Explosions! Ancient tombs! Nazis stealing enigmatic artefacts! More than 40 years after Dr Henry ‘Indiana’ Jones first donned his famous fedora in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), his archaeological adventures have been given new life in the franchise’s fifth instalment: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.
The dial in question is the Antikythera Mechanism – an ancient Greek artefact, recovered in fragments from a c.2,000-year-old shipwreck which, in real life, is thought to have been used to predict astronomical alignments and eclipses. Its cinematic cousin grants the power to travel through time. Naturally, Hitler wants to harness these abilities for himself, but Indy (shown in his 1940s prime thanks to digital de-aging technology working its uncanny magic on an 81-year-old Harrison Ford) manages to snatch the object himself. With the scene duly set, we leap forward to the late 1960s to find Indy at a dangerously low ebb: a man who has devoted his life to the past, and is now struggling to find his place in the present. Salvation comes, though, when he is drawn into another globe-spanning escapade: a race against (and through) time as malign forces once again try to seize control of the Antikythera Mechanism.
This is the first Indiana Jones film not to be directed by Steven Spielberg (James Mangold takes the helm), but much feels familiar from the adventurer’s earlier outings. There are plenty of punches thrown and bullets fired; high-speed chases involving planes, trains, and automobiles (as well as boats, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, and the New York subway); snakes, creepy-crawlies, and perilous exploits underground and underwater. Twice we hear Indy’s famous cry that ‘it should be in a museum’, and as usual we see far more ancient remains destroyed than actual archaeology done. Old friends and foes resurface, and even some of the new characters, such as streetwise child sidekick ‘Teddy’ (Ethann Isidore), invite comparison with their predecessors. The look and lighting of the film is beautiful, however – particularly in underwater sequences – and John Williams’ music still thrills. There are also some aspects that do feel more modern: Dial of Destiny is noticeably more self-aware about not ‘othering’ the inhabitants of its exotic locations.
As for the main cast, Indiana Jones in 2023 is still every inch the action hero – although crotchety and complaining about his creaking bones, he remains dryly charismatic and able to crack a whip and wallop a Nazi with the best of them. His god-daughter Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is a quick-witted foil with interestingly complex morals and a rather more mercenary interest in the past, and a particular highlight is the antagonist, Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), a Nazi scientist co-opted to the American space programme, only to turn back to the dark side (to quote another Lucas studio blockbuster).
At first glance, Dial of Destiny is a lightweight adventure romp; cinematic comfort food, entertaining and fun, if a bit uneven in pace and perhaps not quite achieving the edge-of-your-seat highs of the franchise’s 1980s peak. Under the surface, however, the film is more thoughtful, exploring our desires to revisit the past, to right perceived wrongs and undo regrets – as well as the dangers of dwelling too much and becoming trapped there. The final climax hits slightly hysterical notes, but the film then sneaks in a subtly poignant epilogue that is genuinely moving, offering a tentatively hopeful ending without indulging in full fairytale schmaltz.