First off, the good news: reports of the demise of Indiana Jones, both man and franchise, are greatly exaggerated.
INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY ★★1/2 (2.5/4 stars)
In his latest adventure, director James Mangold’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Dr. Jones is still teaching college archaeology (his students are now barely awake rather than over-enamored), despite having been shot nine times over the course of his past exploits. Both tenured and seemingly immortal, he is truly academia’s greatest nightmare.
As for the franchise, despite the dire prognosis coming out of Destiny’s largely disastrous Cannes’ premiere, the new film still ably provides a reliably immersive and occasionally thrilling evening at the movies, one anchored by one of most engaging and relaxed movie stars of his generation. Without sacrificing his signature “I’m making this up as I go” insouciance, Harrison Ford has put every last drop of his focus and energy into his fifth and (God willing) last go around hoisting his character’s iconic hat, whip, and perfectly crafted Alden boots.
Forty-two years after Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece inspired me and fellow members of my generation to head out to the local millinery and score theater-kid fedoras, it still feels at least a little magical to once again sidle up alongside Indy and his cohort. In this film, they are headed by a game and cheeky Phoebe Waller-Bridge as an alliance-shifting, antiquities-acquiring mercenary who happens to be Indiana’s goddaughter.
It is especially enthralling to reenter his world of far-off hotels, hurtling Nazi loot trains, dusty academic corridors, and disheveled divorcee apartments because they are so intricately conceived and constructed by Adam Stockhausen, the Oscar-winning production designer whose detailed eye is also employed in the recent Asteroid City, from his longtime collaborator Wes Anderson.
So now for the bad news: both the man and his current movie adventure appear hopelessly trapped inside a video game.
Whereas Dr. Jones’s early cinematic adventures were a paean to the serial adventures that brought wonder to the childhoods of the grandparents of its Boomer creators, Dial of Destiny is intent on pandering to their Xbox-obsessed grandchildren.
The film is chase after chase, each one punctuated by kill shots, concussive thuds, and quips that sound like low-grade McBain from The Simpsons. “To the victors go the spoils,” announces Indiana as he kicks a Nazi off a speeding train, sounding less like an archaeologist than wishful studio head.
In that scene, which takes place in 1944, a quarter century before the bulk of Dial of Destiny, Ford is painted with pixels to look like a more plastic version of the character with whom we are all familiar. It is not that the much-debated de-aging breaks the spell; it is that Dial of Destiny relies far too much on the sanitized sheen of CGI for a film borne from a series that, alongside the original Star Wars, was responsible for bringing actual dirt, sand, and grit into our cinema fantasies.
Then there is the issue of the Dial of the title, a fictional device inspired by the research of the ancient Greek mathematician and scientist Archimedes, who—in an unfortunate example of screenwriting over embellishment—plays a physical part in the story.
Yes, following in the fleet, corporate steps of its box office competition The Flash, Dial of Destiny is our second franchise extending blockbuster in a week to employ time travel as a major plot point. (Could this be the start of a regret-fueled, post-pandemic trend?)
Where The Flash takes inspiration from Back to the Future, this one feels more akin to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure—and that’s not meant as a compliment. Why in the name of the Holy Grail are we sending a man whose only desire is to fill the nation’s museums with ancient bric-a-brac through fissures in time like he’s one of the kids from Magic Tree House? (Depressingly, during his various unlikely escapes, Indy destroys more artifacts than he rescues.)
Some questions are better left unanswered, like why Voller, the one-time Nazi official turned rocket scientist who serves as Indy’s main adversary, is so achingly dull and unmemorable despite being played by the great Mads Mikkelsen. Or why the film, the first in the series not directed or written by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, is so herky-jerky in its timing and structure.
Instead, Dial of Destiny is feverishly insistent that we be grateful that we are at least getting one last ride. For the most part, we are, thanks to the intoxicating handsomeness of both the nearly $300 million production and Ford’s still gleaming charisma.
There are some forces, like Ford’s magnetic presence on screen and our affection for one of his most epoch-making characters, that remain undimmed by time.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.