' ' Cinema Romantico: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

Monday, September 18, 2023

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

“It’s not the years,” globe-trotting, whip-cracking archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) once remarked, “it’s the mileage.” In “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” the seemingly final entry in the now 42-year-old film franchise, it’s no longer just the mileage, it’s the years too. The movie’s most potent image is not an eye-popping effect or hair-raising stunt, it’s Indy dozing in front of his television, looking like any old schmuck. He is retiring from university professor job as “Dial of Destiny” opens, gifted a weighty metaphor in the form of a clock, one he promptly passes off to someone in the street. It’s Indiana Jones as “About Schmidt.” But if that teases a revisionist action/adventure, in taking the considerable reins from Steven Spielberg, director James Mangold chooses not to dissect or subvert the franchise’s deep sense of mythology but embrace it, eschewing referencing the pulpy serials that inspired the originals to reference the Indy movies themselves. Even then, however, it is not really a festive retro revival as it is a facsimile, save for a few isolated moments and one climactic swing for the fences, conspicuously marked by a lack of exuberance and humor, inadvertently equating getting old with being a drag.

The idea of time is embedded in “Dial of Destiny’s” requisite relic, Archimedes’ Dial, an ancient doohickey built by the Syracuse mathematician that can reveal fissures in time, a DeLorean in the palm of your hand. To inflate the degree of narrative difficulty, the dial of destiny comes in two pieces, separated, of course, one of which is aboard a spoils-filled Nazi train in 1944 as the movie opens. Rather than cast a young actor in the role of Indy from a period when we have already seen Ford play the part, “Dial of Destiny” recreates the young Ford via trendy digital de-aging. They might have included Denholm Elliot as Marcus Brody, too, had they been willing to go with a hologram, but instead recreate Brody, in a manner of speaking, through Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), an old associate of Indy who is imprisoned aboard the train and needing rescue. The de-aging of Ford works until he speaks, a 39-year-old with the coarse voice of an 81-year-old, a strange half-man, half-synthetic and emblematic of a movie that can’t square plundering its own past. The action sequence aboard the train suggests the opening to “The Last Crusade,” absent the same sparkle and wit, underlined in the photographic darkness, as trendy as the de-aging effects, so you can hardly see what’s going on, while the emergent bad guy Dr. Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) becomes less modern commentary on our problem with you-know-who than lack of a better idea, going back to the well (of souls) one more time.

After the prologue, “Dial of Destiny” jumps ahead to 1969 where Basil’s daughter and Indy’s goddaughter Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) approaches the retiring Dr. Jones about the half of destiny’s dial that is in his possession. Flitting between friend and foe, she absconds with it, causing Indy to give chase, and eventually to seek out the dial’s other half. And that prompts Voller, presumed dead but working for NASA under a fake name, to chase them, from New York to Tangier to Greece to Sicily, hoping to get his hand on the ancient instrument to rekindle WWII, giving rise to an Indiana Jones movie real reason for being, action and adventure. In a way, “Dial of Destiny” becomes a victim of its own release date, its train set piece and auto rickshaw chase in Tangier suffering in comparison to the train set piece and Roman car chase in “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.” Even leaving that aside, Mangold’s movie just doesn’t measure up, the introductory game of cat and mouse between Helena and Indy and Voller paling against the nimbler and more amusing opening to “Jungle Cruise.” And when a sequence in “Indiana Jones,” once the gold standard for these sorts of movies, struggles to match “Jungle Cruise,” there’s a problem.

As much as Ford has changed, so has movie technology, and where the original trilogy was built on practical effects, computers and green screens have taken over. The original movies were not realistic, per se, but their stunt work imbued a distinct and beneficial sense of verisimilitude through practical effects that enhanced the thrill. It’s what made the joke cited at the beginning of this review work and made the larger joke work too, that he exerted so much energy for so little payoff. But now, when an old-timer like Indy would theoretically have an even harder time of it, the green screen work make it seem effortless, significantly reducing excitement. But it’s not only excitement these scenes lack, it’s twinkle. That’s what “Raiders” really effused, a sense of joy, a camera that moved with a true sense of discovery and a series of setups giving away to cheerful payoffs. “Dial of Destiny” repeatedly dampens its own payoffs, like Voller’s bulbous henchmen crossing a rickety bridge, registering them but not reveling in them, while even something like a nifty variation on Indy’s greatest fear gets trampled in the execution, underlined in the sequence’s accompanying Antonio Banderas cameo. Like Lucasfilm impossibly flattened the force of Samuel L. Jackson in the Star Wars prequels, “Dial of Destiny” improbably douses Banderas’s considerable charisma. 

Ford, on the other hand, when given space, effuses vulnerability, never more than an early classroom scene where his weary indifference gives way to joy in describing the Siege of Syracuse. It hints at the one truly delightful sequence, where not coincidentally Mangold breaks free from the original to do his own thing, less an Indy movie, almost, than a live action version of Pixar’s “Up,” succeeding in a counterintuitive way by going too far, taking the phrase of living in the past and stretching it as far as it will go.

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