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I don’t need morality lessons from an aging graverobber.


Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny


It’s very difficult to get worked up about Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny’s overwhelming failure, both as a piece of entertainment and an Indiana Jones movie. Any investment in the franchise was exhausted long before Kathleen Kennedy began her wokifying crusade at Lucasfilm; Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a profound disappointment, not just through George Lucas’ insistence on the odd-fit McGuffin/premise – resisted by Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford, which left the production in development hell from the early 1990s – but also the shockingly evident disinterest of its director, who clearly didn’t care about anything fundamental to the series’ previous successes (actual locations, actual stunts, period-evocative cinematography). Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is probably – probably – better directed by James Mangold, but it’s an even bigger mess.

Indiana Jones: I don’t believe in magic, Wombat. But a few times in my life, I’ve seen things.

Yeah, Indy. You’ve seen a few magical things. I wasn’t a big naysayer of the creeping rot of Disney Lucasfilm at first, even up to and including The Last Jedi. I’m not keen on attempting a reappraisal of the prequel trilogy (which I maintain was sound enough structurally, but disastrous in execution) by comparison with the scorched-earth desecration of the sequel one. Flawed as The Force Awakens was, there was a JJ Abrams well-oiled-machine quality that made it mostly palatable. While I blanched at some of the more egregious elements of The Last Jedi – Holdo and Poe, Mary Poppins Leia, the casino planet and the superfluous Rose, seemingly leaving the story nowhere to go – I thought the direction they took Luke was actually interesting and different (in retrospect, yes, it was evidently part of the agenda to decimate any “white patriarchal” elements in the series, but it was still the first sign of the trilogy having an idea of its own. Partly too, I was just plain surprised Luke had been claimed by deniers of his new arc as a historically cherished character unforgivably ruined. Even when he became “interesting” in the OT he was pretty vanilla). 

I didn’t care for Rogue One at all, the one many seem to like, but I quite liked Solo, the one most seem to agree was a cardinal crime. As for TV, The Mandalorian was okay until it wasn’t, The Book of Boba Fett an abomination, and Andor very good in parts but desperately in need of a strong lead (I didn’t stoop to the Willow show, as much as anything because the movie is crud). So, as far as Star Wars goes, I probably end up agreeing with the “denounce this” party line, but not in a dyed-in-the-wool fan sense whereby I feel the treatment of Luke (particularly) stole something precious from me.

The net effect was that, by the time Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny finally entered production, I had nary a glimmer of an illusion it was going to be anything even halfway decent. If anything, Spielberg’s lack of involvement was a relief (who’d want him putting in the effort he didn’t on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?) This was ostensibly because, well the flimflam was “a desire to pass along Indy’s whip to a new generation to bring their perspective to the story”, but most saw it as an inability to disguise the indifference he clearly felt towards the franchise as far back as The Last Crusade (entertaining as the trilogy capper is, you can visibly see the ebbing of the enthusiasm still present in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). The truth? He was probably dead by this point. Others suggested it might be because some rather dodgy stories – aside from the ones about his adopted daughter – were going to break. 

Lucas, obviously, had been expressly snubbed by Lucasfilm by this stage anyway, when they passed on his sequel trilogy idea (in favour, effectively, of remaking A New Hope with a girl). Ford, unaccountably given the character’s treatment in Indy V, was the one really keeping the flame burning, to the extent that he only agreed to return as Han Solo if he got a final outing as the Man in the Hat. Obviously, Ford’s quality control had been negligible since around the time he took the soft option of Jack Ryan as an easy franchise replacement for Indy, but one might have hoped even he felt Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a train wreck, and that going out on a high would only happen if he were hands-on in terms of quality control (in the way, say, he had been on The Empire Strikes Back). 

That guy – assuming the guy currently taking jobs like there’s no tomorrow at 80 is the real Ford – is long gone, along with spending the day without dipping into a lunch box crammed with edibles. There’s no sensible explanation for someone who ostensibly loved the character allowing him to be side-lined and shat upon the way he is in this. But Ford’s 80 (as I may have mentioned) and perhaps not as sharp as he once was. Could you make a decent 80-year-old Indy movie? Maybe, but not one where his stuntman is still a virtuoso. Perhaps one where he bumbles around like Peter Cushing in At the Earth’s Core, with a Doug McClure to handle the fisticuffs; essentially, for this to work, it needed Indy now as Henry Jones Sr. But that bit older.

What they actually do is double down on all the character – central and supporting – deficiencies of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Mutt’s now dead (in Nam), so they don’t have to bring back LaBeouf (the issues there were a combination of poorly drawn character and an actor who’s capable but just didn’t spark in context). Marion’s divorcing Indy – so per Han, Disney dashes the Lucas-prescribed happy ending, and as per Han, the hero’s offspring are rended from him: nice – which means there’s no more than a cameo from Karen Allen. This is probably no bad thing, since Marion was thanklessly used in Crystal Skull; she was the one female lead who was an unqualified success, so bring her back. 

