Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny Review

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny can’t overcome death

2.5 out of 5 stars

The cold open of the latest Indiana Jones film, the last (for real this time) starring Harrison Ford, takes place during WW2. Using de-aging technology, a young Ford finds himself on a fast-moving train with a bunch of Nazis. Laden with VFX, the sequence might capture a certain spiritual energy of the previous Jones films — a sense of adventure, unpredictability and an endless chase — but similarly captures a deep unease that undercuts any of its magic. Though one can reason that the invention of new AI and VFX technologies offer new storytelling opportunities for filmmakers, they similarly reflect an unwillingness to let go and a mainstream cinema that is moving past the need for human actors.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is very much about aging. Jones is on the brink of retirement when he gets pulled back into his life of adventure via the r-emergence of two figures from his past: his god-daughter Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and a Nazi turned American scientist named Dr. Voller (Mad Mikkelsen). Both are on the search for the Dial of Destiny, an ancient invention that could theoretically allow the user to travel through time. 

Harrison Ford, who is 80 at the time of the film’s release, plays an old man who has lost his son, wife and purpose. He’s not as physically able as he once was, and the film’s writing leans surprisingly heavily into Ford’s charming but curmudgeonly persona. This is his fifth film Indiana Jones, and the third intended as a kind of send-off. The film feels very much like a goodbye that feels in tune with the character but also for a star in the twilight of his life.

However, the creeping awkwardness of the de-aging technology makes the entire experience uncomfortable. It suggests that Ford is somehow not essential in the making of this character. It also points to a society so unwilling to accept that people, places and the world change to accept the finality of a popular series ever coming to a close. The technology is still a bit shaky, though better than we’ve seen in other recent attempts. Being better, though, does little to dissuade the feeling that we’re all running away from death and aging. Why are we all so bad at letting go? 

Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

There are a handful of blissful moments in this latest film. Notably, a chase sequence through a parade sequence in downtown New York City is overflowing with revelries, protests and streamers. The sequence is driven by spectacular imagery and stunts, as it also serves to underline Jones’s growing apathy in a world that’s not only leaving him behind but seemingly taking what’s most precious to him. He’s bitter, yes, but, more pointedly, he’s wounded and alone.

There was a period in the 1970s when we saw the influx of revisionist Westerns. Movies by filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah eulogized the myths the American movies told about their past. In some ways, setting the film mainly in the 1970s, Dial of Destiny evokes similar themes. On the precipice of a changing society, as values and mores shift, as “good” wars leave way for “bad” ones, Jones belongs to a previous generation. He no longer belongs in this world.

But whereas movies like The Wild Bunch, mourned the changing face of the frontier with pointed criticism and brutality, here everything feels sugar-coated and out of touch with reality. It’s a big ask to expect a movie in the Indiana Jones franchise to aspire to be critical of imperialism or even the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia, but considering the gravitas of Ford’s performance — which channels such profound grief — the disconnectedness between his acting and the rest of the film only serves to underline how the movie fails in reconciling with death. The handsome face of the CGI-rendered young Ford acts as a perverted mask for a world unable to handle complex realities, from war to the pain a parent suffers when they lose a child. It similarly reveals an industry with little to no respect for its artists, divorcing their image from their spirit, encasing them in soulless ember. 

In many ways, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is a far more compelling film than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Ford and Waller-Bridges give captivating performances. The effects are overall better, though they still suffer from a certain weightlessness. The depth of the story feels more embodied, though it can’t escape the hypocrisy of its making. ■

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (directed by James Mangold)

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, June 30.

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