Review: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny Brings Back the Fedora, the Whip and (Most of) the Adventure of Cinema’s Favorite Archeologist

In case you hadn’t been keeping score, this fifth installment in the Indiana Jones franchise is the first to be made since Lucasfilm was purchased by Disney in 2012. While all the focus on Lucasfilm properties since then has been on Star Wars films and series, it was only a matter of time before the powers that be got around to giving our favorite behatted archeologist/adventurer at least one last shot at locating and testing the powers of some ancient artifact or another. 

But since this is the same Disney that also oversees the comings and goings of the Marvel universe, it should come as no surprise that the quite excellent opening action sequence of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny takes place in 1944 and features a de-aged Harrison Ford taking on a Nazi scientist named Voller (a de-aged Mads Mikkelsen) on behalf of Indy’s longtime friend, Basil Shaw (a de-aged Toby Jones), all of whom are attempting to acquire a mysterious dial known as the Antikythera. As the film goes on, even more familiar Marvel formulas are draped across Dr. Jones’s story, including ones that involve time travel and the possibility of a multiverse. 

To make matters just a little more dire, most of the action scenes are done in darker environments, using a great deal of CG (the darkness helps hide the sometimes sketchy effects work, as is often done in Marvel movies as well). If there’s one thing I love about most of the Indiana Jones movies, it’s that they used mostly practical stunt performances in broad daylight, because they had very little to hide as far as digital tampering. The other key difference with The Dial of Destiny is that it’s the first in this series that isn’t directed by Steven Spielberg. Instead, the quite capable James Mangold (3:10 To Yuma, Logan, Ford v Ferrari) does his best with the assignment given, and part of that assignment is to make this film feel like something Spielberg had a hand in; he’s not mimicking Spielberg’s visual style exactly, but the vibe is strong.

After the opening sequence, which has its final confrontation atop a moving train and culminates with no one getting the Antikythera, the story jumps ahead 25 years, to 1969, where we are re-introduced to Old Man Indy, who is still teaching but approaching retirement. He’s a man who has spent his life living in the past, and now he’s old enough that a big chunk of the past has occurred in his lifetime. His relationship with Marion seems damaged beyond repair, especially after their son's recent death, and he’s staring at a future with very little to look forward to. 

But then things start to fall into place for another adventure. Shaw’s devoted daughter Helena (who also happens to be Jones's goddaughter, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) shows up to say that her late father’s lifelong quest for the Antikythera may not have been in vaemn, and she wants Indy’s help to find it. Meanwhile, the former Nazi, Voller, now works for NASA as a key part of the Apollo missions, and naturally, he’s also looking for the ancient dial once again. But not everything is as it seems, and it turns out Helena is a bit of a slippery character, charming but also a con artist, who has other plans for the Antikythera once she acquires it that have nothing to do with her father’s legacy. And honestly, the details of the rest of the film from this point forward hardly matter. The device changes hands, there are chases and fights and shootouts and even some wild flying sequences, with only one of these expertly staged action scenes feeling in any way real (a chase using motorized pedicabs, in the aforementioned broad daylight), and it’s glorious.

There are some strong, albeit quite abbreviated, appearances by a strong supporting cast that includes Thomas Kretschmann as another Nazi in the flashback sequence; Antonio Banderas as an old friend of Indy’s who assists them in a brief underwater search; Boyd Holbrook as Voller’s nefarious right-hand man; and even John Rhys-Davies as the returning Sallah, who is barely in the movie and serves no real purpose other than the nostalgia porn of it all. There’s the fedora, the whip, and John Williams' familiar score (the new portions of which are actually quite rousing at times), which, when combined, stir up all sorts of feelings but also feel like the least graceful manipulation of heartstrings.

Waller-Bridge at least brings something exciting and new to the proceedings, and Mikkelsen always finds ways of being a hoot, but by the time the film gets to the point of this dopey dial and allows us to see what it’s capable of, my eyes rolled so far back in my head, I could almost see the aliens from The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and wish they’d come back. But what does slip into the film’s themes, so subtly that it almost feels accidental, is the idea that living in the past can not only be hazardous to your health but also keep you from living in the present and progressing into the future. Jones must make a decision late in the film to either live among his relics or try to make a life for himself in 1969, and it is not an easy choice for him. In the fleeting moments that The Dial of Destiny addresses this conundrum, I remembered why I’ve loved this character since 1981.

Director Mangold (who is among the film’s four writers) does the best he can do with the material he’s given and probably pulls off the best version of this movie that any filmmaker could have. But it still comes up short in my book. Clinging to the past can be perilous for both archeologists and moviegoers, and when the film acknowledges that, it works. When it revels in its own mythology and thinks that passes for storytelling, it becomes a shadow of what these stories once were.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.