One of the best lines in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” – which is to say, one of the best lines in the entire, now-five-film saga of Indiana Jones – comes when Harrison Ford’s intrepid archaeologist and part-time Nazi hunter lies on a bed, bruised, battered and aching pretty much everywhere. When his girlfriend, Marion (Karen Allen), comments on how many years he’s been doing the punishing gig, Ford ad-libbed, “It’s not the years, honey. It’s the mileage.”
Well, “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” which premiered on Thursday night at the Cannes Film Festival, is about the years and the mileage. Then it’s about the years some more because the semi-supernatural twist this time around involves time travel.
The film is full of action, stunts and escapes from Nazis, because that’s what “Indiana Jones” movies are. It relies heavily on the charm and charisma of Harrison Ford because of course it does. And it contains lots of satisfying fan service, from old friends popping up, to familiar situations unfolding in different ways, to a nice little spin on that scene mentioned at the beginning of this review.
Is it as fresh, bracing and enjoyable as “Raiders” was way back in 1981, when director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas teamed up to do nothing more ambitious than give audiences a really, really good time at the movies? Of course not. And 42 years later, it couldn’t be. A 2023 “Indiana Jones” movie starring an 80-year-old Ford has to serve as a valedictory to a beloved character and a beloved series, even if at least two of the entries in that series weren’t all that good. (Nos. 2 and 4, by my reckoning.)
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” was an unexpected lark, while “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” is an action flick that also needs to serve as a monument. “Raiders” was pure Saturday-matinee stuff; “Dial of Destiny” had its debut in front of a black-tie audience at a tony film festival in the South of France, in a place called the Grand Théâtre Lumière that wouldn’t dream of putting a popcorn machine in its sleek lobby.
But, you know, maybe they should have sullied the movie palace with popcorn on Thursday night. Because even though Steven Spielberg, the director of the first four Indy movies, has handed the reins to James Mangold (“Ford v. Ferrari,” “Logan”), “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. That much is evident right off the bat when screenwriters Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, David Koepp and Mangold bring back Nazis as the bad guys, use CGI to strip 40 years off of Ford’s face and stage an extended action sequence set in the final days of World War II.
It’s fun to see Indy back in action again, and the reveal of his younger face is handled nicely with a bad guy whipping off the canvas sack that’s been covering it. But like virtually all action sequences these days, this one suffers from the fact that visual effects can do pretty much anything, which tends to strip away any sense of surprise, novelty or even high stakes, no matter how frantic and extravagant things get.
The gist of it is that the Nazis are looting treasures of antiquity with a particular interest in the supernatural (even though that Ark of the Covenant thing didn’t work out too well for them). In this case, they are after the spear that allegedly pierced Jesus’ side on the cross, but instead they stumble across the Antikythera, part of a mechanism made by ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes that might just have the power to identify “fissures in time” and thus make time-travel possible.
Hitler wants to use it for nefarious ends, of course, and after the war one of his top scientists, Jurgen Voller, escapes to the U.S., changes his name, works on the Apollo space program and keeps alive his dream of going back to 1939 and taking steps to ensure that Germany would win the war. After the flashback prologue, an appropriately aged Indy gets in his way, as does Helena Shaw, the daughter of Indy’s longtime friend Basil Shaw (Toby Jones).
Helena is played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who has become the go-to option for bringing a bit of smart female power to big franchises lately: working on the script for the last James Bond movie, appearing as a droid in “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and now playing one of those characters who always seem to be trying to figure out if they should be good or bad.
(If one of the goals of an action movie is to get an audience to applaud in the middle of the action, Waller-Bridge also gets MVP honors: The first time the Cannes audience broke into spontaneous applause didn’t come until late in the film, and it was in response to something she did.)
For much of its running time, “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” shrugs off the intricacies of plot to run (or, more often, drive) from one headlong action sequence to another. The movie rarely stops to take a breath, even though those quieter moments are often highlights for the character. But there are villains to be dispatched, cameos to be made and daring escapes to be engineered.
When “Raiders” came out in 1981, I interviewed Spielberg and asked if he had any big sequences he wanted to do but decided against shooting. He described a couple that he said would have been fun, but were too ludicrous to consider. “I’ll leave those to (Bond producer) Cubby Broccoli,” he said – and then used those exact sequences three years later in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” And really, “Dial of Destiny” is made up largely of sequences like that: exciting and excessive in equal measure, so over-the-top that an audience needs to throw up its collective hands and suspend disbelief.
But that’s the curse of the modern-day action flick. “Dial of Destiny” has an ace in the hole with Harrison Ford and with the character he plays – a guy for whom we feel so much affection that we’ll go along with all kinds of silliness if we can see a little more Indy. It really makes Indiana Jones our most endearing action hero, and Ford and Mangold clearly know that and know how to work with it.
When the film calms down after (spoiler alert) the world has been saved, there are some beautifully affecting moments. If this is the final Indiana Jones movie, as it most likely will be, it’s nice to see that they stuck the landing.
Check out TheWrap’s Cannes magazine here and all of our Cannes 2023 coverage here.