do we see the effects in the here and now of what zealous adherents can do (mass shootings, white supremacy, Nazis and their sympathizers holding elected office and changing laws to suit their hatred, January 6, etc.), but even the movie itself gives lie to this insane premise. Voller’s entire mission is to go back in time to make sure the Nazis win. That’s how committed he is to the cause. That’s how hard he believes in his genetic superiority over minorities and Jews. If anything, he proves how essential it could be for society to believe in things a little less fervently, because the more you’re into a belief, the less you’re able to change your mind and consider other possibilities. The fact that Indiana Jones of all people basically spends the bulk of this film on the same philosophical side as his enemy (only having more noble intentions) is troubling to say the least. The fact that he never truly evolves from that point is even more so.
“Indiana Jones, back in the saddle.”
This final nugget comes from Helena, and really, it’s the selling point of the entire movie, as well as its downfall. Despite the catastrophic failure of the last movie (or perhaps because of it), and because Hollywood can never leave well enough alone, this film exists solely as a contrived way for Indiana Jones to ride off into the sunset, to let audiences remember him fondly, the way we did after the original trilogy.
The problem is, most of us had already figured out how to do that, by just refusing to acknowledge Crystal Skull unless absolutely necessary. The writers (including director James Mangold and David Koepp, who apparently didn’t learn his lesson after getting eaten by the T-rex in Lost World, I’m guessing as punishment from Spielberg for including all the San Diego bullshit) seem to have realized this point, but instead of just letting it go, they decided to try to cull together a bunch of stuff from the original movies and present this narrative Frankenstein monster as a “new” adventure.
I already mentioned having a fight on a train, but here are a few more “greatest hits” they shoved down our throats. Sallah (Rhys-Davies) now lives in New York and works as a cabbie (why?) just so he can have the “Give ’em hell, Indiana Jones!” line that works for the trailer, but is meaningless within the context of the scene and movie. Indy’s concern for Helena stems from the fact that the search for the Antikythera drove Basil mad, exactly how his own father obsessed over the Grail. In a reversal of the classic moment with the swordsman, Indy brandishes his whip only for a room of gangsters to pull guns on him (but conveniently they all wait to shoot until after he ducks, because reasons). There’s some misleading on the clues that are meant to have Voller looking in the wrong place, just like Indy did with Belloq back in Raiders, and just like that scene, no one anticipates that the bad guys would just follow them to the correct place. Helena has a young sidekick named Teddy (Ethann Isidore), but you might as well just call him Short Round Two, because that’s all he is. Maybe Isidore will win an Oscar in 40 years, by which point I might care. The artifact is hidden in a tomb filled with traps, which would be cool if it was for some leader of men who would warrant such an elaborate burial site, instead of Archimedes, who was an important historical figure, but ultimately just a mathematician and inventor. He’d never have more accommodations for his corpse than a pharaoh.
Instead of inspiring the audience through creative elements, the filmmakers stamp out creativity by just serving us lesser versions of what we’ve already seen. The average viewer isn’t wowed by yet another reference to snakes, they’re bored by how bad the CGI looks. They’re not blown away by innocent, no-name civilians being killed, they’re wondering why you don’t have the balls to tear out a man’s still-beating heart in ritual sacrifice. They aren’t impressed by a diving scene where the characters are told they have three minutes before they have to come up for air, they’re let down by the fact that at the three-minute mark (I was so bored I whipped out my phone to time it) Voller and his goons show up out of nowhere to diffuse the tension of one moment in service of manufactured tension for another.
As such, this never feels like a proper Indiana Jones movie until the final third, and even then, it’s only in a few fleeting moments. As illogical as Archimedes’ tomb is, the exploration within it is still somewhat enjoyable, giving us a taste of true adventure. As annoying as Helena’s character is (she’s Kate Capshaw minus the constant screaming), she does get a great moment during the climax that I won’t spoil. As obviously flawed as Voller’s plan is, there is some genuine excitement as he realizes his error, and Mikkelsen makes a tremendous face that reminds you why he’s such a good actor when given proper material.
But in the end, it’s mostly just misplaced fan service that wholly ignores what the fans truly wanted, and that was for this series to cut its losses, apologize for the last movie, and graciously bow out. There was literally no one who felt we needed to put a third, shameful bow on Indiana’s legacy, and the fact that it was still insisted upon with no real effort put in to make something of quality is all the more consternating. In the process, they created a complete nonsense story based around real events that directly contradict it, introduced uninteresting characters while shunting the ones we came to see to the sides, and worst of all, they betrayed what makes Dr. Henry Jones one of the greatest cinematic heroes in history by just turning him into a crotchety old man who can’t face the future and is forced into a journey of deadly inconvenience rather than the assertive, brilliant, resourceful, and dashing protagonist we all know and love.
For a movie so concerned with people living in the past, it sure is weird that every element shows it clinging desperately to all that came before with no regard for anything new.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What other series need to just go away? Did anyone else find it odd that Toby Jones was playing someone against the Nazis after hailing Hydra? Let me know! Also, be sure to follow me on Twitter and YouTube!