More than 40 years after the release of the initial Indiana Jones movie, 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, a fifth and presumably final installment in the beloved adventure series has hit theaters. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny catches up with relic-hunting archeologist Henry Walton Indiana” Jones Jr., a.k.a. Indy, on the eve of his retirement from academia.
As before, the fedora-wearing, whip-wielding Dr. Jones is played by Harrison Ford, who may now be a craggy 80-year-old but is still the same charismatic superstar he’s been since his earliest screen appearances. And fortunately, Dial of Destiny, directed by James Mangold, is a satisfying wrap on Indy’s four-decade story.
A prologue set near the end of World War II launches Dial of Destiny in rousing fashion as a digitally and believably de-aged Ford and Indy’s friend and colleague Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) vie with Nazi scientist Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) for a mysterious artifact known as the Antikythera. (There’s always a McGuffin in the Indiana Jones tales that triggers an exotic expedition.) Fading to black after an extended chase sequence on a careening train behind enemy lines, we catch up with a dispirited Jones in 1969. He’s alone and seemingly miserable in a shabby New York City walk-up apartment — until his life is upended by agents under the direction of Voller, now working for NASA, Wernher von Braun-style, and continuing to pursue the Antikythera.
Voller’s goons ransack Indy’s office and living quarters, killing anyone who gets in their way. At this point, Shaw’s daughter Helena, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge of TV’s Fleabag, enters the fray, but is she a friend or foe to Indy — who happens to be her godfather? And can Indy get up for one last quest that will take him on a danger-fraught journey from a Manhattan ticker-tape parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts to a diving expedition in the Mediterranean as he strives to preserve history? Even when things get preposterous (the script, credited to four writers, is literally all over the place), director Mangold keeps things moving at a brisk clip, and Ford’s élan, in tandem with Waller-Bridge’s wry, mischievous presence, closes the deal.
Conceived by George Lucas in the early 1970s before he wrote and directed Star Wars, Indiana Jones and his exploits were intended to pay homage to vintage Hollywood movie serials that featured dashing leads executing death-defying feats in the face of perilous traps — cliffhanging optional. The global success of Star Wars gave Lucas carte blanche to produce any new project he wanted, so he and fellow filmmaker Philip Kaufman came up with a story involving Jones and a race to acquire the legendary Ark of the Covenant before Nazis grabbed it and used its mystical properties to subjugate the world.
KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES
Looking to bring Jones to the big screen, Lucas shrewdly tapped Lawrence Kasdan to write the script and convinced Steven Spielberg, coming off the back-to-back triumphs of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to direct. The smartest move Lucas made might have been enlisting Harrison Ford — who had won hearts as the roguish space-faring smuggler Han Solo in Star Wars — to play tweedy-but-tough Jones. The result was Raiders of the Lost Ark, a massive box office hit that launched a second enduring franchise for Lucas after Star Wars.
There’s a case to be made that Raiders of the Lost Ark is a perfect film. From its absolutely thrilling introductory sequence to its otherworldly climax, there’s not a wasted moment. The plot is engrossing and edge-of-your-seat exciting; the action scenes are primarily practical stunts rather than computer animation, and they fully ratchet up the intensity; the dialogue is terse, witty, and idiosyncratic; and the characterization of reluctant yet invariably courageous hero Jones — the buttoned-down archeology professor and part-time swashbuckler — is rich and charming. Ford was quite simply born to play Indy, and he has done so in four subsequent movies, none of which hit the dizzying heights of Raiders.
A lesser 1984 Raiders prequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, came out next, sending Jones to India and pitting him against an evil Thuggee priest after arcane Hindu doodads. It was coarse by comparison to its predecessor. The 1989 sequel to Raiders, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, teamed Indy with his father, played by Sean Connery, in pursuit of no less than the Holy Grail (also coveted by a group of nasty Nazis), and it was a step up from The Temple of Doom. The box office receipts were understandably impressive for these second and third go-rounds, both ably directed by Spielberg.
BATTLING BACK FROM THE BRINK
The series could have (or should have) ended there, if not for Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford teaming up again for the splashy yet somehow lackluster 2008 release Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Burdened by a constant and less than impressive barrage of CGI effects, this was an odd combo of ’50s alien invasion sci-fi and Cold War-era intrigue that was most notable for bringing back Jones’ Raiders love interest Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), introducing their heretofore unknown and rather obnoxious son Mutt Williams (Shia LaBoeuf), and featuring Cate Blanchett as its villainess. It was the least of the Indy escapades.
As if to make up for that misfire, Lucas and company went back to the well and delivered Dial of Destiny, a fitting coda to Indy’s saga. Although it was a bit of a surprise that Spielberg relinquished directorial duties to Mangold, it turned out to be a positive. Mangold’s Logan provided a memorable cinematic finale for the Marvel superhero Wolverine as portrayed by Hugh Jackman. Dial of Destiny is also a swan song for a cultural icon. If it’s a little too lively and fun to be as much of a meditation on the lion in winter as the darker-hued Logan, that’s a good thing for Indy fans. If it somewhat pales next to Raiders, most movies do.
Even a casual filmgoer would have a hard time avoiding goose bumps at the sound of composer John Williams’ classic, stirring Indiana Jones theme, “The Raiders March,” which is used effectively if judiciously in Dial of Destiny. Ultimately, the greatest asset here and throughout the series is Ford, who so embodies Indy that it seems no one could truly replace him. In Dial of Destiny, the actor’s true age brings genuine gravitas and the occasional wince of pain to this indomitable figure who manages to save the day once more. Your retirement is well-earned, Dr. Jones.
Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on The Mark Thompson Show, via YouTube, and on Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast, via GABNet.net, Roku, and iTunes. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster.