Indiana Jones and the Unmitigated Disaster: Reviewing Dial of Destiny
The newest Indy film is also the worst, by a substantial margin
Ahead of today’s release of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, I spent the week writing about each of the first 4 films in the series. In case you missed them, be sure to check out my pieces on Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, Last Crusade, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And today, here’s my review of the newest entry in the series. Enjoy…
The thought that kept running through my mind as I sat through all twelve hours of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny was “How?”
How can a movie with “Indiana Jones” in the title be this boring?
How can a movie starring three of my favorite actors – Harrison Ford, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Mads Mikkelsen – be this lifeless?
How can a movie that reportedly cost $300 million to make – one of the highest budgets in film history – look this cheap and shoddy, with whole sequences that are visually indecipherable and others that just look unfinished?
How can a movie be so poorly put together, so completely bereft of passion or energy or the faintest hint of a spark, that even the maestro John Williams seems to have thrown his hands up in defeat and let his once-iconic music just lie there, barely noticeable?
And how is a movie this leaden and tedious capable of losing its goddamn mind so spectacularly in the final act?
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is a disaster, full stop. It is the kind of holistic cinematic failure the Internet hive-mind would have you believe Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was, but by comparison, Spielberg’s last Indy film looks like The Godfather. James Mangold is a talented filmmaker who has made sturdy, old-fashioned action films for adults – his remake of 3:10 to Yuma, or 2019’s Ford v Ferrari – and is one of the only directors to truly do something personal and risky with the superhero genre, in 2017’s Logan. But he is not Steven Spielberg. That in and of itself is no crime – few who have ever sat in the director’s chair are in that league – but Mangold has absolutely no sense for the rhythms and pacing of a fleet-footed adventure serial like Indiana Jones, and he and his collaborators seem to have learned none of the many lessons to be taught by Raiders of the Lost Ark, or even by its inferior but occasionally inspired sequels. Dial of Destiny is a vacuum of energy: slow, lumbering, and expository where Indiana Jones, even at his worst, has been fast, animated, and kinetic. It is an ugly movie with no discernible sense of humanity or emotion, nor anything approach a coherent central theme, but it tries near the end to convince you it had these things, partially by taking a swing it is resolutely unequipped to follow through on, and then by tiredly repeating one of the most beloved moments from Indy’s past adventures.
First and foremost, Dial of Destiny is an abject failure of pacing. The movie is 154 minutes long, which is already a solid half-hour longer than any of the Spielberg movies, which all run right around 2 hours; even at their messiest, those first 4 movies are all pretty light on their feet. Everything within Dial of Destiny’s 154 minutes is ludicrously protracted. It takes 20 minutes to get out of the prologue, where a CG replica of Harrison Ford fights Nazis on a train in 1944, and present-day Indiana Jones doesn’t set out on this movie’s adventure until the film has been going for nearly a full hour. Where Raiders of the Lost Ark dispenses with virtually all its exposition in one five-minute scene at the university, and is then perpetually in motion from there, Dial of Destiny hails from the Marvel school of stop-start plotting, where dry exposition and awkward action sequences alternate for basically the entire run time, the film never coming close to building up a real head of steam.
Even now, I find myself struggling to explain how deeply lethargic this whole movie feels. It seems to be unfolding in slow motion, every scene full of slack that is never pulled taut in the edit. A basic tightening pass, just focusing on trimming the existing scenes down to a snappier rhythm, could cut a decent chunk of the run-time off before we even get to larger structuring issues – but even then, I’m not sure what to do about the film’s absolutely flaccid approach to ‘action.’ When I wrote about Raiders of the Lost Ark earlier this week, I expressed my surprise realizing the film’s most virtuosic stretch – the fight on and around the plane at the dig site, into the truck chase in the desert – unfolds in just 14 short minutes, every one of them dense with big, iconic beats. Dial of Destiny routinely takes much longer for set pieces with no particularly imaginative or surprising beats at all – just these mercenary bits of barely choreographed mayhem, where punches are thrown and cars move and people get shot, but none of it lands, and every movement is needlessly protracted. The centerpiece sequence of the first act involves Indy riding a horse through a parade for the Apollo astronauts, and then down into the subway, and it’s just remarkable how slow and labored it all is, how unable the film is to express speed or momentum. Mangold is no Spielberg, clearly, but perhaps more importantly, the trio of editors who divvied up Dial of Destiny are no Michael Kahn, Spielberg’s genius editor. There is no energy to the edit. Nothing connects. Nothing snaps. There’s no impact felt by the collision of shots. The rhythms are all wrong. Watching Dial of Destiny is like listening to a cover band do one of your favorite and best known songs, but under tempo, off-key, and with some of the wrong instruments. Even John Williams finds himself slowing the tempo of his music, until the version of the Raiders March that plays over the end credits is decelerated to the point it sounds uncanny.