I actually rather liked her arrival here in the final moments; it’s laboured in terms of conceit (calling back the Raiders of the Lost Ark “hurts everywhere” scene) but the two actors manage to muster a trace memory of their chemistry from the original. Indeed, it’s one of about two moments where I actually thought Ford was “there” (the other being his recounting Mutt’s fate). John Rhys-Davies, all crash-diet deflated, is back in two scenes as Sallah, in the face of what would generally be decried for whitewashing concerns (I guess they thought it wasn’t exactly Exodus: Gods and Kings on the objectionable scale). Never fear, though, there’s more than enough compensation for any with qualms over a progressive shortfall in the form of Helena Shaw (privileged posh bint Phoebe Waller-Bridge).

Helena is the daughter of Toby Jones’ Basil Exposition Shaw, who slots effortlessly into tradition of wretchedly misused British thesps established by the previous film (John Hurt, Ray Winstone – the latter can be great, but Mac may be his worst performance ever). Basil’s seen in flashbacks, obsessed with the McGuffin, so fulfilling the same role as Hurt’s Oxley and Connery’s Henry. Nothing like coming up with a new trope. Jones is unable to find anything inimitable in Basil (or “Baz”); the best you can say is that he isn’t an outright embarrassment. 

Which you entirely can’t of Waller-Bridge. I’ve only seen one episode of Fleabag and heard her “wit” in Solo, so I’m largely unfamiliar with her oeuvre or range, but on this evidence, I’d say she has none (range). Waller-Bridge seems to think it’s sufficient simply to show up, looking vaguely superior; forget about an iota of charisma or a streak of boundless energy. Which means the already slumming it Ford has no one to bounce off (or, unlikely as it sounds, galvanise him). The announcement of her involvement, having already helped kill off Bond, was seized upon as evidence of the Kathleen Kennedy Agenda: a younger, stronger fitter, entirely unflawed female earmarked to take over from the beloved-butmale lead à la the Amazing Wonder Rey (Daisey Ridley was at least doing her best with that part, something you can’t say here). Reports of reshoots and rewrites persisted throughout the extensive $300m production, of an unholy mess in which Helena continually maligns and impugns Indy before assuming his mantle, and hat, when he croaks (even to the extent of Helena being rewritten into Jr’s history, replacing Indy at a selection of the series’ signature moments). 

As grating as such intentions are, the female pretender might have been considerably less insufferable, had someone who could bring anything to the table been cast. More than anything else – and that anything else is, pretty much, everything else – Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is sunk by the dearth of chemistry between the leads. I’m not a big fan of Willie in Temple of Doom, a movie this seems to be referencing through having a bickering female sidekick and a young-scruff, can-do thief along for the ride, but Ford and Kate Capshaw work together like gangbusters by comparison (as for Ethann Isidore’s Teddy, imagine a Short Round clone but older and with no personality). 

Helena: You owe me 50 quid.

For someone who rose to fame for a comic performance, it’s quite alarming how the screen crowds out with tumbleweeds every time Helena drops a “witticism”. There appears to be the assumption, just by the force of her delivery, that anything she says will be comedy gold (the movie is abjectly lacking in laughs. Maybe Ford gets one with his nervous “No they don’t” in response to Teddy suggesting the giant eels “look like snakes”). 

As for her chops as an action hero(ine), you’ve got a tall, ungainly, graceless type with no particular poise or bearing (if she piled on a few pounds, she might pass for an Honoria Glossop in a Wodehouse adaptation; she featured in that execrable Blandings about a decade back). Helena’s more Condorman than Lara Croft, which is unfortunate, since she’s being put in a much more proactive position than geriatric Indy (who resembles nothing so much as depositing George Burns in an action movie. Or Albert Steptoe. Or Jean-Luc Picard – Ford only looks steady on his feet when you stand him next to Patrick Stewart. Indy should have accepted Sallah’s offer for company; at least that might have offered an opportunity for an Indiana Jones and the Last of the Summer Crusade flavour).

Understandably, David Koepp (insufficiently burned on the last one, and bowing out from the project after Spielberg did), the Butterworths and Mangold bring back Nazi villains, since evil Indians and Commies didn’t really hit the spot. Apparently, Mangold aggressively retooled the plot, and it seems the Archimedes Dial was his idea (based on the Antikythera mechanism “the oldest known example of an analogue computer used to predict astronomical influences and eclipses”). So it sounds like the time travel came in with him, replacing “just another relic with power” and rather spitting in the face of Lucas’ earlier comment on a prospective fifth instalment that “you can’t just make something up, like a time machine” (or aliens, George? Even interdimensional ones? Certainly, time travel is no more far out in Indy terms than IV’s subject matter, which felt like a step beyond the series’ boundaries, regardless of any real-world reference points). With time travel came the Nazis.

