The most remarkable thing about Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny happens right at the beginning. In an extended prologue set during the last days of World War II, the Nazis capture Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) as he tries to pilfer a powerful relic from them. They bring him into an interrogation room and take the bag off his head to reveal… Indy in his late 30s.
Maybe you’ve grown used to CGI de-aging since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but this is the best example of it I’ve ever seen. Much of the prologue does have Indy hiding in shadows and fighting on top of a train at night, but he’s sitting in that chair long enough for you to note the seamlessness of the digital cosmetic surgery. If I didn’t know better, I’d have sworn that the filmmakers found deleted scenes that Ford shot in the 1980s and inserted them into the movie. We’re rapidly approaching a point when it scarcely matters what actors actually look like because the computers have become that good. Benjamin Button seems hopelessly crude now.
Ah, if only the rest of the film lived up to that prologue. I expected it to, because James Mangold has taken over the director’s chair from Steven Spielberg after doing such a beautiful job of concluding the story of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in Logan. This movie isn’t in that league, nor does it measure up to Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the way that film ended Han Solo’s narrative. I’m not saying that this movie needed to copy those sequels and make Indiana Jones sacrifice himself heroically like Logan or fall victim to a domestic tragedy like Han, but as it leads Indy to his last adventure, does it have to feel so rote?
The bulk of the story is set in August 1969, when Indiana Jones is feeling increasingly obsolete. His college is ushering him toward retirement, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) is filing for divorce from him, and astronauts are about to land on the Moon and make archaeology look really old. At this point, his British goddaughter Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) resurfaces with her own archaeology degree and the news that she’s located the Dial of Destiny, the time travel-enabling artifact that Indy’s ex-colleague (Toby Jones) died looking for with her dad. The two travel all over Morocco, Italy, and Greece to keep the doohickey away from unreconstructed Nazis and end Dr. Jones’ career on a high note.
The film boasts a lengthy tuk-tuk chase through the streets of Tangier that’s crisply executed without ever raising your heart rate or a laugh. Maybe you’d expect Waller-Bridge to compensate in the humor department, but no such luck — this movie casts her as another swashbuckling heroine, and while she does it capably, the part sands away everything that makes her interesting. Our adventurers are saddled with yet another cute kid (Ethann Isidore, who, judging by Ke Huy Quan’s career arc, should be winning an Oscar in 2062), and it’s one cynical move among many. Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) reappears in the series after 42 years, and the move is just empty fan service. Antonio Banderas is particularly ill-used as a scuba diving expert, and a revelation about the sad fate of Indy’s son fails to pull any heartstrings.
The one bolt of inspiration comes during the climax, when the Nazi villain (Mads Mikkelsen, looking bored) uses the dial, and it doesn’t go quite as he planned. This is a crazy plot development that should energize the movie more than it does. The place where everybody winds up is cleanly rendered by the special effects, and yet we don’t share Indy’s wonder at being in a time he never thought he’d see up close. Dial of Destiny is meant to be a valedictory to Indiana Jones, but it comes off as listless as the retirement party that his fellow faculty members throw for him, complete with a sheet cake. The guy who once made millions of kids want a whip and a fedora deserved a better sendoff.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
Starring Harrison Ford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Directed by James Mangold. Written by Jez Butterworth, John Henry Butterworth, David Koepp, and James Mangold. Rated PG-13.