Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny Is Too Entertaining to Dismiss
For about 20 minutes, there he is. The opening sequence of James Mangold’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny takes place during World War II, and my eyes marveled at the sight of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, as fresh-faced as he was back in Raiders of the Lost Ark, jumping through, around, and atop a speeding German train, walloping Nazis while trying to retrieve an ancient artifact known as the Antikythera. Digital de-aging has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, but the directors who’ve used it best up until now have found ways to lean into the slightly artificial look of the technology. Dial of Destiny is the first time I believed I was seeing the real thing. This movie about going back in time turns out to be something of a time machine itself.
Of course, the film isn’t about the young Indiana Jones but about the aging Dr. Henry Jones, now on the verge of retirement from teaching archeology to sleepy Hunter College students, drinking himself silly in a grubby New York apartment. The year is 1969, man has just walked on the moon, and Indy’s been served divorce papers. Into his life enters his goddaughter Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), the adventurous offspring of his old colleague Basil Shaw (Toby Jones, whom we saw with Indy in that opening sequence). She wants to drag him along on a chase for the Antikythera, which is allegedly part of a contraption built by the Greek philosopher Archimedes to predict fissures in the very fabric of time, thereby allowing travel into the past; Helena’s dad, we’re told, became obsessed with it toward the end of his life. Also chasing after it (and, by extension, them) is Jurgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), a former Nazi who has since become a prized scientist in the U.S. space program. He may be former, but he’s not repentant: Voller hopes to use Archimedes’ dial to go back in time to stop Germany from losing the war.
It’s not long before we’re off to the races, hopping continents and seas in ways that might seem familiar. Not unlike The Force Awakens did with the original Star Wars, the Dial of Destiny feels at times like a remix, offering variations on elements from earlier Indiana Jones movies. Helena could be a cross between Marion Ravenwood and Henry Jones Sr. There’s Teddy (Ethann Isidore), a young thief and driver who will prompt memories of Short Round. There are moments that evoke the Ark of the Covenant, the Well of the Souls, and that creepy little tunnel in Temple of Doom with all the gnarly bugs. And instead of a tomb filled with skeletons and snakes, this time around we get an underwater shipwreck filled with skeletons and moray eels, with Antonio Banderas as a vivacious Spanish diver thrown in for good measure. Meanwhile, the process of reassembling Archimedes’ dial involves solving a variety of puzzles and retrieving objects that themselves feel like they came out of a spontaneous Indiana Jones MacGuffin generator.
Still, the damn thing is fun. Mangold may not have the young Spielberg’s musical flair for extravagant action choreography (who does?), but he is a tougher, leaner director, using a tighter frame and keeping his camera close. That may shortchange the escapist atmosphere and evocative exotica of the material (which is, after all, one of the pleasures of Indiana Jones movies), but it does bring a ground-level immediacy to the action. Mangold is also a fiend for vehicular mayhem, which probably suits this older, slower version of Indy, who fights less but often finds himself in the middle of any number of “wouldn’t it be cool if” chases: motorcycles and tuk-tuks and trains and Jaguars and horses and planes in all manner of arrangements and rearrangements, as well as one delirious final sequence that had me giggling with delight.
Sometimes I wonder if the worst thing to happen to the Indiana Jones franchise was Raiders of the Lost Ark itself, which kicked off these films but also set a standard so high that no movie has been able to match it over the years. (I still think it’s probably the best film Spielberg ever made.) The warm light of nostalgia now bathes Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade, but those films were also found wanting by many back in their day, with elements that attempted to recapture that old Raiders magic. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny might prompt similar complaints, some of it warranted. But it’s also too entertaining to dismiss. You may not lose yourself in this one the way so many of us once did with the earlier Indiana Jones movies, but you’ll certainly have a good time.