Film reviews and more since 2009

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023) review

Dir. James Mangold

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★½

From the moment it was revealed that the fifth and final chapter of the Indiana Jones series would be the first installment without Steven Spielberg behind the camera, expectations had to be managed. They certainly couldn’t soar. The visionary filmmaker is indispensable to the history and legacy of one of the most iconic American heroes in cinema history, and Spielberg’s impeccable staging of action sequences coupled with thoughtfully illustrated characters were integral to the series’ success.

It was going to be a daunting challenge for any director, young or old, to try and fill the shoes of a living legend. James Mangold was a strong choice for the fact that he already has experience with telling the story of an aging hero with Logan. But Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is missing its most integral storyteller. As a grand finale, it both impresses and disappoints, sometimes simultaneously, in equal measure.

The film begins with by far the longest opening sequence in the series to date. It takes place during the twilight of World War II and has Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his colleague Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) trying to get their hands on historical artifacts stolen by Nazis. Ford’s Indy is de-aged significantly, and the technology once again gives its subject an overly smooth, waxy look that appears unnatural.

This roughly 40-minute prologue introduces us to a Nazi astrophysicist named Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen, also de-aged), who discovers half of the Antikythera. The object, also known as Archimedes’ Dial, is from Ancient Greece and has the power of predicting astronomical positions. When the two halves of the Dial are put together, it could give its possessor the power of a God, with the ability to control everything from astronomy to the weather, and even time itself.

Eventually, we leap to 1969, and an elderly Indy is retiring from Hunter College. The death of their son Mutt (from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) in Vietnam ended his marriage with Marion (Karen Allen), and now, Indy sulks alone in his apartment, unsure of his own future and legacy. This would be a predictable and tired angle to explore if Ford wasn’t so committed to sending this character off with elegance and class. He underscores the emotional beats appropriately, not by drawing attention to himself with theatrics, but with believable pathos that shows just how strong Ford can still be when he’s required to put a film (or a series like this) on his shoulders.

His duties aren’t done just yet, however. After his sendoff from Hunter College, Indy and Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), the daughter of Basil and Indy’s goddaughter, reunite at a bar where the veteran adventurer discovers she, like her late father, has become a student of Archimedes’ Dial. Indy kept the dial in his storeroom despite telling Basil he’d destroy it (we know Indy would never), but as him and Helena are retrieving it, the two are ambushed by Voller and his henchmen. This prompts a horse-chase through a parade, which leads to Indy galloping on horseback through a Subway station. It’s a thrilling sequence, even if it doesn’t match such gold standard set-pieces such as the mine car chase in Temple of Doom nor the battle atop a moving train in The Last Crusade.

Moreover, Helena moves to auction the dial in Tangier. Because our introduction to Helena was a brief barroom conversation with Indy, it’s unclear why she spent years studying Archimedes, the dial, and all of the device’s intricacies just to sell it at the first opportunity. Either way, just as Indy is trying to disrupt the auction, Voller ends it immediately by gaining possession of the dial.

The major issue with The Dial of Destiny is its lack of character development. In addition to Helena — whose character is at least bolstered by her untrustworthy ways as opposed to solely existing as the latest soulless third wave feminist icon — the character development is sparse. There’s an utterly useless teenager named Teddy (Ethann Isidore), a friend of Helena’s, who tags along for the ride and has no meaningful purpose in the story whatsoever. Then, the third act blindsides us with the introduction of Renaldo, played by Antonio Banderas. Renaldo is apparently an age-old friend of Indy’s who captains a boat. Naturally, Indy sees him the first time in a blue moon, as he sits with some companions on a patio, waiting for his extended cameo. Banderas’ appearance begins and ends faster than we can bother to recall his name by the end credits.

The action sequences themselves are efficient, but I found them largely uninspired. They come close to being fun, yet their movements feel choreographed as opposed to spontaneous, which was a hallmark of the earlier films. This is a film that often feels like it’s on autopilot. As a whole, Mangold’s direction can be defined as efficient. It never makes a serious misstep in the clarity department; it just bears that weightlessness that so many modern blockbusters have when it comes to their chase scenes.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is the kind of algorithmic, nine-figure spectacle that is engineered to be generally inoffensive and decisively middle-of-the-road entertainment. For a movie like Jungle Cruise or The Lost City, this formula is sufficient enough, for the most part, largely because it’s not connected to an IP that holds deep value with moviegoers, and expectations are understandably more measured. When this formula is applied to a character who, for many, served as the introduction to moviegoing, and has been the focal point of several generation-defining cinematic adventures, it feels hollow — destined to provoke grins as opposed to genuine excitement.

Fare thee well, Indy. At least until the inevitable reboot.

NOTE: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is now playing exclusively in theaters.

My review of Raiders of the Lost Ark
My review of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
My review of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
My review of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Starring: Harrison Ford, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Mads Mikkelsen, Ethann Isidore, Antonio Banderas, John Rhys-Davies, Toby Jones, Boyd Holbrook, and Karen Allen. Directed by: James Mangold.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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