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Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

Latest adventure feels stuck between the hero's past and his present.

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LUCASFILM
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Let's get this out of the way: Harrison Ford is old. He was 79 when most of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny was filmed, and during the film's first scene set in 1969, we see him in his full verging-on-octogenarian glory—grey-haired, shirtless and angry at being awakened from a nap.

Ford has spent much of the last decade tacitly acknowledging his senior status—revisiting world-wearier versions of Han Solo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Deckard in Blade Runner 2049 and now Indiana Jones—and Dial of Destiny might have been on to something genuinely interesting if it had leaned fully into time passing. "If adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones" a movie poster once told us, but what if he couldn't keep up with that idea anymore?

As it happens, the aforementioned set-in-1969 bulk of the story isn't where Dial of Destiny begins; instead, we find a digitally de-aged Ford back in the waning days of World War II, once again punching Nazis just like we remembered him doing 40 years ago. On the one hand, it could be viewed as a way to put us into the context of what the aging Dr. Jones has become vs. what he once was. On the other hand, it could play out like an almost desperate grasp at our movie memories: "You remember what you used to love about Indiana Jones, right? Let's just all pretend that's still what's happening now."

That flashback introduces us to the Antikythera, a mechanism created by the ancient mathematician Archimedes and rescued from the clutches of Hitler—and Nazi physicist Voller (Mads Mikkelsen)—by Indy and his friend Basil Shaw (Toby Jones). Twenty-five years later, as Indy stands on the verge of retiring from teaching, Basil's daughter/Indy's goddaughter Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) turns up, along with Voller and various henchfolk, to get their hands on the dial, which is purported to be a kind of road map to portals allowing travel through time.

The quest takes on multiple steps along multiple geographical stops, allowing for plenty of chases and big set pieces. Director James Mangold certainly faces an impossible task stepping into the shoes of Steven Spielberg when it comes to crafting clockwork action beats, but he's competent enough at the task, though between this movie and The Wolverine it seems that he might be inordinately fond of setting brawls on the roofs of moving trains. There are certainly occasions when it feels like he's working around Ford's physical limitations, but the stranger part is that all the globe-hopping and deadly villain sidekicks makes Dial of Destiny almost feel more like a James Bond movie than an Indiana Jones movie—this despite callbacks, with varying levels of explicitness and nostalgic appeal, to literally every other film in the series.

It's almost too on-the-nose for this installment's supernatural whatchamacallit to be something that allows you to re-visit the past, which perhaps accounts for why the screenwriting team—Mangold, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull screenwriter David Koepp, and Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth—seems a bit timid about exploring its possibilities. We learn fairly early on that Indy is dealing with traumatic grief involving his son, Mutt, yet despite a passing mention, there's never a sense that he might be genuinely tempted to use the device for his own selfish ends.

That becomes part of a bigger challenge of defining who Indiana Jones is as a character at this point, and it's not as though Dial of Destiny is alone in the series in terms of facing that issue. Ford continues to seem, as a performer, like he's fully embracing his long history of iconic characters, and he finds a nice paternal rapport with Waller-Bridge in disapproving of her character's shadier behavior. Yet there has literally always been a problem from film to film of defining Indy's personality beyond "the guy who's wearing a fedora and carrying a bullwhip:" Scholar? Hero? Rascal?

In the first three films, none of that mattered much, thanks to the stories' sheer forward momentum. Now, we're forced to reckon with an Indy who has to slow down, perhaps rely more on his wits. Dial of Destiny is a movie stuck between notions of its protagonist, between his past and his present. As John Williams' triumphant march plays you out of the theater, it's hard to know exactly what it is we've been celebrating.