Let’s get this out of the way. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is better than Crystal Skull, but it doesn’t come close to touching the original trilogy. We all know this series should’ve ended with Indy riding off into the sunset 34 years ago. Even if the franchise is beyond its glory days, Harrison Ford hasn’t lost his charisma. For someone who was pushing 80 at the time of filming, Ford delivers a magnetic and occasionally emotional turn as his most beloved character (sorry Han Solo). Dial of Destiny works well as a final bow for Ford. As a last crusade for Indiana Jones, though, it’s not exactly… well, The Last Crusade.
The film sets a mixed tone from the opening flashback where a de-aged Ford finds himself doing what Indy loves most: hunting treasure and killin’ Nazis. On the de-aging effects scale, Indy ranks somewhere between the hauntingly convincing (Sean Young in Blade Runner 2049) and the uncomfortable uncanny valley (Carrie Fischer in Rogue One). Although Indy looks younger, he still speaks like a 79-year-old Ford. The babyface and gruff voice don’t mesh at all, but the sequence does amount to one of Indy’s signature escapes. We then cut to an older Indy laying around in his underwear and yelling at his neighbors. Actually, maybe the film crew just followed Ford around and shot his morning routine.
Approaching retirement, Indy is given one last chance to revisit the glory days with the arrival of his estranged goddaughter Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge). Helena is pursuing the mysterious dial of Archimedes, which can alter time according to legend. Where Helena is after fortune and glory, Mads Mikkelsen’s Jürgen Voller has more devious plans. Molded after real-life Nazi rocketeer Wernher von Braun, Voller seeks to alter history so that Germany wins World War II. Indy thus sets out with Helena, who makes for a welcome sidekick and wild card. Alas, fan favorites like John Rhys-Davies’ Sallah and newcomers like Antonio Banderas’ Renaldo are limited to glorified cameos.
Unlike aliens, time travel seems well-suited for Indiana Jones. This franchise revolves around historical MacGuffins, and with Indy being at the end of his whip, time is a fitting theme. Dial of Destiny doesn’t utilize time travel as effectively as it could’ve, however. Imagine if the film pulled a Back to the Future Part II with Indy having to revisit highlights from his previous adventures. It might feel like a best-of compilation, but it’d be a clever way to bring Indy’s journey full circle.
In the film’s most surprisingly heavy scene, Indy reflects on a loved one who passed away. What if Dial of Destiny presented Indy with the ethical decision to go back in time and save this person? The film doesn’t take advantage of these ideas, though. When time travel finally comes into play, Dial of Destiny goes to some bizarre places. Maybe not as silly as nuking the fridge, but it’s bafflingly close. What’s more, Indy makes a choice during the climax that feels out of character and ultimately goes nowhere. There are so many inventive ideas that could’ve come from this premise. To paraphrase a certain knight, “The screenwriters chose (dramatic pause) poorly).”
James Mangold is a great director, but Steven Spielberg’s touch is sorely missed. Although the action is well-executed, there’s nothing iconic about the set pieces. What gets us through the questionable creative choices and serviceable action is Ford’s presence. For such a safe script, Ford doesn’t go through the motions. You can recast almost any role in Hollywood, but not Indiana Jones. Knowing Disney, they’ll surely find a way to keep the franchise going anyway. However, Ford approaches the material with the mindset that this is truly it for Indy. At the very least, this is it for Ford. He brings a sincerity to his performance that elevates Dial of Destiny above being a generic adventure. That sincerity might not be felt from everybody else onboard, but it’s a satisfying enough sendoff for a character who deserves to retire peacefully.