Step back in time, if you will, to the Summer of 1981. A rather pulpy-sounding movie has arrived in cinemas, but it has Harrison Ford, fresh from continued success in the Star Wars franchise, as its lead so worth giving a try. Raiders of the Lost Ark (as it was known until 2000) is an unmitigated thrill ride for audiences. Channeling the swashbuckling wallop of Saturday morning serials of yesteryear like Buck Rogers or Zorro’s Fighting Legion, it became one of the top-four highest-grossing films ever – and spawned a lucrative franchise.
Fast forward forty-five years to present day and the fifth (and supposedly final) instalment, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, has reached the big screens – and, sad to report, it is as moribund as something Indy might have dug up in one of his dusty tombs.
On the surface, the film tries to evoke all the successful elements of the original movies: the dizzying chases, the Nazi baddies, an arcane object with rumoured powers, perilous caves, the bullwhip and the Fedora and John Williams’ relentless Raiders March theme are all present and correct. Despite four credited screenwriters, the script feels as if all the Indy tropes have been fed into a AI processor and Dial of Destiny is the anemic result.
The opening section sees Doctor Jones back in 1944 with Europe on the brink of Liberation. As the Allies drop bombs, our hero has to escape from the Nazis in a collapsing chateau, catch up with a speeding train of Nazis, rescue his friend and fellow archeologist Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) and half of the Antikythera (an ancient artifact created by Greek inventor Archimedes), battle more Nazis and escape the train before it derails. While it sounds like thrilling escapist adventure, it is so CGI-heavy it’s hard to care. Because the 80-year-old Ford has been de-aged to look like Indy might have in 1944, the rest of the scenes have been made very dark so we can’t see the join. But this makes it harder to see anything that’s going on. Endless punching Nazis and CGI figures running along the top of a train does not a cinematic rollercoaster make.
Steven Spielberg’s incredible talent for generating excitement and tension on-screen brought us that unforgettable Raiders opening where Indy “borrowed” a Golden Idol from the booby-trapped South American temple. He understood the power of jeopardy and near-misses. Knowing exactly where the edit of each shot should be, coupled with the use of practical effects, created sequences where you feel and breathe each giddy feat of derring-do. Almost half a century later and the advances in computer-generated imagery have journeyed audiences from suspending their disbelief to simply not believing.
The MacGuffin-esque artifacts used in the franchise have followed a similar journey of diminishing credibility. The fabled Ark of the Covenant, the five Sankara Stones and the legendary Holy Grail from the original trilogy all were rooted in folklore with suitable mystery and wonder surrounding them. Here, the titular Dial of Destiny is more guff than MacGuffin. The Greek relic has a special power: to destroy a film franchise’s legacy. Ooops, sorry that is just its by-product. No, the Antikythera can lead its owner to fissures in time. In theory, it sounds like hokum. In practice in the film, it doesn’t so much metaphorically jump the shark but equips the shark with water skis and has that shark jump an entire aquarium. When the Antikythera is used near the end of the movie, it begins a sequence so profoundly ludicrous and shot through with plot holes, it makes you want to jump into a pit of snakes rather than endure any more of this baloney.
When you think back to those original films, there was a palpable and playful sense of fun. From “Snakes! Why Did It Have To Be Snakes?” to “X Never, Ever Marks The Spot”, Indy’s one-liners always suited Ford’s sardonic charm. The humour cracked like Indy’s bullwhip. Instead, in Dial of Destiny, he’s landed with wince-inducing dialogue such as “You’re German. Don’t try to be funny”.
You may have thought that the addition of Phoebe Waller-Bridge to the cast as Doctor Jones’ Goddaughter might have brought some comedic flair to the proceedings. You’d be wrong. As Helena Shaw, she is meant to be a maverick, rule-bending sidekick but the role is so inconsistently written Waller-Bridge can only offer annoying smugness or unconvincing immaturity. Despite needing no help in the unlikability stakes, there’s a point when she is getting giddy after another narrow escape, Indy angrily barks at her to remind her that his friend has just been murdered. In a different moment, as Indy and Helena argue, she throws at him “And you’re an ancient grave robber”. Given that much of archeology of that period is increasingly seen as looting and pillaging of other cultures, the film begins to unpick the series’ hero and question is he really such a good guy?
Director James Mangold‘s seeming mission to flatten any fun continues as our protagonists are climbing up a narrow stone corridor, Indy has to pause because of all his aches and pains sustained in previous adventures. Surely audiences haven’t come to see an action adventure sponsored by Cod Liver Oil and Voltarol? The more Dial of Destiny focuses on the mortality of Doctor Jones, the less certain the film feels. What are we to make of Indy’s autumnal sense of loss? Legacy characters and his friends are killed on and off screen and Ford’s character reflects the emotional impact of these blows. But by letting the light of reality in, it disperses what made the Indiana Jones franchise sparkle. How can the films’ joyous wish-fulfilment fantasy survive if the harsh truths of ageing, grief and mortality enter the picture? It’s the cinematic equivalent of expecting a soufflé to rise while piling more and more flour into the mix.
Weighing in at a bum-numbing, patience-challenging 154 minutes, Dial of Destiny is by far the longest of the five Indiana Jones films. We were dialing F for For goodness sake just finish! With an estimated budget of $295 million, putting it amongst the most expensive films ever made, you leave bewildered at how they’ve made such a hash of it all with such finances at their disposal. The final scene is one of the most awkward, well-what-do-we-do-now endings The Recs has seen in a long time.
There’s something of an irony that the Lance of Longinus, the sought-after antiquity of the opening scenes, turns out to be fake. Cinema goers may find, in spite of the best efforts of Harrison Ford, that they too have been sold a clumsy forgery of a long-lost treasure.
Destined to be our first 1-star review – ★
(add a second star if you are a nostalgia-junkie / easily-pleased / on your third bottle of wine)