“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” is a dutifully eager but ultimately rather joyless piece of nostalgic hokum. It’s the fifth installment of the “Indiana Jones” franchise, and though it has its quota of “relentless” action, it rarely tries to match (let alone top) the ingeniously staged kinetic bravura of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” How could it? “Raiders,” whatever one thinks of it as a movie (I always found it a trace impersonal in its ’40s-action-serial-on-steroids excitement), is arguably the most influential blockbuster of the last 45 years, even more so than “Star Wars.”
Back in 1977, George Lucas took us through the looking glass of what would become our all-fantasy-all-the-time movie culture. But it was Steven Spielberg, teaming up with Lucas in “Raiders,” who introduced the structural DNA of the one-thing-after-another, action-movie-as-endless-set-piece escapist machine. This means that “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” isn’t just coming after four previous “Indiana Jones” films. It’s coming after four decades of high-priced Hollywood action decadence, from the “Fast and Furious” series to the “Mission: Impossible” and “Terminator” and “Lara Croft” and “Transformers” and latter-day “Bond” films (not to mention the Marvel space operas), all of which owe a boundless debt to the aggro zap of the “Raiders” aesthetic.
Spielberg and Lucas are still onboard as executive producers, but Spielberg, in “The Dial of Destiny,” hands off the directorial reins to James Mangold, who has mostly been a gifted mainstream dramatist, though he honed his action chops on “The Wolverine” and “Logan.” Mangold knows his way around the fanciful blockbuster artillery. His direction of “The Dial of Destiny” has a competent craft but not much in the way of exhilaration.
Working from a script he co-wrote with Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and David Koepp, Mangold opens the movie with an extended prologue, set in Germany near the end of World War II, in which Indy, played by a deftly de-aged Harrison Ford, attempts to get his hands on the Lance of Longinus (the knife used to draw Christ’s blood), only to learn that the blade in question is a fake. So instead he sets his sights on the Antikythera, a hand-held contraption of ancient-gold meshed gears that is one half of the dial created by the Greek mathematician Archimedes in the third century B.C. It will be the artifact-gizmo-MacGuffin that hovers over the entire movie. The characters literally never stop talking about it.
In the prologue, Indy is racing to get hold of the device before Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), a mad-dog Nazi scientist, can steal it for himself. Mangold does a winning homage to the playful rhythms of early-’80s Spielberg, as Indy disentangles his neck from a hanging noose and finds himself in a car-vs.-motorcycle chase, only to wind up, along with his British archaeologist associate Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), dueling with Voller on top of a speeding train.
Have you ever seen an action sequence set atop a speeding train? We’ve all seen 10,000 of them, and this one, while efficiently executed, is brought off with just enough CGI that you can see the digital seams. It’s worth noting how audacious the action sequences in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” were, a sensation expanded upon in the darker, spookier, unfairly maligned “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” But by the late ’80s, when Spielberg gave us “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” as A-okay as that movie was it was already (except for Sean Connery) a revamp on autopilot. And “Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull” (2008) was the rehash of the revamp, reducing Indy’s antics to tepid formula.
“The Dial of Destiny” at least tosses the series in a new direction, by being the first “Indiana Jones” movie built around the impressive fact of Harrison Ford’s age. He’s 80 now, and a vibrant 80, still handsome and lean, with a scruff of gray hair and a slower, more gravelly voice as well as a combative physicality that now feels more rote than compulsive. After Indy and Basil leap off that train into a river and retrieve the Antikythera (though the other half of it must still be found!), the film cuts to 1969, where Indy himself is now a relic: an old man living in a cruddy New York apartment, waking up to his hippie neighbors blasting “Magical Mystery Tour,” pouring a shot of whiskey into his instant coffee as he glances over his divorce papers.
Mangold sketches in the period well, so that it stands in for the present day — not literally, but as a signifier of the idea that Professor Henry “Indiana” Jones has been yanked into the modern world. He’s teaching at Hunter College, where he’s getting ready to retire and keeps that one-half of the Antikythera stashed in the archaeology stacks. Then his goddaughter, Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), shows up (they haven’t seen each other for 18 years), announcing that she’s an archaeologist too and would like to team up with Indy to locate the other half of the Antikythera.
It turns out that Helena has mercenary motives. And while Phoebe Waller-Bridge, of “Fleabag” fame, makes her saucy, spiky, and duplicitous in a cheeky way (she’s like the young Maggie Smith with a boatload of attitude), we never feel in our guts that Helena is a chip off the old Indy block. So while it feels like the film is setting her up to become the “new Indy Jones,” I wouldn’t bet the farm on that happening.
Voller, the Nazi foe, hasn’t gone away. He was drafted into NASA, where he spearheaded the scientific innovations that drove the Apollo moon landing. That, of course, makes him a riff on Wernher von Braun (not to mention all the other ex-Nazis the U.S. tapped to help invent the space program), but Mads Mikkelsen, with his lizard scowl and his shiny metallic hair, doesn’t play Voller as a realistic character. He’s a leering megalomaniac out of central casting.
Indy and Helena are going after the Grafikos, the missing other half of the Antikythera, a journey that will take them from New York to Tangier, where Helena tries to unload the piece they already have at an auction for stolen artifacts. Then it’s on to Greece and Sicily, to caves and ruins and giant wriggling caterpillars. Voller is right behind them, along with three assistants: one (Olivier Richters) gigantic, one (Mark Killeen) who will shoot anybody on sight, and one (Shaunette Renée Wilson) who styles herself like a Black Panther. A chase through a ticker-tape parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts, with Indy leaping onto a police horse and riding it into the subway, is grabby in its very absurdity, and a car chase through Tangier, with Indy driving a three-wheel taxi, has enough comic dash to evoke what we cherish about this series. I laughed out loud when Indy leaps into another 3-wheeler at the very moment the one he was driving gets smashed to smithereens.
But those early high points aren’t really followed through on. Mostly, “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” works by translating Indy’s old daredevil kick-ass fervor into the pure will with which he’s now hunting for the artifact. As the film leaps international locations, the action starts to feel more conventional and less “Indiana Jones”-y. Did I mention that the reason the Antikythera is so valuable is that it can create fissures in time that will theoretically allow one to time travel? The film actually tests this out, with spectacularly preposterous results. But time travel, in “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” is really an unconscious metaphor, since it’s the movie that wants to go back in time, completing our love affair with the defining action-movie-star role of Harrison Ford. In the abstract, at least, it accomplishes that, right down to the emotional diagram of a touching finale, but only by reminding you that even if you re-stage the action ethos of the past, recapturing the thrill is much harder.