For the past fifteen years, literally since the very weekend Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull first hit theaters, all of pop culture has been overcome with a single unified thought: It can’t end like this.
We didn’t just want another movie, we desperately NEEDED one. Hell, it didn’t even have to be a movie — give us a TV show, a miniseries, a big-budget video game, fucking ANYTHING just so that didn’t have to be the note that Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr. went out on.
This is where the bar was set for Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. We didn’t need Steven Spielberg directing, though it’s great that he stayed on as exec producer to godfather the project and he picked an admirably qualified replacement in James Mangold. We didn’t need John Williams coming back to compose the score, though of course it’s wonderful that he did. Hell, we didn’t even need the movie to be great — in fact, if the movie was incredible enough and successful enough that we were all left clamoring for another sequel, that might’ve actually done more harm than good in the long run.
All we needed for this fifth entry was for Harrison Ford to come back one last time, find some respectful way to clean up the mess of the fourth entry, and be better than Crystal Skull. We don’t need a jaw-dropping big finish, we just need a final entry that isn’t outright shameful. That’s how far Crystal Skull lowered the bar.
And to the filmmakers’ credit, they did indeed clear it.
We open with a prologue, back in the closing days of WWII. Long story short, Indy teams up with fellow archeologist Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) to raid a Nazi freight train of priceless antiquities. This is where they meet Jurgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), a physicist who apparently minored in archeology, who’s come into possession of the eponymous dial. This is the Antikythera, a HEAVILY fictionalized reimagining of the actual historical relic.
In the movie, Archimedes himself supposedly crafted this machine to detect wormholes. By which I specifically mean it uses mathematics to detect portals through space and time. Freaking seriously.
The good news is, our heroes take the device from Voller. The bad news is, it’s only half the device, and Shaw spends the rest of his life descending into madness looking for the other half. Meanwhile, Voller defects to the USA and helps NASA build rockets to win the Space Race.
This takes us to the iconic Summer of ’69, hours before the first moon landing. Indy is now a bitter old man, disillusioned with teaching about the past at a time when everyone is far more excited about the future. I should add that Marion and Mutt are both out of the picture, and we do get detailed explanations for both. But no way in hell am I getting into that here.
Enter Helena “Wombat” Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), daughter to Basil and god-daughter to Indy, though Indy hasn’t been in touch with her since he and her father fell out. Now that Helena’s all grown up and graduated from Oxford, she reconnects with Indy to try and find some closure with regards to the Antikythera and her father’s ignominious death. What she doesn’t tell Indy is that Helena is in fact deeply in hock with some shady characters (it’s a long story) and she steals Indy’s half of the dial with the intention of selling it on the black market. A few hijinks later, we have our globe-trotting adventure in which Indy and Helena reluctantly put their heads together to keep their half safe and find the other half.
While all that’s going on, Voller is given full credit for masterminding the technology that got the USA to the moon. In return for that success, Voller is leveraging Uncle Sam to back a new attempt at reclaiming and completing the Antikytheros for even greater American superiority. To the surprise of everyone who isn’t in the audience, Voller betrays his American benefactors at the first opportunity and chases the Antikytheros for his own efforts at reviving the Third Reich.
Also in the supporting cast, we’ve got Boyd Holbrook and Olivier Richters as a couple of white supremacists serving as Voller’s henchmen. Thomas Kretschmann shows up as another Nazi because of course he fucking does. These guys and Mads Mikkelsen got the easy job of playing one-dimensional Nazi assholes, and it’s not like these same actors don’t have years of experience playing four-color archvillains.
Then we have the actors who only show up for about five minutes, but make a huge impression with so short a time. A key example is Antonio Banderas, who makes a brief yet memorable appearance as an old friend of Indy’s. It’s grimly amusing to think of an Egyptian character being played by a white British actor nowadays, but John Rhys-Davies got grandfathered in and it’s always delightful to see him onscreen for however short a time. Oh, and Karen Allen does indeed poke her head in at the very end. That was sweet.
But then there’s Ethann Isidore in the role of Teddy, a young sidekick to Helena. That’s right, folks: We’ve got us a Short Round. Though that doesn’t seem entirely fair, given how Teddy isn’t so twee or loudmouthed. And while I do appreciate a sidekick with some competence and the initiative to affect the plot in his own way, it’s something else when Teddy miraculously has whatever thieving/pickpocketing/driving/airplane piloting skills he needs in the moment. Call him Short Round 2.0, I guess.
As for Phoebe Waller-Bridge… whoo boy. The filmmakers were clearly going for someone in the Karen Allen mold, and I’ll certainly grant that Waller-Bridge has the look and attitude for it. And I get the notion of Helena as a wild card who gradually outgrows her materialistic nature, that all looks fine on paper. The problem is that the character’s motivation is all over the place. Helena’s such a compulsive liar that it’s hard to tell when she’s motivated by money, when she’s motivated by closure for her father’s death, and when she’s motivated for the greater good. As a direct result, her development arc is difficult to track and her big altruistic moment at the end falls flat.
That said, Helena is very much like so much else about the movie: Not great, but still good enough. The CGI and de-aging effects are dodgy in places, but still good enough. The action scenes are pretty much all comprised of vehicular chases and other such sequences that don’t ask much of Harrison Ford, but they’re good enough.
And what about the plot? What about the big reveal? Do we get anything as insultingly stupid as nuking the fridge? Mercifully, no. Is the big reveal as laughably outlandish as omniscient little grey men? That’s… more debatable. But at least this time, it circles back to themes from the first movie with regards to history and our place in it.
The best compliment I can pay to Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is that it feels like a natural endpoint to the saga of Indiana Jones. It’s certainly not the best place to end his story — that was all the way back at the end of the third movie — but at least it’s good enough to wash the taste of Crystal Skull out of our collective mouths. It’s not good enough that anyone will be up in arms demanding a sequel, but it’s not bad enough to make anyone regret that this movie ever came out. It’s nothing more or less than an ending. It’s closure. Maybe that’s not everything we wanted, but it’s what we needed.
I’ll be very interested to see how the CGI and de-aging hold up on a smaller screen with home viewing, and the sound mixing is so awful that you’ll be grateful for subtitles. I’m not sure this is a movie that necessarily demands a big-screen viewing, but it definitely needs to be seen. Hell, if you’re among the many viewers who went back and rewatched all four prior movies ahead of this release, you should’ve seen it already.