Indiana Jones: What kind of Nazi kills the Fuhrer?
Voller: The kind that believes in victory, Dr Jones.

One might argue that “just another relic with power” is precisely what an Indy should be. Certainly, whatever original spin Mangold may have thought Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny had – possibly prior to reshoots and rejigging – there’s scant evidence on screen. Mads Mikkelsen’s Voller is a generically unimpressive bad guy; he’s played the same villain so many times now, it’s doubtful he could bring anything new to the table, but the utterly undistinguished key notes of this one do him no favours. Voller has no presence beyond the patented Mikklesen steely gaze, which is in any case watered down. Voller’s plan to travel back from 20 August 1969 to 20 August 1939 so he can kill Hitler and take his place is a bit of a yawn, the more so since he gets it so hideously wrong (perhaps he got it right the first time, before reshoots fouled things up?) 

Voller’s accompanied by an utterly nondescript Boyd Holbrook as right-hand Nazi Klabet; even Martin McDougall’s muscle Durkin is more memorable. At least he has bulk on his side (and, incidentally, the underwater scene in which Teddy eludes Durkin is about the only sequence here that actually raises a sliver of tension). Also thrown into the mix is Mason (Shaunette Renée Wilson), who appears to have stepped out of Goldmember or Minions: The Rise of Gru, for all the verisimilitude her government agent offers. This is particularly curious, given the pointedness with which Voller exchanges words with a black hotel porter (Alton Fitzgerald White), his initially racially charged overtones giving way to commentary on the US’s own attitudes (“And are you enjoying your victory?” he asks after the porter’s proud WWII service record).

The chief villain is first seen during an opening 1944 sequence with a de-aged Ford; on the original version front, was there any substance to the rumours from Doomcock that a whole sequence would involve old and younger Indy together, this leading to the aforementioned erasure of Indy from the timeline? Certainly, his being mortally wounded 30 minutes from the end of the movie… but not so much, actually… seems to point to something of this; somehow, the stricken Indy is now pretty much okay, actually, despite being shot in the chest. Possibly they also hobbled him, and cut off a hand or two, before “sense” prevailed. 

But yeah, the opening… it’s okay. But it’s going through the motions. It’s the idea of an Indiana Jones adventure set in the ’40s, rather than an actual one, with Ford at 80 voicing Ford at (45) and a stuntman doing most of his business (and when it isn’t, you can see it’s Ford at 80, just with a considerably better facelift than De Niro in The Irishman). This needed to be shot on actual film to look like period Indy – or by someone who knew how to replicate that look on digital – and regular DP Phedon Papamichael can’t pull that off. There’s no point where I’m suspending disbelief, particularly when Indy and Basil are running breezily atop trains (any more than when Helena and India are exchanging unpleasantries across speeding Tuk Tuks, or Ford’s digital face is plastered over a horseback rider). Does this look as phoney as Branagh’s period Poirot (also walking on train tops)? No, so if that’s your low bar for realism, then sure, it’s quite convincing.

Voller: See you in the past, Dr Jones.

Voller is snapped up by Operation Paperclip and then, von Braun-like, ensures the success of the Moon landing – a big thing is made of this momentous event when we arrive in 1969, with one and all apparently credulous of its verity, which is in itself revisionism – although he doesn’t admit this was through hiring Stanley Kubrick… So was Voller simply biding his time for 25 years, until the completion of his task left him free to go after the dial? I probably missed the explanation. Aside from answering “What’s beyond space?”: “The next frontier”. One might reasonably assume, if space is fake, then time travel is too, but as per Lucas’ aliens (interdimensionals, if you like), this seems not to be the case. Whether actual time travel leads to temporal paradoxes, though, or even just closed loops, well…

With the Age of Aquarius on the rise and Donovan penning odes to the lost continent, Atlantis would surely have been a more era-appropriate ticket (or the Fountain of Youth, if you want a legit reason for de-aging). Anything really, would have been preferable to some half-baked bodge-up concerning Archimedes and the Siege of Syracuse in 212 BC (I don’t know if Archimedes actually existed, but since the Roman and Greek empires appear to have been fabrications, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was too). The time-travel element is so underwhelming, you have to assume it comprised something better at some point. But then you look at the rest of the movie and you think better of such a notion. Notably, Archimedes’ dial isn’t even a time machine; rather, it can locate “fissures in time”. Looper has these as, effectively, portals, which corresponds to how time travel is purportedly actually achievable (portals facilitate travel elsewhere in the universe but also, if “calibrated”, to other times). 

