I liked Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. It kept up the formula of the series — which is proudly and iconically a celebration of formulaic moviemaking — without feeling like a retread. And it did a good job of completing the arc1No pun intended for its main character, bringing his story to a conclusion in a way that felt meaningful, but without getting in the way of the fact that these are action movies first and foremost.
But that’s after a day of thinking about it and watching videos about it. As I was watching it, I didn’t get it at all.
Usually when I’m critical of a movie’s plotting, it’s because I feel like I understand what the movie’s writers are trying to do, or where they’re trying to get to, but it doesn’t make sense for the characters in the moment. With Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, it was the complete opposite: at pretty much every step of the way, I understood the characters’ motivations, but I was left baffled as to why the movie was making the choices it did.
Shouldn’t they have… but… why didn’t they… okay so if that happened then why don’t… but… but why? Even when I reminded myself to respond to the movie I was seeing, instead of the movie I’d been expecting to see, I still didn’t get it. It felt to me like I’d just watched a montage of moving images that might’ve had some overall coherent purpose that was completely lost on me.
So this review from the Star Wars Explained YouTube channel (in the spoiler parts) helped explain a lot of stuff that I’d just plain missed. Without getting into spoilers myself: there’s a scene where Helena performs a card trick that I think is a huge clue to what happens later, both in the plot and thematically.
And strictly in terms of plot, there are moments of foreshadowing that I definitely noticed earlier (and one that I definitely didn’t notice), but I never got the “a-ha!” moment when they were paid off. So I feel like it was either the movie’s pacing, or having to keep up with what was clearly a significant number of rewrites, instead of blaming myself for being too dense.2I still don’t think the business with Basil’s dates made any sense, either. Which I guess makes them “bad dates.”
I admit that there were several moments where I was having trouble figuring out why the movie existed. Especially during the opening, an extended sequence featuring Indy on board a train packed full of Nazis, each new train car a suspenseful sequence where you’re wondering when the Nazi soldiers will figure out that Indy is computer generated.
Actually, the CG de-aging is probably the best I’ve seen in any movie. The first shot of younger Indy is remarkable, and you can see why it’s used in so much of the promotional material; you’d swear it was filmed during The Last Crusade. But there are several other shots that aren’t quite at that level, and it feels less like watching an Indiana Jones movie and more like playing Until Dawn on a very big screen.
Or, ironically, Uncharted, which popped into my head distressingly often. The imitator had surpassed its own inspiration.
Still, it felt like Indiana Jones in this sequence wasn’t a pure CG creation, but was unquestionably a 2020s Harrison Ford performance. Everything is more drawn out, less snappy. It’s his younger face on his present-day cadence and mannerisms. On the one hand, the amount of footage that exists of him probably made the entire sequence possible, but on the other, it’s also what makes it easier for audiences to pick out the slightest detail that seems “off.”
For a while, I hypothesized that the movie was trying to convey one of the same ideas as Twin Peaks: The Return: basically, the futility of trying to recapture or recreate the past. And I think there is some of that in Dial of Destiny, although it’s not nearly as dark, and it’s a lot more straightforward. It’s a simple message of serenity, I think, that avoids being too on-the-nose even as characters say it explicitly and repeatedly: a reminder that being too nostalgic for the past keeps us from being with the people who need us in the present.
Dial of Destiny ends up being my 4th favorite in the series3Because it’s silly to rank them but of course I can’t help it, just behind Temple of Doom mostly because the entire opening sequence in Club Obi-Wan is one of my favorite sequences in any movie ever. But also because Temple of Doom took bigger swings, I think. It definitely didn’t all work, but you could never say they were half-assing it.
Like Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I think I more appreciate what Dial of Destiny was trying to do than what it actually pulls off. I think advancing Indy into the age of Commies, nuclear anxiety, greasers, and aliens was brilliant, actually. And Cate Blanchett, as usual, did an amazing job of chewing up the scenery. But it also felt a bit like it showed Indiana Jones getting older just for the sake of it; it didn’t do enough with the idea. Dial of Destiny is more comfortable being The Old Indiana Jones Chronicles, making age an essential part of the character and the theme.
The other similarity between Crystal Skull and Dial of Destiny: both have Karen Allen as their MVP. In Crystal Skull, she just seemed so delighted to be on screen again, united with her friends and that character, that I left the movie happy that I’d gotten the chance to tag along. I’ve always thought that mid-1980s Harrison Ford couldn’t be matched in terms of screen presence and unfathomable charisma — now I’m realizing that I was mistaken, and Karen Allen might be the only person apart from Carrie Fisher who could meet his level and even exceed it.
The last scene between Marion and Indy4I wondered if they were trying to keep it secret whether she’d be in the movie, but she was doing promotion on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, so I guess not is wonderful and easily my favorite scene in Dial of Destiny. It’s for the characters, of course, but it’s also so clearly written for those of us who loved Raiders of the Lost Ark, calling back to one of our favorite scenes, but in a more weighty context. It’s a little more mature — not so much that it changes the tone of these pulp adventures, but enough that it acknowledges how we’ve all grown up along with these movies.
And it’s melancholic but not overly so; it leaves us with the feeling that all of these people that we’ve loved for so long5My mother took me and a few of my friends to see Raiders of the Lost Ark on my 10th birthday ended up exactly where they needed to be.
- 1No pun intended
- 2I still don’t think the business with Basil’s dates made any sense, either. Which I guess makes them “bad dates.”
- 3Because it’s silly to rank them but of course I can’t help it
- 4I wondered if they were trying to keep it secret whether she’d be in the movie, but she was doing promotion on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, so I guess not
- 5My mother took me and a few of my friends to see Raiders of the Lost Ark on my 10th birthday