I remember clearly visiting the VHS rental section of a local grocery store with my mother one early summer morning. She told me that I could pick out any movie and instead of going to the kids section, I wandered over to the action/adventure movies. Within a few minutes a movie title and cover art caught my eye. It was Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. My 8 year old self was instantly enthralled and I couldn’t wait to get home to view it. I watched it at least 4 times before we had to return it, and I couldn’t wait until I could rent it again. After renting it 2-3 times, my mom finally made a copy in EP format on another VHS tape so I could watch it to my heart’s content and it became a mainstay in my movie rotation.
The Indiana Jones series is one of the main reasons I fell in love with cinema and went on to study film at the University of Utah and teach film for over ten years. When I joined up with Valerie Cameron and Jake Dietz to start the Movies that Make Us podcast, we agreed that our first film to review and discuss would be Raiders of the Lost Ark. Needless to say, this series has been a deep and important part of my life.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny begins with a flashback set in the final days of World War II in Europe. Germany is surrounded and Hitler is desperately searching for any mystical object that will turn the tide of the war. Indy finds himself at a Nazi controlled castle looking for the spear that pierced Christ’s side when he was on the cross. The CGI to de-age Harrison Ford in this sequence is hands down the best use of the technology that I’ve seen, but it does still have a bit of the uncanny valley and looks like a high end video game after a while. Indy and Nazi Jürgen Voller discover the spear is a fake, but the Archimedes Dial, which can mathematically predict when fissures in time will appear, is on the train heading directly to Berlin. After several action beats, Indy collects the dial and escapes the Nazis.
Fast forward about 25 years to 1969 and Indiana Jones has found himself as a mine passed by time. He’s retiring from teaching archeology at the University, his marriage from Marion Ravenwood is on the rocks, and his son Mutt is nowhere to be seen. In the age of the space race, Indy has become as much of a relic as the items he spent his career collecting. He’s no longer relevant and his heart is heavy. His adventuring days seem to be long behind him, until his long lost god daughter Helena “Wombat” Shaw, herself an archeologist and treasure seeker comes back into his life. She reveals that her father had spent his life studying the dial and was driven to insanity trying to unlock its secrets and it was split into two pieces. She and Indy retrieve one half at Hunter College and are attacked by Voller who is now working for NASA. Indy and Helena go on a world wide adventure seeking the second half of the dial and keeping it out of the hands of the former Nazi who wants to use the dial to go back in time and succeed where Hitler went wrong.
The film has plenty of action, from Indy riding a horse through a New York subway to deep sea diving, to a Tuk Tuk chase through Tangier. The film has plenty of callbacks to previous films in the series and director James Mangold does a great job of not hiding the fact that Ford is now 80 years old, and doesn’t ask him to do stunts that are obviously done by a stunt team. The film bounces from one action sequence to another at the expense of the character Ford brings in the film’s quieter moments. The film has four screenwriters which is often a red flag, and it feels like it is one rewrite away from really achieving something special. The film doesn’t do a great job explaining the Archimedes Dial and how the time fissures work, as well as Voller’s working with NASA. If the film had cut 10-15 minutes of the action beats and instead focused a bit more on these underdeveloped plot points, it would have received a much higher grade.
The movie has a lot of action, heart, humor, and gives us a much more satisfying ending than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The third act takes a big swing and it will be interesting to see how accepting audiences are of the final section of the film. James Mangold does an admirable job taking over for Speilberg and delivers a movie that is entertaining and mostly captures the magic of the earlier films, but ultimately doesn’t reach the heights it is trying to reach.
I give the film a B-