Can You Turn Back Time?
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
It's been fifteen years since we last saw Indiana Jones and, well, I have to admit that I didn't really miss him. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the films in the Indiana Jones series well enough, with the obvious highlights being Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but I wouldn't really say that I needed more of the character in my life. We've had plenty of other characters come along to riff on the same material, from Tomb Raider to National Treasure and Uncharted. Hell, probably the best version of Indiana Jones didn't even feature the main character but was, instead, The Mummy from 1999. It's hard to say that we really needed more of Indy back in our lives.
The struggle that the fifth (and presumably final) Indiana Jones film has is that it needs to convince us that we need the character back, that somehow he's the treasure hunter that has to come through and save the day. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny doesn't make that case. Hell, it's a film that doesn't even really seems to want to focus on its main character at all. He's there, but it's more like he's along for the ride instead of leading the adventure. This leads to a messy film that could, frankly, have starred anyone and been any kind of treasure hunting excursion. What it didn't need, in point of fact, was Indiana Jones.
Picking up a decade after the events of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (another messy adventure that, at this point, everyone seems to hate), we find Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones (Harrison Ford, in what he says will be his last time as the character) living alone. His wife left him (for reasons that are explained later in the film), and he has a crappy apartment in the middle of the city where he lives and sad and grumpy life. He's been in the teaching business for so long that it's time for him to retire, his biggest adventures behind him. Or so he'd thought.
It's worth noting that the film actually begins much earlier, with a sequence set at the end of World War II when Indy, along with companion Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), try to sneak into a Nazi operation so they can steal the Lance of Longinus. They get caught, but Indy naturally breaks out, and goes for the treasure... which is on a train... along with Basil. The lance, as it turns out, is fake, but Indy and Basil are able to make off with another treasure: half of the Antikythera, a dial built by Archimedes. Legend (which Indy doesn't believe) is that the dial would allow users to find rifts in time, allowing them to travel back and forth as time traveling adventurers. They steal the dial from Nazi scientist Jurgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen). So does Basil's daughter, Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), although not for altruistic purposes. She wants it so she can sell it and pay off a bunch of her illegal debts. Indy has to go with Helena to keep the treasure out of the hands of the Nazis and, just maybe, save the whole timeline.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is absolutely front-loaded with plot, but it doesn't even get bogged down by it. If anything, the story for the film is so front-loaded (but entertaining, mind you) that the rest of the film feels pretty sparse by comparison. The first twenty minutes are a rip-roaring, grand Indy adventure like the best of his series. The rest of the film, the other two-plus hours, feel like a longer, slower, bog-standard treasure hunting excursion, and it just can't live up to the promise of that first twenty minutes.
Part of the problem is that, once we settle into the main meat of the film, it follows the same old Indiana Jones formula we've seen, well, in every film in the series. Indy is called in on and adventure, reluctantly, forced to go after some McGuffin because "it belongs in a museum". He finds a companion along the way who will be with him for the whole adventure, while he's chased by Nazis (or Nazi-like soldiers, as in the case of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). At each step of the process Indy and his companion find the next clue towards the treasure, but are almost always thwarted by the bad guys. They steal the clue, he has to finagle his way out of some mess, and then the process begins again, and again, until they finally find the treasure. But, of course, the treasure falls into the hands of the bad guys, who only then learn, at the last moment, that they should have been careful what they wished for because the treasure comes with some catch. Indy and his friend escape, the bad guys die, and the treasure remains buried for all time.
I would have added spoilers to that description, but frankly if you've seen any of the films in this series you already know the formula. The most exciting part of the film is the first twenty minutes because they break the mold. We get the last, climactic adventure for the quest for the lance, but that only acts as setup for the "real" adventure. Then the next twenty minutes goes back into the well worn rut so that Indiana can have the same kind of adventure we always expect from him. This film doesn't have anything new to say, it just says exactly what we've heard before all over again.
Not helping matters at all is that I absolutely hated his companion this time around. Helena is well played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who gives the character her all, but the character is just such a drag. She's a conniving, back-stabbing, terrible person, and she's utterly unlikable for a good two acts of the film. The movie plays this up like it's supposed to be funny -- "look at her, she's the opposite of Indy!" -- but it's not. It's tiresome and tedious and I wished they could have completely rewritten her character to be, well, anything else.
I get what they were going for, mind you. Everyone bitched about Mutt in the previous film, a character clearly set up to be "the next Indiana Jones," and that went so poorly the idea was immediately dropped. Maybe Helena the exact opposite of Indiana is supposed to be the film going, "no, she's not going to be his successor, we swear." Except she gets all the big action, she gets the big character arc, and she's basically the protagonist of Indiana's film (while he's little more than a co-star). Its her film, giving it the feel of a back door pilot for her own series.
But then, Harrison Ford is 80 at this point, so he could hardly be expected to do a bunch of stunts as Indy should. Even at 65, for the fourth film, he didn't do nearly as much stunt work as in previous films, which is why Mutt was introduced to pick up the story and carry on the name. Helena has to fill the same role, the young protege to be the next generation of treasure hunter. The film is in love with her, wants is to be in love with her, and practically demands that we accept her... but she sucks. I hate her, although not as much as I hated Mutt so I guess that's something.
Meanwhile the McGuffin at the center of the story, Archimedes's time travel dial, is a big bust. It should be this cool treasure that sucks us in and makes us interested in what it can do and where the story will go. But the film doesn't really understand how to sell the treasure as all powerful and interesting. The early films could get us invested in the Arc of the Covenant and the Holy Grail because there's a lot of mythology already built around those items. We know, just from basic cultural literacy, that they are powerful. Thus, when the Nazis say they want the power of the treasure, we believe them. Hell, the Lance of Longinus has that same kind of build up around it, but then the movie casually tosses it aside to go after some random dial. It's weird.
It all makes for a very confused story. Maybe the film could have worked better if the main tale was shorter. At 154 minutes, 20 of which are taken up with that introductory segment (that, really, should have been its own, awesome film), shortness is not something this film is interested in. It's long, it's bloated, and it does take a long time to get through all the machinations of its story. About the only thing it's really interested is building up Helena, giving her all the screen time in the world to be annoying. The rest of the film, though, drags by and fails to deliver. Editing out 30 minutes at least would have made it zippier; it might not have made Helena any better, but it wouldn't have wasted so much time in the process.
This isn't the worst Indiana Jones film -- Kingdom of the Crystal Skull still holds that honor -- but it wasn't good either. For Indy's last big adventure he needed more than this. It's 20 minutes of that grand adventure, and two hours of someone else's journey. It's not the way, in short, that Indy should have gone out.