The Poppies of Terra #7 - They Were Making This Up As They Went
By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
My favorite Indiana Jones movie line occurs at the end of my least favorite film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). It’s not an original line, but a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson. At the wedding of Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood, Professor Oxley, played by John Hurt, muses: “How much of human life is lost in waiting!”
I think it’s fair to say that, by this measure, not a lot of human life was lost leading up to Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, the final picture featuring Harrison Ford in the titular role (until an AI studio head reverses the decision and the studio’s AI lawyer crafts a legal defense for mining the archives). Many fans simply erased Crystal Skull from their headcanon. Fifteen years later, this new installment arrives without much product fanfare. The four previous movies, for example, each received two novelizations, one for adults and one for younger readers, as well as comic book adaptations. So far, I haven’t seen any such announcements for Dial.
A 1944-set prologue kickstarts the adventure in rollicking–one might say, locomotive–style. This sequence could easily be the climax of a “lost adventure” for Indy’s expanded universe to fill in, if that universe were expanding rather than, as it seems, contracting. We’re introduced to Toby Jones’ passable Basil Shaw (the crazed hair is good, though) and Mads Mikkelsen’s understated villain Dr. Voller. So far, X marks the spot.
Next we jump to 1969 and meet Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Helena Shaw, who is Basil’s daughter and Indy’s goddaughter, and, later, a street urchin named Teddy, portrayed by Ethann Isidore. Waller-Bridge inhabits her role effusively. Alas, when it comes to Isidore as Teddy, I think that the casting director, Nina Gold… chose poorly. After a few scenes with Teddy I found myself wondering, “Wouldn’t it have been more fun to see Ke Huy Quan’s Short Round return from Indy's initial–chronologically speaking–adventure, Temple of Doom?” This kind of rumination during a first viewing is generally not a great sign.
As he did portraying an older Rick Deckard in Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Harrison Ford carves out a signal performance. In Crystal Skull, his son, Mutt Williams, mockingly asked: “What are you, like, 80?” Well, Ford now is, in fact, 80, but time, even if it’s reduced his physical prowess, has amplified his thespian abilities.
Another positive is that egregious digital effects throughout this picture have been, shall we say, dialed down from those in Crystal Skull. Unfortunately, the chase sequences should have likewise been trimmed. Too often, Dial mistakes action for excitement, and reduces the action to mechanics instead of using it to express character.
[Major Spoilers Ahead]
Sallah says, “I miss waking up every morning wondering what wonderful adventure the new day will bring to us.” Dial leaves poor Sallah wondering. In general, the script introduces too many characters and treats them shabbily. Shaunette Renée Wilson, for instance, as Agent Mason, is here and gone; this also happens to Antonio Banderas, who plays Indy’s old friend Renaldo. Voller’s henchmen, on the other hand, are given too much screen time.
James Gold is a precise and deft engineer of films, but here he seems to have been using blueprints that were slightly askew. Most of the humor falls flat, and the pacing is off. Spielberg was famously looking to direct a James Bond picture when George Lucas pitched him the idea for Raiders of the Lost Ark; Dial contains the most overtly Bondian set piece yet, with Indy and co. underwater treasure hunting. Unfortunately, the editing and overall murkiness makes it hard to follow. Think more For Your Eyes Only (1981), less Thunderball (1965). John Williams’ score is also the series’ least inspired, and is generally mixed too low to prove rousing.
Let’s talk about the time travel finale. According to what Helena says, Archimedes planned this as a means of enlisting support for Hellenistic Syracuse against the Roman onslaught. The film makes it clear that Archimedes’ dial doesn’t create a portal in time, but merely is able to predict when such “fissures” arise naturally. It’s like a time-distortion compass that can point the way. What are the odds that one such fissure would form exactly on the day of a battle with which Archimedes wants help? Also, if Archimedes wants denizens of the future to travel back to his day and help his cause, why on Earth would he make it so difficult for them to locate the two halves of the dial, creating inordinately elaborate ruses and puzzles to get the mechanism working? Minutes before the jump, Indy sounds adamant that Archimedes couldn’t have accounted for continental drift, and so Voller’s coordinates will be off–but the plane clearly locates the fissure without difficulty and ends up in the right time, so are we supposed to believe Archimedes somehow foresaw that as well?
If this movie’s past is the same as ours, the siege of Syracuse ends with Roman victory and the death of Archimedes. If I were Indy, I’d think that was more depressing than my divorce papers. Consider: Archimedes is genius enough to build a device that can sniff out space-time glitches, wins the lottery when he realizes that one such fissure will materialize precisely on the day he most needs it, and creates an ingenious plan to subtly beckon time travelers from the future to come to his aid, which they do–and he still loses! “Nothing shocks me,” Indy said during his flirtation with Willie Scott in Temple of Doom, “I’m a scientist.” Still, this is pretty shocking.
Crystal Skull explicitly introduced the theme of aging and loss to the franchise, when Dean Charles Stanforth told Indy: “We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away.” Dial has the intelligence and heart to temper this by returning Marion to Indy in the end, along with Sallah, and by adding Helena’s sprightly energy to the mix. Indy has also secured the dial, the first time one of these yarns concludes with our hero in possession of the sought-after artifact. If he wants to take Marion on an exciting date, I suppose he could use the dial to locate the next fissure–though they might just end up back at the siege of Syracuse all over again...
Lowkey retirement is probably a safer bet. As he said at the end of Doom in reference to the Sankara stone, “I understand its power now.” To return then to Emerson: “Let his be words of fate.” Or, as fate would have it, destiny.