Seeing a favorite character return to the silver screen in a new story will always have a thread of excitement. I will admit that I am one (the one?) who enjoyed Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is better than that film in many ways but not in all.
The best example of this movie is when you are sitting on a threadbare carpet, and your grandfather is sitting on his recliner. He is telling a story, but the verbal tempo comes in fits and starts. The story meanders, and there are pauses while he collects his thoughts. The timbre of his voice is rough from the years and the miles. But though the story could be told more succinctly and energetically, you are captivated. You cherish the time you are spending with him. That is what to expect while watching Harrison Ford’s last ride as the titular Indiana Jones. And as long as you bare that expectation going in, it will be an enjoyable experience.
After an exhilarating opening that employs some of the best de-aging that Lucasfilm has produced yet, we see Indy in 1969. The appearance of his goddaughter Helena Shaw (Phoebe Walker-Bridge) sets in motion a new quest to recover the missing component of the Antikythera, a device that would give the user control over time. An old Nazi nemesis Dr. Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) hunts for the artifact as well. The globe-trotting quest brings the adventure to the depths of the sea to ancient tombs and all the places Indy is more comfortable than in retirement.
The story bares all the signature traits of a classic Indiana Jones film employed in a mostly believable and grounded way. Following the infamous fridge nuking moment, this will come as a relief. As in past stories, the MacGuffin is an ancient device based on truth. In order for the heroes to find their prize, they must follow uninspired but fairly logical clues. That is to say, the story is mostly straightforward if not entirely groundbreaking. However, much of the film is exposition which does slow the film down (ie. grandpa telling his story).
From the outset, Ford still has the charisma that made his character an icon from the beginning. His wry humor and stead face determination are still at play even if he has slowed down. Through no fault of the actor, he is old, and director James Mangold does not try to cover that fact. However, he does use CGI and stunt doubles to make him more spry than his character should be at 70. That does mean that the action is toned down from what we have seen in the franchise before. This is a smart decision though it does affect the pacing. Without heavy action scenes to provide a jolt of energy, exposition bogs down the story.
Newcomers to the cast are likewise a mixed bag. Mikkelson looks and plays the part of a classic Indy villain perfectly. That said, he is shoehorned into that expectation and is unable to elevate the character to something greater than what is on the page. Walker-Bridge is a spark of light but s limited by her character. Her shifting allegiances grow wearisome, and her cockiness is undeserved. Despite this, Walker-Bridge has charm and strong chemistry with Ford.
The film boasts some impressive visual set pieces. A patriotic parade celebrating the return of the Apollo 11 astronauts was a fun and dynamic setting for a chase. A sunken ship likewise provided some variety to Indy’s typical beige-toned desert romps. Mangold also employs some of the finest use of light and shadows seen outside of a Spielberg film during the opening scenes. This is an impressive nod that gives continuity to the franchise. We don’t see a jarring stylistic change between directors, something newer Star Wars films struggled with. Composer John Williams’ score aids in this as well.
Overall, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny bears all the hallmarks of the franchise. It is a fun globe-trotting adventure that does not attempt to turn its hero into a superhuman being. While new characters are little more than foils for the film’s lead, the actors behind them do a fine job. Director Mangold struggles with pacing because of exposition but keeps the audience engaged through exciting set pieces and an unexpected third-act finale that is perhaps a franchise’s best. As Grandpa finishes telling his tale, we will look back fondly on the time spent listening to his story, despite any flaws in the storytelling.