Inevitably, there’s a temporal loop in all this. Indy and Helena find Archimedes’ tomb, complete with murals depicting events dependent on the device he created that will facilitate their travelling back in time. Perhaps surprisingly, this appears to be a closed loop, of the ilk of Ash déjà vu-ing a historical drawing of himself in Evil Dead II. Archimedes’ tomb holds the watch that he finds on Voller’s body, a watch that can only be there via the dial he creates, used in the future to send the watch back. This isn’t a causal paradox (so it’s unlike Kirk and his watch in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home). Essentially, per Mangold’s imagining, this is always the way it is, that Indy et al slot into history itself in this manner. Whether that’s conceptually satisfying will likely depend on which method of time-travel theory you find less dissatisfying (since few come away smelling of roses). This would seem to mesh with Archimedes telling Indy “You were always meant to be here” (albeit that smacks rather of impossible hindsight). 

The closed loop isn’t generally chosen these days; you more generally run with the multiverse notion of multiple co-existing timelines, so the evidence they find would be from another timeline of a different Indy and Helena. That, or you have to adjust yourself to the notion of a perpetual series of timelines (theoretically) overwriting themselves (go back, change the timeline and you in the new timeline will have to go back and change the timeline and so on etc). So Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny wants to be relatively straightforward and tidy, as these things go, yet it still manages to feel slipshod and messy.

As for the dial, Archimedes’ one is presented as a work-in-progress when we meet him, so one has to wonder: is he simply finishing the device because he knows he has to finish it so Indy and Helena can come back in time? Because he understands that he has to complete the loop (I’m presuming Helena’s “We’ve just scared off the entire Roman navy so I think we helped enough” signifies that somehow, against all reason and sense, two planes, one crashing and burning, represented a job done because the Romans thought they were getting attacked by dragons).

The quest format will inevitably rarely stand up to close scrutiny; the trick is to make it seem clever, to make the clues seem to be uncovered with ingenuity. I’m not saying they always succeeded in earlier instalments – Last Crusade leaves a lot to be desired. But here, the “Go there and go there and go there”, without any refinement or finessing, isn’t as bad as it is in Rise of the Skywalker, but it’s much closer to it than previous Indys. This lack of structural tension feeds into action scenes. They just “happen”; it isn’t even as if they’re terribly staged. Rather, they convey no stakes or urgency and achieve no sense of pace or rhythm – matching the movie as a whole – while the intrusive reliance on CGI, even when there are actual physical stunts, ensures artifice is always foregrounded. When a character is offed – Antonio Banderas, looking like someone out of Tintin – and Indy protests he was his friend, there’s none of the underlining of their relationship that would make this palpable. The Syracuse scenes just looks bad, like an outreel from Timeline (indeed, the whole tomb clues part is remarkably similar). 

Indiana Jones: Thanks for putting up with me.

Did I think Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny was terrible? I’m so divorced of any feeling towards it, I’m almost reluctant to give it such a low score (since that barrel-scraping level usually elicits a stronger response). While it’s probably worse than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it’s also less disappointing because there were no expectations to be dashed. It washes over you emptily, bereft of flair, style, panache, wit, brio, energy, cohesion, sensibility, story, character or a decent McGuffin. You’d almost think this whole sorry mess was on purpose. Did they really think Waller-Bridge would get bums on seats, have anyone rooting for her, let alone find her likeable enough to get her own spinoff? Is the whole stuff with Kennedy really one of a mad, insane delusionary who truly still believes the wokification of Lucasfilm will pay off, even after she’s been repeatedly slapped in the face with the kipper of destiny? 

Or is this an inside job, expressly designed to turn audiences off franchises that were, after all, fronted by a deceased Black Hat and a Black Hat turned White Hat? Who inspired franchises revolving around Luciferian supermen (good and bad are still sustainable, since the hook is aspiration to godlike status) or ingraining revised/stolen history (be it mocked-up religions, gods or ancient history). Where the hero dismisses his now-wife’s protestations of having been too young with “You knew what you were doing” (Lucas’ initial suggestion was to have her even younger when they first met: “he was twenty-five and she was only twelve”).

Indiana Jones: Whatever I did, I apologise.

Spielberg and Lucas, after all, replaced Disney as the purveyors of “family” fare par excellence, and we know how evil the Walt empire is/was. One even wonders if Lucas, as part of a deal with the devil, was told he had to sell Lucasfilm since its legacy was to be retooled in precisely the manner Kennedy oversaw. Excepting the part where it was rejected outright. And now, with the apparent decision to shutter Disney entirely, reengineer that process as a controlled demolition; ensure that no one needs weaning off Star Wars or Indy because they’ve already been thoroughly disabused of any affection towards them. Regardless, Indy had been incapacitated 15 years ago, and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny only underlines that he should have hung up his hat in 1989.

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