Nostalgia is a heck of a drug. The influx of intellectual property-based motion pictures we’re seeing right now is meant to capitalize on one thing. Nostalgia. Many wear rose-colored nostalgia goggles when contemplating our youth. However, these films walk a tightrope. Times change. We change; sometimes, capturing the same old magic is hard. After Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, fans were nervous after the announcement of a new installment to the storied franchise. Will Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny recapture the old magic? Or should Indy just climb back into the lead-lined fridge and shut the door?
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny follows our favorite recently retired archaeologist and academic (Harrison Ford). He finds himself trapped in a battle of wits against a group of Nazis trying to track down the “Dial of Destiny.”
Along the way, Indy teams up with his quippy goddaughter Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) to hopefully win the day. Antonio Banderas, John Rhys-Davies, Mads Mikkelsen and Ethann Isidore co-star in the movie. James Mangold directs Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny from a script by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, David Koepp and James Mangold.
To start, I need to be fair here. I have a bias. The Indiana Jones franchise provided me with many of my formative moments as a growing cinephile. In fact, nostalgia-wise, it probably ranks right up next to Star Wars.
Rose-colored nostalgia goggles bring with them memories of a certain magic. This is especially true for a series that has (until very recently) ties with Steven Spielberg. The man understands, like no one else, how to bring a sense of wonder to the screen.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is ultimately like its hero. It’s tired. Deep down, it’s probably ready to retire. This is another film in a long line of nostalgia legacy sequels that don’t seem to understand why the original was popular.
Ultimately, this is a serviceable period action film. At the same time, though, it’s missing something. This starts right from the top with James Mangold taking over for previous director Steven Spielberg. While Mangold is a solid journeyman (best known for his work on movies like Logan), he has a ways to go in his career before reaching the level of the auteur Spielberg.
While John Williams is once again credited as the composer of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, his work feels scaled back this time out. An entire sub-genre of nostalgic action films stands on the shoulders of Williams’ work. His ongoing creative partnerships with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas resulted in some of the most magical Hollywood moments of the last 50 years.
Williams’ iconic Indiana Jones score, which is now the stuff of legend, feels largely absent here. The refrain is heard a few times, often in snippets during mediocre action set pieces. However, the only other time it becomes noticeable is in a quiet moment as Indy drives up to a boat. It’s not action-packed. It’s not magical. In reality, it’s actually quite mundane.
That said, if it wasn’t for the presence of Harrison Ford, this wouldn’t feel like an Indiana Jones movie. As mentioned above, Spielberg’s departure and the resulting creative flourishes that went with him are noticeable. Switch out Ford for someone in the Marvel universe; this could just as easily be an MCU prequel. There’s nothing special here.
This is really another example of the Disney establishment mining its web of nostalgia. While there are certainly some good individual pieces here, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny exists inside a gray area. The film is desperate to capitalize on a certain nostalgia, but it refuses to try too hard.
Instead, it seems equally invested in setting a new course. Will Helena have her own Disney+ series? How about Isidore’s Teddy? As this film currently plays, both seem possible down the IP pipeline. Indy hardly feels like the focus.
Though, by far and away, the strength here is in the performances. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is her usual delightful self. Those who enjoyed her in Fleabag will undoubtedly like her work this time around. Meanwhile, Mads Mikkelsen is, not surprisingly, a perfect fit to play a deliciously evil Wernher von Braun-type villain.
Harrison Ford, meanwhile, faces an uphill battle. The performer is one of Hollywood’s biggest A-listers and is a silver-screen legend at this point in his career. With that, when Ford is allowed the simple moments between him and the camera, there’s no one better. His charisma shines through in this character he clearly enjoys playing.
At the same time, though, the Hollywood titan is forced to work in the shadow of de-aging technology, which is clunky at best. Much of the work plays out during a flashback which opens the first 20 minutes of the film. The visual work is, for lack of a better word, a distracting “uncanny valley.” Throughout the early act, much of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny looks no better than a video game cut scene. These moments are also painfully apparent during various action set-pieces.
Watching this movie, I found myself repeatedly thinking about questions of nostalgia. Ultimately, this is the fifth movie in a franchise more than 40 years removed from the first film. Can Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny stand on its own in the face of many’s rose-colored nostalgia goggles? Is it even fair to expect a movie to live up to a 40-year-old classic?
Ultimately, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny struggle to live up to its legacy. While there are individual pieces that work really well, this series is tired. Yes, it’s objectively better than the infamous fourth film.
Ultimately though, I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Sull is weird and wacky, but it wasn’t afraid to take some chances. Meanwhile, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is a film that tries to check the nostalgia boxes, but it’s clear that to many in the industry, this is simply IP. They don’t care. It doesn’t understand what made the initial entries great, but it knows people liked it. That’s not the way to make a heartfelt, quality feature. Let’s let these franchises rest. They did their job. Now create new classics.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is playing in theaters around the country today.
Check out our other movie reviews here.