In every measurable way, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is a proper “Indiana Jones” movie. It’s got a great premise, exciting action, wonderful banter, and some fantastic twists and turns. The biggest issue with it is you’re seeing it now, in 2023, so it can’t measure up to memories of the original Indiana Jones films—which might make it feel slightly less than. But when you really break it down, not only does Dial of Destiny hit all the beats it needs to, it advances them just enough to stand on its own and provide plenty of that Indy magic we know and love.
Think about it: how many times have you seen the original Indiana Jones films? A lot, we’re guessing. And even if you haven’t, more than likely you saw them when you were a kid which made it very easy to become enamored by them. Basically, anyone interested in seeing Dial of Destiny probably holds at least some of that nostalgia. Some of that impossible standard. Because even without that, most of us can surely agree that the first three films—1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade—are all varying degrees of classics. Almost 35 years later, having those same expectations is a very lofty, romantic notion.
Dial of Destiny has several lofty, romantic notions in it but co-writer and director James Mangold saves them for the moments they’ll hit hardest. Instead, for the most part, he goes back to basics. What must it have been like for an audience member to sit down in 1981, with no knowledge of who Indiana Jones is or what he did, and at the end say “That was a great movie”? It’s about a succinct, simple story. It’s about dynamic characters, and it’s about making us smile by having that story put those characters in harrowing, wonderous situations. Dial of Destiny understands this.
Most importantly though, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny knows it’s a movie being made in 2023 and plays into that in numerous ways. After a rousing, CGI-packed opening to set the stage, we meet Indy (Harrison Ford) in 1969 New York City. He lives alone, in a small apartment, and we learn several things very quickly that have happened to him since 2008’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Fans may have expected Indy to have achieved his fortune and glory but that, apparently, wasn’t life’s plan. It’s a choice that, from the very start, clues us into this Indiana Jones movie standing on its own.
Soon, Indy is reunited with Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), his estranged goddaughter, who wants Indy’s help finding a mysterious dial that was made, but split in two, by ancient mathematician Archimedes. In previous movies, Indy would have thrown his hat and whip in a bag and jumped on that red dot across the world. Here though, he doesn’t want to get involved. He’s too old, too drunk, and it’s only through the results of a large New York-based action scene that he finds himself forced to do so. And even then, a friend has to pack his hat and whip for him.
Mangold’s film, at seemingly every moment throughout, is about Indiana Jones coming to terms with his mortality. He’s no longer the young adventurer we knew and loved. Those days are behind him, they cost him dearly, and he isn’t quite sure what he has to show for it. This permeating sadness gives the film some originality but also contrasts that typical Indy movie feeling. And so there needs to be balance.
That balance comes from one of the other things that makes an Indiana Jones movie an “Indiana Jones” movie: the supporting characters—and Dial of Destiny has an excellent set of those. With Indy old, slow, and curmudgeonly for long stretches of time, he needs a worth foil and Helena is more than up to the task. In Helena, Waller-Bridge has created a dashing, hilarious, nefarious character that honestly feels like Indiana Jones in his younger days. She kicks ass, she’s whip smart (pun intended), and we’re never quite sure where her allegiences are. Sure, she has a past with Indy, but he was never there when she needed him and she lets him know it at every turn.
Helena is such a Indy proxy that she even has her own sidekick, Teddy, played by newcomer Ethann Isidore. Teddy is, basically, Helena’s Short Round. They’re partners, he’s a great driver, she met him because he’s an excellent thief, etc. When he’s first introduced, the film doesn’t treat him like a crucial piece of the puzzle but as the movie goes along, he gets increasingly important as does the audience’s attachment to him. It’s a solid, star-making performance of another classic Indy archetype.
In Teddy too, we have a prime example of how Dial of Destiny handles fan service. Clearly, Teddy is a wink to Short Round. But he’s not there just to remind us of Ke Huy Quan’s iconic character. Teddy is crucial to the story, but also gives us that flicker of nostalgia. The same thing happens in various settings, lines of dialogue, and with certain… obstacles, we’ll say. Dial of Destiny could’ve clearly been a non-stop fan service laundry list, but it’s not, unless you are a big fan and pick up on the subtle winks and nods. It was the right way to go.
Another thing that links Dial of Destiny with the previous films is its villain, Jürgen Voller, played by Mads Mikkelsen. Voller, like many Indy villains before him, is a Nazi. We meet him in the first scene as a younger man and later in the film’s present of 1969, mirroring Indy’s journey. In 1969, everyone thinks the Nazis have been ended, and for the most part, they have. But Voller’s character, who is a scientist in the vein of Wernher Von Braun, perfectly bridges that gap between the evil Nazi ideas of the past and what a Nazi might want to do if they managed to still be around decades later. Voller is a formidable villain; however, he’s not quite as whimsical or fun to watch as some previous Indy villains. More Walter Donovan than Belloq, let’s say.
And while the story of Indy and Helena chasing down Archimedes’ dial with Voller in hot pursuit is relatively simple, it gives ample opportunities for massive action set pieces—possibly more than any other Indiana Jones movie before. There are at least six major set pieces in different locales and settings that comprise a huge chunk of the film, all of which feel unique to a franchise that’s renowned for its action. An underwater scene in particular, while not as long or bombastic as some of the others, really stood out as something new, fresh, but also totally Indy.
Then—of course, we won’t spoil anything—but the film’s third act is an all-timer. You remember the Ark of the Covenant opening. You remember the escape from the Thuggee. You remember the trials of the Holy Grail. The climax of Dial of Destiny is not only as memorable as those, its sheer audacity might top them all. And while it’s sure to be divisive, we found it to be a very tactful, very emotional, very entertaining way to handle a big, giant, properly unbelievable idea.
Ultimately though, the main thing that makes an Indiana Jones movie an “Indiana Jones” movie is Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford. Here, Ford feels as engaged, if not more so, than he has been in decades. In each scene you can just sense that he’s doing something he feels is right for the character and gives it his all. That means physically (though some of his stunts are clearly helped with CGI), but even more so emotionally, because Dial of Destiny wouldn’t just take one of the greatest heroes of the 20th century and leave him broke and alone in a small New York City apartment without good reason. When the film begins to reveal those reasons, it brings a level of pathos and emotion no other Indy movie has ever had.
Does Dial of Destiny have some problems? Of course. The CGI doesn’t always look great. Some of the set pieces can, at times, drag on a bit long. You can’t help but feel a few of the characters—like John Rhys-Davies returning to Sallah or new characters played by Shaunette Renée Wilson and Antonio Banderas—are varying degrees of under-served.
Mostly, however, the biggest problem is we didn’t get to see it when we were nine years old, and haven’t had a chance to watch and rewatch it hundreds of times over the decades like the other films in the series. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny does manage to make you feel like you’re nine years old, though. It’s a fun, funny, rousing, and heartfelt trip down memory lane filled with action and surprises. And, in time, as we watch it over and over, we’re confident that it’ll measure up to the classics that preceded it.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny opens June 30.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.
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