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Thursday, June 29, 2023

Dad would have liked it: My review of INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY

I was seven years old when Raiders of the Lost Ark first came out.  That film more than any other impacted and steered the direction of my life.  The day after seeing it I had volumes of encyclopedias opened up on the floor and the family Bible along with them.  I wanted to learn all about the Ark of the Covenant and ancient Egypt and World War II and the Nazis.  All heady stuff for a kid in second grade!  What can I say though: my childhood interests were pretty atypical.

I think Dad was pretty impressed though, that a movie could stoke a youngster's intellect like that.  And I know that Dad was impressed with the movie too.  When we see Jones board the seaplane that is going to take him west to Nepal, Dad leaned toward me and told me what kind of plane it was and that he had flown on one years earlier.

It was a magic moment that I don't think I've ever shared before, until now.  It was so weird, being with my father and discovering that he and I were enjoying this movie together.  That for all my weirdness and then his practicality, we had some things in common after all.

Every time an Indiana Jones movie came out after that, Dad and I made sure to catch it as soon as we could make it to the theater.  The next opportunity came in 1984 with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  And once again Dad and I had a shared experience.  Actually, I think everybody in that screening had the same experience: almost puking all over the floor at how gross that movie was!  But still we endured.  Dad still thought of that five years later when it was opening weekend of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: "This isn't going to be as sick as the LAST one was, is it?" he asked before we left for the cinema.

And then fifteen years ago came Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  Dad and I saw that on its opening day.  Dad admitted that he was confused by it.  I think a lot of people probably were.  It's a film with numerous faults.  But even so I think George Lucas and Steven Spielberg achieved their goal.  Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a big-budget homage to the hokey sci-fi "B-movies" of the Nineteen Fifties.  Just as Raiders of the Lost Ark owed its spirit to the Saturday afternoon serials at the movie theaters.  Bear that in mind and the film is spot-on entertaining.

There had been discussions about a fifth Indiana Jones movie after that.  As was often the case, those were produced during those fleeting times when the stars were right and Lucas and Spielberg agreed on a new "MacGuffin" to propel the movie.  And if things had hastened, Dad and I could have seen that movie in the theater too.

Except that never got to be.  Dad passed away a few days before Thanksgiving, almost nine years ago.

So it's like this: I wasn't actually sure if I wanted to see a new Indiana Jones film, at least not when it first debuted.  It... didn't seem right.  Like I wouldn't be honoring Dad's memory, or something.  And then gradually it hit me: Dad would have wanted me to see a new Indy movie if one was ever made.  That I would actually be honoring the fun that he and I had together.

That's what I've borne in mind all these long months leading up to Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.  A film that I went in absolutely cold about, except for the trailers and the posters.

A short while ago I came back from a day-early showing of this latest chapter in the life of Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones.  My expectations were high... but they were also prepared to be crushed.  I braced myself for whatever the next two and a half hours were going to bring.

And now that I have seen it?

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny isn't a perfect film for the franchise: that will always and forever be the place taken by Raiders of the Lost Ark.  But it is not the disappointment that some have been ready for.  I actually enjoyed this movie quite a bit.  I will say that it is by a great measure much better than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, if that gives any indication for you.

The film opens in 1945: the final days of Nazi Germany.  And if it was at all possible I would absolutely love to see this period of Indy's life developed further.  We know what he was doing before World War II began and the fourth movie implied that Jones was quite active against the Axis powers during the conflict.  But until now we've never seen WHAT the heck he was up to.  Dial of Destiny gives us a good peek at that, and it involves a historical artifact that was at one time the original prize in the first few drafts of Raiders.  When I saw this my face broke out into a huge grin, because I have always wanted to see Indy go after that particular item.

That probably won't happen.  Harrison Ford is eighty and has been quite adamant that this is his final film as Indiana Jones.  But I'm still thankful for this little morsel.  And the Lucasfilm boffins did a beautiful job digitally de-aging Ford by four decades.

Well, it turns out that there is another item that the Nazis are interested in.  One that Indy and fellow historian Basil Shaw are keen on keeping out of German hands.  A thrilling sequence aboard - and atop - a high-speed train later, the two have succeeded in recovering the artifact.

Forward almost a quarter century to 1969.  Jones is still teaching archaeology, but the days when his female students flirted with him are long past.  Time has moved beyond the days of high adventure, and Indy is feeling very much like an anachronism.  The Apollo 11 astronauts have returned from the Moon and it hangs over Indy's head: what is his purpose in a world where man is now landing on other worlds?  Which is something that Indy isn't all that crazy about, given that the United States ended up recruiting many former Nazi scientists in its bid to get ahead of the Soviets in the race to space.  It's a sentiment that is having Indy graciously retired by the administration of his school.

And then Indy gets approached by Helena Shaw: Basil's daughter and Indy's godchild.  She has kinda, sort-of followed in the family tradition.  And her main interest is in that strange object that Indy and Basil heisted from the Nazis.

That's probably all I should say about the plot.  If you're reading this, I want you to go in cold too.  Don't be prepared to stack this Indiana Jones movie against the others in the franchise.  Dial of Destiny does a magnificent job in portraying an Indiana Jones whose age has caught up with him but also might have a spark of fight still in him.  This is not Indy age forty and when the calendar hits 1969 it doesn't pretend to be.  It might be pretty sobering just how much mileage Jones has accrued since we first saw him.

But Indy is not "along for the ride".  And he keeps up with the much younger Helena (played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) as well as he's ever done in these movies  Let's have no more jokes about "Indiana Bones".  Nobody is phoning it in with this movie, least of whom Ford.  It is in every way a fit and proper Indiana Jones motion picture, with its scope forwarded a few more decades.  It also hit on all the right elements of the Indy movies, like the red line showing where our hero is en route to next.

Dial of Destiny is cast well.  It also seems that the digital effects were kept to a minimum. This doesn't look like an overly-CGI'ed movie anyway.  James Mangold did a terrific job in directing this film (he also co-wrote the script).  And for what may well be his swan song, John Williams has achieved a mighty accomplishment with the film's music.  You'll be certain to hear a number of familiar motifs that have had a presence in previous Indy movies.  If this really is Williams' last movie before hanging up the baton, he has done so magnificently.

I really don't know what else to say without tipping my hand too much.  Except, that Dad would have liked it.  I feel like I got to enjoy Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny for him, in his memory.  It was time well spent on a summer afternoon and I think if we're going to be honest, many other people are going to leave the theater feeling much the same, too.


SGOTGDS said...

Nice review, Chris.

Mark said...

Saw it tonight and loved it but it left me a little sad. Especially about what happened with Mutt. I will put Dial of Destiny tied with Last Crusade as my second favorite Indiana Jones movie followed by Temple of Doom and then Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Raiders of course will always be best.

Chris Knight said...

Yeah, that was quite a bit of a downer. They didn't need to do that to Indy. In that respect he deserved better.