Raiders of the Lost Ark is undoubtedly one of the best films out there. The Temple of Doom, on the other hand, is one of the worst movies of all time, even though it has some crazy performances and stunts. If you are wondering why, it’s one of the worst, well, newsflash: all the racism! The Last Crusade is again a masterpiece. Apart from some monkey-related shenanigans and contrary to popular opinion, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is one of the best adventure films of all time. Going by this very subjective framing, it may seem that the bar for making an Indiana Jones film is pretty low because all you have to do is not be racist and not put the elderly adventurer in a refrigerator to survive a nuke blast. But The Dial of Destiny proves that if you aren’t Steven Spielberg and if you are making a sequel to his movies, trying to evoke his style, or paying homage to his work, there’s a massive chasm that stands between what you want to make and what you are making.
The Dial of Destiny starts off in a Nazi-occupied part of the world, where Indy and his friend Basil Shaw are trying to steal the Lance of Longinus and put it in a museum. Indy learns that the artifact is fake, while Shaw learns that Jürgen Voller has Archimedes’s Dial, which allows its user to travel through time. After unsafely acquiring it, the narrative shifts to 1969 in America, where an aged Indy meets his goddaughter, Helena Shaw. She is also after the Dial, largely because she wants to sell it off and make a lot of money. Since Indy wants to protect Helena from Voller (disguised as Dr. Schmidt), Klaber, and several other goons while ensuring that the Dial doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, he chooses to go on an adventure with his goddaughter. Through this process, Indiana gets to reconnect with Helena after a long time and reckon with the weight of everything he has lost as he has grown old. What about the Nazis? Why do they want the titular Dial? Well, it is something along the lines of “conquering the world.” Who cares? They are Nazis. Just punch if you see one.
I don’t want to sit here and pretend that the Indiana Jones movies have a lot of thematic depth just because they were made by Steven Spielberg. It’s the fact that the franchise’s central character is so hellbent on getting obscure and mythical artifacts into a museum that makes it so interesting and engaging. Okay, The Last Crusade’s father-son drama is apparent. But even that film depends on Henry and Indiana’s lust for archeology. So, in Dial of Destiny, when you pair up Indiana (who is looking for some peace and quiet and not adventure) with Helena (who is in it for the money), you are throwing me off balance. Even if you try to show that their heart was always in the right place, it doesn’t quite work. All four of the writers try to make it about regret and aging, but none of it lands because the exposition is just so dull and unengaging. Then they start introducing characters like Teddy and Renaldo, who seem to be of some significance, but they simply pad the runtime. The Nazis don’t need too much depth, but they do need some interesting scenes or menacing lines of dialogue. Neither Voller nor Klaber get any such scenes.
The action and the visuals are a major letdown and are extra disappointing because James Mangold is at the helm. This is the man behind great films like Logan, 3:10 to Yuma, and Ford vs. Ferrari! What the hell happened? There’s a lot of practical action. But the sheer amount of VFX and CGI-heavy scenes clearly outweigh all that practical work because, of course, Harrison Ford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge can’t or won’t do stunts like that. That begs the question, “Why conceive scenes that your actors can’t pull off and have to heavily rely on CGI doubles and stunt doubles?” My best guess is that the makers thought that bigger was better and fumbled the bag. The Dial of Destiny is at its best when the characters are conversing and avoiding traps. Whenever it went into action mode, it lost me. VFX de-aging still doesn’t work. I’m not saying it’s not all good. I’m saying it’s not perfect. Until it’s perfect, it should stay in the lab. It shouldn’t be on the screen. Also, what the hell is up with that yellow tint? Why is it over the whole movie? It makes everything look so ugly! To be honest, the only thing that is memorable about this film is John Williams’ score. The dude really is the “greatest of all time.”
I don’t know if I like the performances in The Dial of Destiny or if I like the actors. Harrison Ford looks hot. He is 80 years old, and it seems like he can knock out anyone half his age in a straight fight. More than the moments of action or adventure, it’s the scenes where Mangold and Phedon Papamichael get close to Ford’s face and let him emote his existential crisis when he is at his best. That’s the whole point of casting an actor 40 years after the first time he donned the hat, wore the leather jacket, and cracked that whip, right? It’s the introspection and retrospection that only come with age that should shine instead of the acrobatics and whatnot. Phoebe Waller-Bridge looks hot. She exudes charisma. She has the best costumes in the film, and she pulls them off with such panache (I had forgotten that word until I saw Phoebe on the screen). But even she is better in the emotionally heavy scenes than the action-heavy scenes. Mads Mikkelsen looks hot. He is so suave and cool. That said, I liked him the best in his last few minutes of panic. I think Voller’s portrayal would have benefited from more such moments of doubt and panic. I don’t want to sugarcoat my next statement: the rest of the cast is wasted. Why is Antonio Banderas there? To die? Why is John Rhys-Davies there? For the “member berries”? Why did they cast Toby Jones for such a thankless role? What the hell is Boyd Holbrook doing? Was that the actual twist of the film? That they’re going to get all these amazing actors and then do nothing with them. If so, great job.
I can’t recommend Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny enough. If you want to watch, it is up to you. I didn’t enjoy it at all. There isn’t a single moment in the film that generated excitement, wonder, awe, fear, intrigue, or any other emotion that can be produced by the human mind. It was only after I walked out of the cinema hall when I realized that nothing about the film had registered on a spiritual level. I struggled to remember that the performances, the score, and some of the action were objectively good. Then it simply faded away, like the sands of time. I don’t know what it would’ve been like if it was in Steven Spielberg’s hands. But going by what he has pulled off in his last few films, at least it would’ve been better than this. Who am I kidding? It would have been much better than this. And I know that everyone involved in the making of this film knew that too. Then why did they go ahead with this weak swan song instead of funding a much-deserved sequel to Spielberg’s Tintin film, which would’ve been as adventurous or more adventurous than Mangold’s film? I don’t know. It’s an unfair industry, and Disney is a company that’s banking too much on nostalgia and is so afraid that it can only play it safe. Unless Disney stops being kid-friendly or relinquishes its control over the adult-centric IPs, this is all that we’re going to get out of them. Good luck!