Part-Time Review: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023)


A bloated, unnecessary, and compromised piece of action franchise filmmaking that can’t even outshine its contemporary peers let alone its groundbreaking predecessors. This film moves the setting forward from the cold war 50’s vibe of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull into a space age 60’s vibe where Dr. Jones is still a professor, but he’s become a broken old man living alone and teaching poorly attended classes. Helena, the daughter of an old acquaintance, shows up to a lecture and sets Jones off on a quest for this film’s MacGuffin – the dial of destiny. The dial, made by Archimedes, has the power to time travel and thus it’s also being sought after by this film’s villain; a Nazi scientist who wants to go back and alter the course of the second world war. The film boasts strong production values, a good set of screenwriters, a competent director, and a decent cast. Unfortunately, none of this is able to hide the truth – it’s an ad hoc franchise entry created to fulfill the mandate to exploit IP that lacks the creativity of its predecessors and is overly burdened with the need to update the series for modern sensibilities.

The basic plot ideas are a decent enough skeleton to allow for a lot of adventurous globe-hopping, exotic locales, and attempts at incorporating history. I have a lot of nitpicks in this area too (I can't stand the "surprise" ending narratively or thematically), but all the films have plots we can nitpick. The series never succeeded on its plots though; it’s the characters and execution that made the franchise we know and love. Sadly, that's exactly what torpedoes the film here. 

First, the action just doesn't live up to the iconic and fun large scale set pieces of the originals (let alone decent contemporary action set pieces). The action here ranges from outright bad (an embarrassing eel attack sequence) and mostly mediocre, to one good Tangiers tuk tuk chase sequence. Every sequence suffers from feeling simultaneously large scale and also like it was shot on just a couple of sets overlayed by CGI. There's a particularly artificial feeling that plays a lot closer to the something out of the Jurassic World franchise than the Indiana Jones franchise.

Second, the film commits something I call the franchise justification error. What's that you ask? Well, in order to dramatically justify another entry for a franchise character whose previous films have already satisfactorily dealt with their defining arcs, writers are forced to undercut those resolutions to provide an alternate arc. At the end of The Last Crusade we saw the heroic Jones riding off into the sunset with his reconciled father. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had to move Jones past the death of his father, but at least it gave us a reconciled relationship with Marion and a still mostly able heroic Jones. How does this film reset to provide dramatic stakes?

Indiana Jones has become an old man whose time has passed by as he screams at his neighbors for playing the Beatles too loud, is unaware/uncaring about the moon landing, teaches students who hate his lectures, mourns a dead son, is too feeble for serious action, and too lame to make good on his relationship with Marion (that we’ve had to invest in twice already!). Who wants to see our beloved hero reduced to this just so the creators could "justify" that the entry had some kind of character arc? It's really sad. ***SPOILER - there's even a moment near the end where Jones lay on a beach and essentially just asks to be put out of his misery so he can enjoy a historic moment. I mean, who didn't pay money to see their favorite hero essentially just give up on the future?***END SPOILER

Ironically, the same justification error was used by Disney to undercut Harrison's Hans Solo in The Force Awakens as well. Here's my rule of thumb on bringing back beloved heros in new franchise entries: Will the sequel's "reset" alter the core internal and external accomplishments of our hero in the previous films? If yes, then it's generally a bad idea. Top Gun: Maverick wisely eschewed that justification trend and kept Maverick largely the same character whose accomplishments still meant something important. This is sadly not the case here.

Finally, the film suffers from a spinoff of the justification error - the modernizing error. You see, the iconic Indiana Jones films were created during a time when the creatives weren't always sensitive to the prevailing cultural and political sensitives. When franchises span multiple decades, new entries often try to correct those insensitivities. This can be a noble enterprise but the track record isn't great. Sometimes, it's the right thing to do and it improves upon a winning formula by sanding the edges. At other times, like here, it comes as off tendentious and condescending. For example, the damsel in distress trope of previous films (Temple of Doom largely to blame here) is up for overcorrection in the character of Helena. You see, Indiana Jones rescued the helpless female leads in the previous films, so Helena is going to rescue the helpless Indiana Jones here.

In fact, once the film gets into its second act, Jones largely takes a backseat (story and agency-wise) to Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Helena. She's the one really moving the plot along through key choices and Indy's just trying to hang along for the ride. She gets to do most of the things we want to see Jones do - being charismatic, charming, scheming, and athletic. I'm not against the idea of having a strong female character or trying to correct previous female portrayals at all, but when you combine and contrast Helena's portrayal with the old, broken, and bumbling character reset for Indiana - you can easily see an agenda at play. By the end of the film, Helena is the hero who knows best and works to fix Jones' problems he really can't fix for himself. **SPOILER - She literally punches him out at the end and rescues him because Jones is too stubborn to do the right thing. She then reunites him with Marion because he couldn't do that either. **END SPOILER** You want to make a statement? Fine, give Phoebe Waller-Bridge a new franchise with Helena's characterization as the lead; just don't bait me with a last "hurrah" for Indiana Jones only to switch it out for something else entirely.

I think the noble desire to find justification for a new franchise entry (that tries to embrace Ford's advanced age) along with the noble desire to rough out the franchise's insensitive edges really failed here. Rather than giving us a film that celebrates what we came to love about Jones, it feels more like an origin story for Helena as the new female Jones while the old one is put out to pasture with just the scraps of a happy ending that could be mustered from having his previous ones neutered repeatedly. Whether or not this was intended I can't say. That's just how it all came off to me.

Overall, I'm saddened to see where the last two film entries has left this once proud franchise. While we will always have the first three films to enjoy and remember fondly, there is a genuine retro-active diminishing of the character when you know the disappointing direction his later adventures take. For me, while there are some good qualities to enjoy, it's all largely destroyed by the ad hoc franchise money grab and the noble but failed creative attempts to justify it.

p.s. Why is this film two hours and twenty minutes long? Huh? I don't get it. It's supposed to be a breezy adventure film!

*For an overview of all the Indiana Jones Action Scenes Click HERE