The film opens with an aforementioned elongated prologue in 1944, trying and failing to recreate the look and feel of the classic Indiana Jones adventures. Nothing about the sequence works, but I suspect audiences will be most hung-up on the ‘digitally de-aged’ (read: CGI-replaced) Harrison Ford; it is neither the best nor worst use of the technology I have seen, but it is probably the most inconsistent. Some shots – usually ones borrowing poses or compositions from past movies, where there’s a direct photographic reference for how Ford should look – are pretty good; some are right out of the Polar Express uncanny valley; and others still look like a particularly outdated video game. Even if the effects were perfect, Ford still moves and sounds like an old man, and considering this very franchise once built a beloved sequence around a gifted young actor playing a younger version of Indy – River Phoenix in Last Crusade – it boggles the mind why Mangold and company didn’t take the opportunity to get creative here.
Still, the scene’s presentation of Indy himself is probably the least of its problems; more troublesome is the absolutely dire state of the visuals, all shot at night with dim lighting and CGI effects and environments that are poorly composited, the sum total being an attempt at high-energy action that is mostly indecipherable – and it’s probably one of the film’s better set pieces. Moreover, the film quickly proves it has learned zero lessons from past Indy films about exposition and pace. This opening needs to get three things across: That Indy had a friend and colleague named Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) who adventured with him during the war; that they found one half of the (fictional) Archimedes Dial; and that a Nazi physicist named Voller wanted that dial very bad. It should not take 20 whole minutes to dispense with this information, but if you’re going to spend that much time, you could at least try to establish the relationship between Indy and Basil, given that the rest of the movie is about Indy adventuring with Basil’s daughter, Helena. It doesn’t do this either.
But that’s par for the course for Dial of Destiny. The film gestures at some very big and potentially interesting themes about time and regret, about living for the moment versus living in the past – the eponymous Dial offers a way to travel through time, you see – but it mostly leaves these ideas lying limply off to the side. For most of its run, the film is exposition and dry plot mechanics, all utilitarian, moving the characters from points A to B to C and having them get in a poorly constructed car chase or fist fight at regular intervals, barely an emotion, let alone a real thematic development, in sight.
The cast is the only part of the film that threatens to hold one’s attention, and even then, the potential wasted is positively infuriating. Ford is game here, his movie star charisma undiluted by time or age, and you really get the feeling he wanted this to work; he’s not someone who can hide his disinterest when his heart isn’t in it, and he’s really trying to sell this at points, which just underscores how deeply none of it is working. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the co-lead here as Helena, and she too is making a real effort; she brings her usual energy, humor, and underlying warmth to the part, smarmy and clever but also wounded and piercing, and the script does at least gesture on a twist to the Last Crusade formula it borrows, with Helena turning out to be more of a thief and a con artist than a daughter sincerely trying to finish her father’s life’s work. Waller-Bridge is good at all of that, but the script ultimately gives her nowhere to go, Helena’s heart of gold revealed at the requisite moment without any sincere or well-developed character growth.
At least she has something resembling a character. Mads Mikkelsen, one of the most effective screen villains of the era, has been given the most generic Nazi figurehead part imaginable, a role he could easily play in his sleep, and may well have done here. If so, I wouldn’t blame him. This movie is beneath him.
And if that were it, I think I would have already forgotten about most of Dial of Destiny, felt it all slip away on the drive home; a boring and inert attempt at Indiana Jones cosplay, and nothing more. But that’s not it, because in its final act, Dial of Destiny loses its fucking mind. There is no way to proceed here without getting into spoilers, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. Duck out now if you don’t want to know.
Still here? Cool. The finale of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny sees Indy, Helena, and several Nazis fly through a tear in the fabric of spacetime and end up in 213 B.C. at the Roman Siege of Syracuse, where said Nazis, despite Hitler and the Nazi Party’s well-known veneration of the Roman Empire, start opening fire on Roman ships, while Indy and Helena come face-to-face with the actual Archimedes, and Indy insists on staying in the Syracuse of 2000 years ago until Helena knocks him out and drags him back to 1969.
Everybody got that?
