Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
There are barely any film franchises as iconic as Indiana Jones. When Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) hit cinema screens, audiences were immediately enraptured by the unique blend of classical pulpy adventure, groundbreaking action, endlessly contemptible villains, and of course the immensely loveable hero. This was the result of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas operating at the absolute height of their creative powers, which continued for two equally successful sequels, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Sadly, that magic eventually stalled with the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), with the negative response to that entry indicating the series was past its prime. Thus, it was happily decided by all that the Indiana Jones films would simply be the original three films, with Crystal Skull being remembered as that one subpar entry. However, some still felt that Indy deserved a better send off, so here we are again 15 years later with Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023).
Following an extended prologue of a previously unseen adventure set during WWII, we are reintroduced to Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in 1969, still a University Professor teaching history and archeology. One would think that Indy is happily living the life of a retiree, but that is sadly not the case. Despite having married his long-time love, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) at the conclusion of Crystal Skull, Indy is now alone, friendless and lacking a sense of purpose. Regardless, a new adventure comes Indy’s way, as his goddaughter, Helen Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), approaches him looking for a mysterious relic. The artefact in question being the Dial of Archimedes, which Indy and Helen’s father, Basil (Toby Jones) recovered in the prologue. They aren’t the only ones in search of it, with former Nazi, Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), wanting to use the Dial to retroactively win WWII.
Given how large the original Indiana Jones films loom over cinema, it’s impossible to look at Dial of Destiny without making comparisons. This is a shame, because the film ticks all of the required Indiana Jones boxes on the surface, meaning Dial of Destiny should be allowed to function on its own terms. The film opens with a (mostly) standalone action set piece, the MacGuffin is rooted in some loose historical lore, the action is simultaneously fun, funny and brutal, and the climax builds to a spectacular display of high fantasy, giving the titular hero a new perspective on his belief system. All the elements of an Indiana Jones adventure are there, meaning the film will definitely result in a harmlessly enjoyable time at the cinema, even if it doesn’t equal the heights of the trilogy. That being said, it’s still possible to isolate specific reasons why this film only nets a perfectly adequate viewing experience, whereas the originals still feel transcendent to this day.
Let’s look at how Dial of Destiny handles the 20 minute opening sequence. This action set piece is about as close to classic Indiana Jones as the film gets, and it really is a joyous way to begin the film. Where the trilogy’s openers were fun little sequences designed to give you a taste of what’s to come, this scene is so epic in scale that it may as well be the climax to its own Indiana Jones adventure. This is the first major oddity, as Dial of Destiny arguably plays its best hand too soon, instead of just giving a teaser for later. Additionally, there is still something very fake about the action itself, as the computer generated effects overwhelm the presentation. CGI is of course a staple of modern filmmaking, but when you consider that the original films were able to deliver similar moments of spectacle without the aid of computers, there’s a certain visceral thrill that Dial of Destiny just can’t reach, regardless of how well staged it is.
This follows through into the film’s next few set pieces, as they all lack a certain tangibility. While Dial of Destiny does mostly follow the doomed path of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in this regard, there are a handful of moments which elevates the action above that film’s bland and cartoony trappings. Not in terms of the story points mind you, as the various scenarios are absolutely ludicrous, but there are times where these plot turns edge towards genuine moments of inspiration. Granted, they may not be to everyone’s taste, but these touches are honestly the most interesting ideas in the entire film, representing the rare instances in which you can’t predict what’s going to happen next. The main regret is that these sparks of creativity come far too late in the piece, meaning the entire middle stretch is bogged down by a very bland series of ‘Indiana Jones style’ events which ChatGPT could’ve written.
This really is the main thing holding Dial of Destiny back from clawing its way into the memory banks, as the majority of the twists, turns and reveals mostly just deliver the sense memory of an adventure film, as opposed to delivering a uniquely memorable experience. When looking back to the original trilogy, their level of recognition was punctuated by having one standout chase scene, one standout punch up, or one standout escape. By contrast, Dial of Destiny delivers multiple chases, multiple punch ups and multiple escapes, all with the same general look and feel. While they are perfectly functional, their similarities cause them to blend together, ensuring that the bulk of the experience doesn’t stay in the mind. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull may be a far worse, idiotic, poorly made, boring and frustrating film, but even its awful moments manage to live rent free in the viewer’s memory. This really begs the question of what’s more important: creativity with a subpar result, or competency with an unmemorable result?
All this builds towards the most important element of an Indiana Jones film, which is Jones himself. For the longest time, the character has been the purest action hero imaginable. He has no recognisable traits (outside of being afraid of snakes and being played by Harrison Ford), and he barely makes it out of many close calls in ways a normal person would. He is the perfect avatar for the viewer to place themselves in, or wish themselves to be. Thus, it’s always an interesting move to add some dimension to his character, and this time the film leans heavily into the fact that he has aged. While there’s plenty of discussion around this point, it rarely factors into the actions the character takes, as he is still shaking off punches and bullets as easily as he did 40 years ago. Additionally, his concluding arc leaves him in an interesting place, but the preceding events barely connected the thematic dots. Sadly, the other main character, Helena Shaw, comes off even more poorly. While it’s a delight to see the film set up such an openly flawed ‘hero’, her redemption arc is practically non-existent, despite the story saying she is redeemed by the end. Phoebe Waller-Bridge delivers a great performance, but the character needed a bit more work on the page.
Ultimately, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is the clearest example yet that some franchises may just need to be left alone. The original films continue to endure as three of the best action-adventure films of all time, even for new viewers who didn’t grow up with them. That kind of staying power is due to their creative spark, which is something that happened in the moment and can’t be recreated. Dial of Destiny may be able to happily distract us for two and a half hours, but that doesn’t feel like enough.
Best way to watch it: Once now, and once in a few years time, to check if time has been kind to it.