Some Indiana Jones fans will go into The Dial of Destiny merely hoping for something better than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Those people will be very happy. The fifth and (supposed) final installment in the series is a big improvement over the fourth. But those who go in with loftier aspirations—viewers eager for a return to the experience and feeling delivered by the first three entries—won’t be so lucky. Because while Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny has some truly great stretches and leading man, it has fundamental problems, too. An average script and a lack of joy combine to only dig up the franchise’s most “okay” film.
If you’ve ever watched an Indiana Jones movie and wished its titular archeologist was very sad, uh, good news? The Dial of Destiny features a depressed, lonely Professor Jones. After a truly amazing life, his only remaining companion is the bottom of a bottle. He does have a good reason to be miserable after suffering an unthinkable tragedy (yes, you can guess exactly what that is), but the state of his life casts a shadow over the entire movie. This is a very serious film that is downright dark at times. It’s just very different in tone than its predecessors. It’s not that the movie is entirely joyless. This isn’t Indiana Jones Goes Emo. It’s just not joyful. That’s a missing foundational piece of the magical Indiana Jones formula.
The film is also not especially funny. It has lighthearted moments, for sure. They’re mostly delivered by Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Helena Shaw whose energy stands in stark contrast to the older Indy. She’s his rogue goddaughter whose nefarious activities leads him to take one last adventure. But like Ford himself who outshines the film’s writing, Waller-Bridge’s charming performance as a dashing woman who is equal parts brilliant and reckless can’t give the movie the kind of levity it so desperately needs. The end result is a story that feels like too much of a course correction after the overly silly Crystal Skull rather than a return to form.
The movie, as absurd as this will sound, also suffers from too much action. The Dial of Destiny mostly operates at a proverbial 9 or 10 at all times, same as Waller-Bridge. But both her and the script would have greatly benefitted from an influx of quieter moments. (The few moments like that we do get are really effective, among the movie’s best.) That might sound antithetical to an Indiana Jones movie, but it was greatly needed with such a serious script. It’s just as much a drama as it is an adventure story. Once the movie opted to introduce a sad Indy it needed a different approach to telling that kind of story.
(It also could have used far fewer car chases. Or at least made some of them shorter. Eventually I started to wonder if I’d accidentally walked into a Fast & Furious prequel.)
The film does provide a fun MacGuffin for everyone to chase. The actual Dial of Destiny is an ancient device of Archimedes that legend says will let its user travel through fissures in time. That’s the driving desire of Mads Mikkelsen’s villain, a former Nazi scientist named Jürgen Voller now helping the U.S. land on the Moon. He wants to control “yesterday” so he can win a war he thinks Hitler foolishly lost. Mikkelsen’s stoic baddie makes for a worthy antagonist, but isn’t especially memorable like the franchise’s best villains.
What is scary (in 2023 especially) is the thought of surviving Nazis going back in time to change the outcome of the war. But the film’s use of its premise isn’t as good as the premise itself. The movie spends a lot of time driving to the fireworks factory only to set off a fraction of the fireworks it should when it arrives there. For an entry with a series-long runtime of over two hours and thirty minutes, it doesn’t use all that time as well as it should. That results in an ending that is not especially satisfying.
There are also basic storytelling mistakes that are so obvious they’re inexplicable. Great moments you think are being obviously foreshadowed don’t get payoffs. Meanwhile important moments that should be foreshadowed aren’t. There’s simply more promise in this script than there is payoff. If only someone could use the Dial of Destiny to go back and give the screenplay another pass…
So why isn’t the movie outright bad if it has so many problems? For one, none of its issues are true disasters. They all have a high floor that tend to go no lower level than mediocre rather than being outright awful. But more importantly, the film has a lot of great elements, too.
The first 25 minutes (set in 1945) are among the best in Indiana Jones history. If the whole film matched the quality of its start, we’d be discussing this as the best entry ever. There are also other sequences, like a lengthy chase through Tangier in Morocco, that is everything you’d want from one of these movies. The Dial of Destiny also features what might be the best de-aging in Hollywood history, a technological feat that genuinely enhances the plot. And its callbacks and Easter eggs to previous films never feel forced or overwrought. It not only gives us the right amount of them, they all feel like well-earned rewards for loving these movies rather than fan service.
And, even if we don’t like seeing him sad, its always fun spending time with Dr. Henry Jones Jr. Especially when Harrison Ford’s moving performance shows how much he clearly still cares loves the character and these movies. Indy might be heartbroken, but there’s still a lot of heart left in him. That comes across throughout the film and makes it better. It just would have been a lot more fun to see him again under better circumstances.
For some viewers that serious tone will be too much for the movie’s successful elements to overcome. For others it will absolutely work. They’ll love getting a new type of Indiana Jones story, one that is meaningfully different than the other four. But for most it will just make for an okay viewing, which is exactly what Indiana Jones and The Dial of Destiny ultimately is.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.