Look, the Indiana Jones movies are fundamentally ridiculous. I have bristled in the past at those who have dismissed Kingdom of the Crystal Skull simply because it broaches aliens or involves Indy surviving a nuclear bomb test. Very silly things that go far past any kind of credulity happen in all 4 Spielberg-directed movies, from ghosts melting the faces of Nazis to hearts to being ripped from chests to Indy coming face to face with an immortal Knight. But I would argue there is a context for all of these moments and ideas, one rooted in mythology, genre, and pulp storytelling, that makes them all feel like parts of a coherent internal reality for the world of this series. And I would also argue that having Indy fly through a time portal for a confab with Archimedes breaks that reality wide open. I see the appeal of it as a potential idea – Indy is an archeologist, and now he gets to step into history itself – but you’re broaching a different kind of fantasy or sci-fi than this series or the works that inspired it ever played with, and you’re taking a very big swing that demands walking a very tricky tonal tightrope. I don’t know if any Indiana Jones movie, by any director, could actually make this work, but Dial of Destiny is especially not up to the challenge.
There are two key elements that kill the climax for me: First is the visual effects, which are terrible throughout the movie. Dial of Destiny did apparently do location shooting in multiple countries around the world, but you can barely tell, because most of what we’re looking at in any given scene is actors, usually in an uncomfortable and stifling close-up, set against green screens with bland, poorly composited backdrops plopped in behind them. A lot of it is visually messy and often poorly lit, with whole swaths that are visually unintelligible, like the opening action on the train or an underwater dive scene where it is genuinely impossible to even tell who is who, let alone what anyone on screen is doing. That’s the kind of aesthetic situation we’re in heading into the climax, and this is where the movie’s already shaky grasp on visual storytelling just completely breaks down. Even if you could make this time travel gambit work, every inch of what we’re looking at, what is supposed to be Syracuse circa 2000 years ago, looks so fake and plastic and insubstantial that it simply is not possible to invest in the gravity of the moment. When nothing in the entire movie looks real, why should a trip into the distant past be remarkable? It’s all part of the same indistinct CGI slurry.
Second, this climax is where the movie attempts to foist a film’s worth of character development on Indiana Jones himself in just a few minutes, and it is all so laughably thin. The idea of Indy being seduced by the possibility of living in the past isn’t a bad one, and I could see it working in very specific circumstances, but what about this moment in history would so appeal to him? What have we ever known about Indiana Jones that draws him to Syracuse and Archimedes specifically? We’ve seen him chase the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail – but he found those things, and got some measure of closure on them. The Archimedes Dial in this film is the obsession of Basil Shaw, not Indy – why would this be his arc? The intent is to express that Indy is so bereft of human connection in the present – son Shia LaBeouf died in Vietnam, we find out, and he and Marion are estranged – that he would prefer to run away to the past, but nowhere in the entire film does he express this kind of desire. Even just going out on the adventure with Helena is something he does reluctantly, not as an escape from his miserable personal life, so why would he suddenly want to go die in Ancient Rome? And why is the resolution of the sequence Helena punching Indy out and taking him back to the present by force, rather than using this scene as a pay-off to the surrogate-father/surrogate-daughter relationship they should have built up over the past few hours? Storytelling 101 would tell you that if you have an old man and a young woman both without a family drawn together by common cause, they should form some kind of ‘found family’ bond by the end of the movie. Dial of Destiny forgets to do this, so it doesn’t have a leg to stand on when the time comes for the pay-off. Ah well, just have Helena deck him, then, and call it a day.
These two issues are connected, by the way: even if it worked to have Indy pouring his heart out to Helena about how his dream was always to travel back in time to live amidst history – and Harrison Ford sure tries to make it work – the whole scene is shot in, you guessed it, an uncomfortable, stifling close-up against a bad CGI plate. The visual language of the scene offers no sense at all that Indiana Jones is anywhere other than a soundstage with a green screen. Ford shouldn’t have bothered to put in the effort – every aspect of the filmmaking is undercutting him at every turn.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is barely a movie. It has actors in front of a camera (sometimes, when they’re not CG doppelgangers), and the footage moves at 24 frames per second, and there is sound synced to the picture – but other than that, it lacks even an iota of the requisite energy, spirit, passion, or purpose that makes filmmaking or filmgoing worthwhile. It is a movie made by people who do not know how to make a movie like this, nor why Indiana Jones movies ever worked in the first place. It might be the greatest possible tribute to the talents of Steven Spielberg, because once you’ve seen it, the chasm between his talent on his worst days and this crew throwing $300 million Disney bucks at the screen is positively cosmic in scale. This is one of the single most dull and inert movies I have ever paid to see, and also, somehow, one of the looniest and most unhinged. It is a catastrophe, and the only reason you can’t take your eyes off it is out of rubber-necking curiosity at how high the flames will go. Avoid it like the plague, unless you want to appreciate the relative genius of the other Indiana Jones sequels in a whole new light, because every one of them now looks miles better in comparison.
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