There was a moment in the 9th century when a bunch of Italians dug up a dead pope and put him on trial. That’s what Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny feels like, a cadaver being propped up and shouted at for two and a half hours. After Indiana Jones was revived in 2008 for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I was like, Surely this can’t get any worse. Surely the worst that can happen, has happened. Ha, so naïve, I was. So young, so dewy, so fresh. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Chiefly, that things could get so much worse. Generally, but also for Indiana Jones, specifically. But at least Crystal Skull tried. At least Steven Spielberg tried to push Indy into a new era without breaking his mystique, and at least Indy still had some vim and vigor left in him.
Destiny catches up with Indy in 1969, on the brink of retirement from Hunter College in New York City. He has lost his love of teaching, he is alone, living in borderline squalor, and is pissed off at his hippy neighbor for being loud in the morning. But it’s “Moon Day”, when the city is celebrating the safe return of the astronauts who just walked on the moon. Indiana Jones, a self-proclaimed man of science, is totally disinterested in astronauts and the moon and major technological advancements. He’s a lonely depressed drunk, just what every kid who grew up loving Indiana Jones always wanted him to become.
This is what I do not get about the rabid raccoon levels of nostalgia in Destiny. Director James Mangold, who co-wrote the script with David Koepp and Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth (real people, not anthropomorphic syrup bottles, I checked), stuffs the film with “remember this” gee-whizzery, but then centers the movie on the saddest possible version of Indiana Jones. The gags about how outdated Indy’s preferred methods—whips, horses, et cetera—are work well, and are mostly clever ways of showing how time has moved on and rendered Indy obsolete. But that is set against a portrayal of Indy as a broken old man with nothing to live for—literally, at one point he asks to be left to die. Like! What!
There is a way to acknowledge that Harrison Ford is eighty and Indiana Jones is, by extension, much older and less physically able than he was in the original run of movies, and even in Crystal Skull, and those visual gags do that. There are plenty of moments that arise naturally from circumstances that highlight this is not the Indy we’ve known that don’t involve alcoholism and depression. The central problem is that not only is drunk depressed Indy a huge f-cking bummer, but Indiana Jones is not really a character, he’s an archetype. He’s a leather jacket and a smirk under a hat. He’s a cool adventure guy going on cool adventures the same way John Wick is a cool action guy doing cool action.
An archetype can support lore, like Indy’s nickname coming from a beloved pet, but there is no need for actual characterization. There is only a need for cool adventures for the cool adventure guy to have. The opening sequence of Destiny delivers on that, sending us back to 1944 and a train heist in which Indy and his nerdy pal, Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), are trying to get another relic from the Nazis before Hitler can use it to win the war. It’s a great set piece, full of classic Indiana Jones business like punching Nazis, Indy bluffing his way out of trouble, and practical stunts mixed with cutting-edge filmmaking technology to render the best possible thrills.
It remains a problem that de-aging technology is simply not as good as filmmakers want it to be, and the longer we’re exposed to de-aged Ford’s face, the worse it looks, but as a whole, the train sequence is old-school Indiana Jones. It feels GREAT to see Indy leaping and swinging around the train, puzzling his way out of trouble one step at a time. Which only makes the proverbial bucket of cold water even colder when we jump ahead to 1969 and meet sad, broken Indy with nothing and no one to live for. We get to watch two hours of an angry, embittered elderly person going through the motions and only just able to keep up with the bright young things around him. Cool adventure guy is gone.
Oh, on the subject of Helena Shaw, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She should CLEARLY just be Indy’s estranged daughter, but they already played the long-lost kid card in Crystal Skull and a LOT of Destiny is an attempt to unwind that clock so that Helena can be the Indy-spawn we deserved all along. Waller-Bridge is great, Helena is in her “fortune and glory” phase, she’s Indy before he learned any lessons. Yet saddling Indiana Jones with a family remains a fundamental mistake.
But if you think Old Indy is the sum total of my ire with this film, don’t worry, there’s more! Shaunette Renee Wilson stars as the mysterious Mason, who is some kind of government agent tasked with babysitting Nazi scientist Dr. Voller (Mads Mikkelsen, half asleep), who wants to time travel and kill Hitler and win the war himself. (I have some questions about what Voller thinks Hitler’s mistakes were, but there is not a chance in hell Disney will touch that with a ten-foot narrative pole.) Why a young Black woman would choose to work for a shady US intelligence agency in 1969 begs a question or two, which the film resolutely does NOT answer, but really the bigger issue is that Destiny falls into the gross “Black dude dies first” trope. Everyone do better!
And then there is the Boyd Holbrook conundrum. Holbrook is a vastly interesting actor, the kind of performer who can do very little and command an outsize presence on screen. In Destiny, he plays Klaber, a henchman for Dr. Voller. Why Klaber signed up to follow Voller is also a mystery. People fall for fascist ideology all the time, so it’s not like it has to be a complicated motivation, but except for Holbrook’s natural on-screen charisma, there is absolutely nothing to Klaber as a character. Like imagine casting Boyd Holbrook and giving him NO motivation! What a waste of everyone’s time! He can project menace better than most but it’s actively annoying to watch him tread water in Destiny.
It really feels like there are pieces missing in the characters of Mason and Klaber, like a whole subplot got cut. Holbrook and Wilson are both giving such good performances, Holbrook especially, that every time they pop up Destiny feels like a different, more interesting film. But they don’t have much to do, Wilson is particularly underserved by the script, and while their performances suggest a lot more happening with these characters, on a story level, there’s no there there.
There are bits and pieces of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny that work, such as the train heist, John Williams’ score, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s performance, but lonely, depressed Indiana Jones is a curse, and the wasted talents of the supporting cast is actively infuriating. Most people probably won’t care, most will say it’s better than Crystal Skull, but it’s not better, it’s just less challenging (which is not to say that Crystal Skull is good, it’s not, it’s just that Destiny is also bad, just in a different, less interesting way). James Mangold & Co. provide plenty of nostalgia which keeps the corpse of this franchise propped up for our “entertainment”, like that dead pope and his sham trial. For my part, I’m happy to honor Indy’s wishes and let him die.
This review was published during the WGA strike of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of writers. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is exclusively in theaters from June 30, 2023.