“I miss waking up every morning wondering what wonderful adventure the new day will bring to us.”
We got a legacy sequel for the Indiana Jones franchise with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008); now, 15 years later, we are getting a new one, and the first film in the franchise without Spielberg and George Lucas. Though they weren’t entirely uninvolved, being a part of a long pre-production process to figure out the fifth film, ultimately, they decided to give it to someone new. Someone that would tell a new story with a new perspective. Sadly, The Dial of Destiny, while a new chapter in Indiana Jones’ life, does not end up going in a new direction and sticks close to a type of story Spielberg would direct with no divergences in the tone or visual storytelling, which negatively impacts the film as one can’t help but compare this to what Spielberg could’ve done.
Set 15 years after the previous film’s events, we follow Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), now a recently retired professor, as he sets out on an adventure to stop the Nazis one last time. This adventure is forced upon him by the return of his goddaughter, Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who is sought by Nazis lead by Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) — who want to find the dial of Archimedes because they believe it holds power to locate time fissures that will allow them to change the past.
The movie’s strength, and also ultimately its weakness, is how good the opening and ending of it are. The opening prologue is a fun and action-heavy sequence with the right amount of exposition to set up the McGuffin. Watching a CGI de-aged Indy escape a Nazi castle to fight on a train, while Williams’ iconic score is playing, is a nostalgia-filled beginning to return to. It’s exhilarating and, with the time jump to the present, prepares you well for the upcoming adventure. You then contrast this with the ending in how they use the Dial to lunge us in a new direction that we’ve never seen in the Indiana Jones story, with a larger-scale epic action spectacle. It was predictable that the movie was heading in that direction but seeing it unraveling with the revelation of what was to come kept me interested in this direction even though at that moment it was over two hours into the film.
The problem from this is that, when looking at the rest of the film from a wider lens, you get the sense that how they didn’t know how to tie a nostalgic beginning with an ending that showed a new direction. What we get isn’t pretty, and it isn’t all bad too, but you get the sense the people working on it were either too scared or just pulled back from diverging too far.
A good example of how the film doesn’t manage to distinguish itself too much from the predecessors, yet does similar things to it, is how there are a lot of chase sequences on vehicles — from crashing a patriotic parade in New York City to a car chase with Nazis in Morocco. Besides a few highlights, like Indy traversing a subway with a horse, there isn’t anything interesting with the action sequences or the set pieces. They just remind you of how Spielberg put vehicle chases in his movies and filled each one with multiple memorable moments, from Indy being dragged on the road to dual with rapiers in the jungle on top of cars. He used it for more than just to get our characters from point A to point B and it seems that the director, Mangold, didn’t understand that or how to do it. It doesn’t also help how this problem carries over in every other action scene, with unclear choreography that makes it difficult to tell where all participants are, or just not making the most of the locations — like an auction house in Morrocco, which wasn’t used for anything besides backstory for Helena and it makes you wonder why we even needed to go in the first place besides the plot having to be there. And it’s not that it’s filled with boring action scenes, as they aren’t. It’s that everything is serviceable, ticking off a checklist rather than creating a grand adventure.
The biggest problem with not diverging enough, though, comes from how Spielberg made the franchise his own from the expert use of the camera, and precise blocking for oners, that keep audiences engaged to the amount of brutality in the series (from the sheer amount of ways Spielberg kills the goons that Indy faces). The franchise is so tightly woven in the style of Spielberg that it is ultimately disappointing to watch over an hour and a half of what is ultimately a washed-out version of a Spielbergian film.
But on a more positive note, I enjoyed how the supporting cast was written and directed, and Ford’s return as Indy. Helena was never treated by the movie as a mere sidekick to Indy’s adventure but as a character whose agency propels the plot, and her relationship with Indy grounds the story. Mads as the villain is of course a great casting choice and his talents are put to good use, as the way he carries himself changes from the prologue scene to the finale and you can see a whole story just from his acting about a man who managed acquire power and confidence in himself over the years and then seeing it all crumbling in the end. Harrison Ford here is not tired like he was as Han in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, and you can tell he was treating this as seriously as he did in the first installment.
In the end, the biggest problem with a movie in a franchise that was developed by Spielberg is that it’s missing what he brought to the table to define the series to everyone growing up watching them. Mangold, in the end, doesn’t step far away from the series like how he did with Logan (2017) which didn’t limit itself in any way to the style or tone of the other X-Men movies, or any R-Rated superhero flick at the time. Here he gave us a safe sequel besides the finale, a step back for the franchise. Regardless of what many might say about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull being bad, you can’t deny that Spielberg was having fun and from the nuke to the rapier duel in the jungles, doing his own thing. I wish I didn’t have to compare this as much to what Spielberg would’ve done but the movie doesn’t do enough with the middle act to stand on its own feet, leaving audiences with a sense of longing and what feels like a wasted fifth film in the foundational franchise. Maybe just don’t do it without Spielberg.