Call it the Rocky Balboa of the Indy series, because the delightful Dial of Destiny follows up a rare franchise misstep (the abysmal Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) with a “can’t let it end there” late-breaking sequel that puts things back on track.
The film kicks off with a flashback to WWII that plants the seeds for the present (1969) plot by introducing the villain and the MacGuffin (of “and the” fame), but just as importantly, it is a throwback and homage to the classic Indy we love: chasing relics, working with an academic sidekick named Basil (Toby Jones), stealing uniforms, bumbling around a bit, and punching Nazis. The “de-aging” used here looks great overall – it’s not perfect (it never is), but it’s some of the best that I’ve seen, especially in such a sustained context. There’s some visual gags, a car chase, and a speeding train (plus the terrific Thomas Kretschmann in a brief but memorable role). It’s that good-good stuff, and a reminder of why we love Indy.
It’s the script’s way of letting us have our cake and eat it, too. At 80 years old, beloved icon Harrison Ford may no longer fit the idealized image of an action star, but we get some of that “Indy in his prime” action, to not only whet our appetite but serve as a contrast to an older Indy who’s no longer at the top of his game, but – to his own surprise – still has one more adventure left in the tank.
Henry Jones no longer seeks adventure, but it finds him anyway when he’s suddenly visited by two different parties both seeking the same artifact, the Antikythera, a remarkable and impossibly advanced mechanical device of indeterminate purpose, created by Archimedes. One of them is his god-daughter Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) whom he hasn’t seen in years, the daughter of his old friend Basil. The other, a group of goons in the employ of Dr. Voller (Mads Mikkelson), the Nazi from whom Indy and Basil stole the device on that night in 1944.
Helena bears some resemblance to a younger “fortune and glory” minded version of Indy, which makes it hard to get a bead on just where her loyalties lie. She even brings back a bit of Short Round’s spirit in the form of Teddy (Ethann Isidore), her own pickpocketing kid sidekick.
Mikkelson serves as both a foe and foil for Indy, with whom he has a shared history. Like Indy, he’s resourceful and intelligent. But unlike Indy, who has lost his sense of resolution, he has a very determined purpose (to restore the Third Reich).
This take on Indy is a little different than anything we’ve seen before. Life’s handed him some knocks and he’s feeling tired and aimless. Being pushed back into an old conflict isn’t just another adventure; it’s a test of his mettle, a challenge to once again find his center.
After a brief but welcome catch-up with Sallah (John Rhys Davies), Indy’s once again off on a globe-trotting mission, which will take him on a tuk-tuk chase though the streets and alleys of Morocco, a dive to search a sunken shipwreck in the Mediterranean, and a quest for the tomb of Archimedes in Greece.
One thing I personally really disliked about the prior Indy film Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was how much of a cartoon it was. And I don’t mean the Saturday matinee tone, I mean that the action sequences all feel like green screens and animation with no weight or stakes. If you try to compare the famed convoy chase in Raiders with the jungle chase in Crystal Skull, the vast gulf in quality will break your brain.
Dial of Destiny seems to be very aware of this common criticism. While I don’t doubt that it uses a ton of CGI, it does so very effectively, and achieves an effective sense of reality, veering away from over-the-top spectacle and nonsense in favor of tactile realism that’s either in-camera or makes an effort to look that way. Even the 1969 New York locale (which I felt unimpressed with when I first saw it in a trailer) feels somewhat grounded.
My biggest criticism with Dial of Destiny is that, even more so than Crystal Skull, this film is missing a very particular and critical key ingredient: some really gnarly and supernatural death scenes. Remember Nazis exploding and melting, a kid getting his heart ripped out, Julian Glover decaying Evil Dead-style into a shriveled corpse, and Pat Roach getting splattered by background elements (twice)? These were some of the most memorable scenes of the classic trilogy, especially for kids. This series was famous for its gleefully gruesome scenes that forced Hollywood to adopt a PG-13 rating because kids (or their parents) were traumatized. I miss that. Crystal Skull at least feigned at this with dudes getting overrun by cartoon ants; Dial of Destiny prefers its deaths non-fantastical and off-camera.
There’s also another missed opportunity here in the failure to bring back another fan favorite character, Short Round. I don’t want to get too mired in this since it’s an unfair criticism to judge a film by what it “should have” done instead of how well it did what it set out to do, but the erasure of this character is a long-term failure of the series; a narrative hole that gets wider with each passing film. Short Round speaks to Indy’s better nature as an adoptive father figure who would rather take a kid under his wing than leave him on the streets. It’s not a relationship that should be narratively cast aside, and as the final film in the saga, Dial of Destiny fails to address that particular flaw in the series – forever.
These probably seem like minor problems (or not problems at all) to most viewers, though I feel quite strongly about them. Outside of these complaints, though, I really enjoyed this film and will undoubtedly have it “in the rotation”. It’s not quite at the same level as the original trilogy, but it’s incredibly enjoyable in the way an Indy movie should be, and about a million times better than Crystal Skull (much in the same way that The Force Awakens felt to me after the Star Wars prequel trilogy).
It was risky, no doubt about it, to return to the well with an 80-year old actor and try to bring back the old magic, but Dial of Destiny handily achieves what it sets out to do (if not what I wanted it do do), delivering up a great last adventure and ending the series on a grace note instead of a brown one.