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29 August 2023

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny: a feeble last crack of the whip

The Harrison Ford franchise that began with spectacle and wit has ended with a dull, predictable, CGI-laden dud.

By Ryan Gilbey

“The Hero is Back” trumpeted the poster for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984. Little did we know then that we’d never get shot of him. Had every instalment been as spring-heeled and spectacular as the first two (Temple of Doom was preceded in 1981 by Raiders of the Lost Ark), it would hardly have mattered. Now there is a fifth and apparently final crack of the whip, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. Its script is credited to four writers, including the film’s director, James Mangold, and the Jerusalem playwright Jez Butterworth, who might collectively be known as the raiders of the lost inspiration. Even the title has a rinky-dink ring, the “Dial of Destiny” suggesting nothing so much as a Wheel of Fortune rip-off playing unwatched in the outer reaches of Freeview.

In fact it is the Antikythera mechanism, an Ancient Greek proto-computer dated to around 200 BC, which resembles a cross between a sundial and a Dymo label-maker. For the film’s purposes, this magical and much-sought-after device can identify “fissures in time” and therefore facilitate time travel. Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) tried during the Second World War to keep it out of German hands. Flash-forward to 1969 New York, and his daughter, Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), pleads with her godfather, the retired, snowy-haired archaeology professor Henry “Indiana” Jones (Harrison Ford), for his help finding Basil’s prized relic before the Nazis do. Yes, them again.

The series drew originally on the memories of its creator, George Lucas, who grew up on the 1950s Saturday-morning cliffhanger serials shown in cinemas, which ended each week with the hero in some blasted bind or other. Audiences rushed back the following Saturday – the old-school equivalent of binge-watching – to discover how he survived the quicksand/molten lava/fall from a speeding omnibus.

Paying homage to that format in Raiders, Lucas and Steven Spielberg greedily piled one daredevil escapade on to another, with Ford (an 11th-hour replacement for Tom Selleck) their secret weapon amid the orchestrated frenzy. I say “secret” because his sandpapery scowl and “What now?” weariness, which provided the perfect comic counterpoint to the OTT action, are easy to underestimate. His qualities are intact in the latest film, albeit tinged with vulnerability. Ford is 80, after all – the age when he should be trying to remember what he came in here for, not clinging to the side of a moving train. Only during the 1940s scenes, for which he has been digitally de-aged, does his edge feel muffled. Tough to look rueful when you’re mostly pixels.

[See also: The Importance of Democracy: Sam Fowles on Public Debate and Our Destiny]

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CGI is the curse of the new movie, as it is for so much cinema. The miracle of the early Indiana Jones yarns was that everything happened at a frantic clip without the audience getting confused about where the adversaries were in any given melee, or who was biffing whom. Compare the breakneck dancefloor scramble at the start of Temple of Doom, as precise and blissful a piece of staging as anything in Gold Diggers of 1933, with the set-pieces in Dial of Destiny. Its nocturnal ones are murky, the daylight ones dulled by a computerised fuzz, none of them shot or cut with any flair. A sequence involving a horseback ride through New York’s subway tunnels doesn’t look finished; a tuk-tuk chase seems never to end.

The sound is as indistinct as the cinematography; I missed half the lines, and the ones I did catch made me wish I’d missed the rest. Sample exchange: “It’s Pandora’s Box.” “No, it’s not. It’s mine.” Perhaps that’s the work of the same bright spark who came up with the line about Germans not being funny (tell that to Ernst Lubitsch) or who predictably decided to kill off one of the few black characters in the first hour.

Guest stars come and go like cold-callers: Mads Mikkelsen as a seething Nazi, Antonio Banderas as a cuddly fisherman. Old catchphrases (“It belongs in a museum!”) and props (Indy’s whip, scarcely used) resurface like half-remembered hits on Heart FM, while Waller-Bridge’s Head Girl manner and potted Fleabag routine – all horny grins and knowing looks – lose their lustre. And what a missed opportunity, in a film that dabbles in time-travel, not to have Indy being zapped into the 21st century to find that Nazis are back in vogue. Oh well. At least the final shot shows him hanging up his hat, sort of. Here’s hoping this is goodbye and not au revoir.

This article was originally published on 28 June. It has been repromoted as “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” is available to buy digitally on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Apple TV, Vudu, from 29 August.

[See also: How do you make a film about a dictator?]

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This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia