It’s a tragedy that when given a choice between The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi as models for blockbuster storytelling, Hollywood chose The Force Awakens. That choice became horribly clear when The Rise of Skywalker took The Force Awakens’ deference to nostalgia, quick and easy monomyth stories, and low-key conservatism to a whole new level of self-sabotage. To an extent, this was inevitable. A retro franchise like Star Wars was always going to revert to an aesthetic conservatism. But given how The Last Jedi found creative and fun ways to tell stories without that space, Hollywood’s rejection of new and exciting directions for the same old shit is pretty disheartening.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is a post-Force Awakens movie. All of its pleasures are drawn from earlier Indiana Jones movies: life-threatening stunts, arcana wrapped in riddles, and a bellicose Harrison Ford growling at the supporting cast. Like The Force Awakens, The Dial of Destiny competently delivers many of the thrills of its predecessors, assembling something that looks like an Indiana Jones movie, and gives its largely middle-aged, divorced audience a perfectly enjoyable two-and-a-half hours between alimony payments.
And the nice things to say about The Dial of Destiny mostly run out there. This movie is first and foremost completely safe. Not that I was expecting an Indiana Jones movie to be a thesis statement: this was always going to be a comforting, mindless blockbuster. But The Dial of Destiny doesn’t care to be anything more than an Indiana Jones movie. Given that we already have four of these by one of the greatest directors in Hollywood history, the existence of a fifth movie helmed by a lesser filmmaker is questionable.
We’ve danced around director James Mangold so far. Obviously anybody was going to pale in comparison to Spielberg. Mangold makes the wise choice not to simply imitate Spielberg’s style. It’s hard to pin down any particular shot in The Dial of Destiny that feels like Mangold trying to do Raiders. The resulting problem is that the movie lacks a distinctive visual style. In lieu of trying to do Spielberg, it doesn’t end up doing much of anything. Even The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, for all its flaws and essential pointlessness, is visually striking when the aliens are offscreen. For the first time, Indiana Jones looks like any other Hollywood movie, with all of the associated bad color grading and inadequate lighting (the opening sequence, set almost entirely at night, is particularly egregious on this count).
Beyond that, The Dial of Destiny (what a weak title) is a smattering of aborted plot threads with some miniscule triumphs in the mix. An incoherent Three Days of the Condor-style subplot involving Jones getting framed for murder is dropped early on. Shaunette Renée Wilson, while injecting some energy into the movie’s first act, doesn’t get to follow up on the human drama of a Black woman working for the American Intelligence Community in the age of Hoover and Fred Hampton. And Mads Mikkelsen’s villain only insinuates the existence of Wehrner Von Braun and Operation Paperclip, rather than, say, acknowledging that after World War II, the United States government hired 1,600 Nazis.
There are a handful of sound decisions, largely on the acting front. Despite his character’s scripted flimsiness, Mads Mikkelsen is predictably a hoot playing basically Hannibal as a Nazi. Phoebe Waller-Bridge has fun as Jones’ conwoman goddaughter. And Harrison Ford carries a role he started playing more than forty years ago with characteristic dignity and energy.
Thematically the movie is thematically more-or-less coherent. Opening during the Fall of Berlin savvily ends the franchise’s “Indiana Jones during WWII” subplot. Karen Allen’s cameo as Marion Ravenwood at the end serves to resolve the movie’s themes about aging rather than simply providing fanservice. And the big end-game twist is reasonably well integrated, even if it’s over fairly quickly.
But these are all minor victories in service of a demeaning end. Of course this wasn’t going to be a big treatise on the paternalistic imperialism of Indiana Jones. But when there are already four of these movies, one more that doesn’t add much to the pile is a let down. At least this seems to be the last Indiana Jones movie, proving that Hollywood (or really, Harrison Ford) knows when to let some things die. We probably won’t be plagued by another unnecessary sequel. And at least Shia LaBeouf wasn’t in this one.