‘Indiana Jones’ and the Weight of Time

Short Round is gone, but Indy's back—and with him a complicated look at the franchise's past and present

Harrison Ford returns to one of his most famous characters in “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.”

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Four decades since his debut, Indiana Jones returns for a fifth big-screen adventure: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and releases publicly on June 30. The character’s first appearance without director Steven Spielberg or story writer George Lucas, there’s a strong argument to be made that it should also be his last (incoming director James Mangold has the chops for your average “dad movie,” solid mid-budget dramas like Ford v Ferrari, but he sorely misses Spielberg’s adventurous spark). For one thing, Dial of Destiny is a disaster of a movie, so the series is best left alone from here on out. But the story itself is also framed as a final farewell, despite the series’ fourth entry (2008’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) ending on a similar note; the result is finality, for better or worse, though not necessarily with a sense of closure. This time, the entire film revolves around the idea of reflecting on the past, a theme that’s worthwhile in concept, but one that finds itself superficial and malformed. Dial of Destiny is both a sequel and a series retrospective, but only in theory. It pays lip service to reckoning with regrets—both that of the character, and the franchise at large—but in the form of fleeting gestures. If it is, indeed, Indy’s last hurrah, then it’s a disappointing exit on numerous fronts.

The series’ first and third films—Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade, arguably its strongest—saw Indy in a race against the Nazis for valuable, powerful artifacts. It’s a time period and setting to which Dial of Destiny returns in its extended action prologue, featuring a digitally de-aged (and in the process, robotic and dead-eyed) Harrison Ford, as it lays the foundation for its story. Indy and his colleague Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) retrieve one half of the mysterious Dial (based on the real Antikythera, here believed to be a powerful creation of Greek mathematician Archimedes), rescuing it from the clutches of Nazi scientist Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) before the film skips forward to the late 1960s. Indy, now a drunken, divorced, get-off-my-lawn grump, still teaches archeology. But he remains stuck in the past, even as the rest of the world looks to the future, celebrating the return of the Apollo 11 astronauts from their successful lunar mission. It’s a worthwhile and even powerful way to reintroduce Indy, at a time when everyone else looks forward by grasping the tangible, but the aged, soon-to-be-retired Dr. Jones remains tethered to his regrets, and the abstract idea that if he could’ve done things differently with his wife and son—who appeared in the last film—he would have.

“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” digitally de-ages Harrison Ford.

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Before long, this version of Indy is thrust back into a breakneck fetch-quest for the Dial’s other half, an adventure involving Shaw’s roguish daughter Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and a returning Voller, now going by the name Dr. Schmidt, at his cozy job at NASA. Schmidt quickly reveals that he plans to use the Dial’s otherworldly properties to find a way back in time, specifically to 1939, in order to erase Hitler’s missteps and ensure the victory of the Third Reich. On a thematic level, the film’s villain and hero want the same thing: to rewrite history.

It’s a rich set up for a kind of movie that brings with it the weight of the entire series, as a decades-later sequel starring an 80-year-old Ford. However, it’s also a film that feels apprehensive in its framing of the real-world past—i.e. the preceding events of the series, as they exist in cinematic history, and in the popular consciousness. Instead, it depends on the whole-cloth creation of a World War II-era adventure in its prologue that, as far as the audience is concerned, never happened until now; its sense of the past is flimsy, when it could be so much richer.

Mads Mikkelsen as Nazi scientist Jürgen Voller in “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.”

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Indy’s personal regrets are similarly born from events that unfolded off-screen, and each time the movie attempts tongue-in-cheek examination of the series’ flaws, these feel like obligatory lampshading rather than purposeful critique. During several action scenes, Helena throws accusations Indy’s way, about his methodologies. She even goes as far as calling him a grave-robber, an idea baked into the franchise right from its opening scenes, though seldom acknowledged. Throughout the movies, Indy’s “it belongs in a museum!” credo is framed altruistically, but it goes hand-in-hand with the orientalist idea that western museums ought to be the de facto resting place for artifacts from the global south, rather than letting the artifacts’ (often indigenous) cultural descendants determine, for themselves, what ought to become of their history. Of course, both the preceding films and even this one frame the alternative as something markedly worse (Nazis and/or black market dealers), making Indy the better option by default. In Dial of Destiny, his accuser Helena is one such black market hoodlum, so the accusation doesn’t really stick, and the idea of re-framing the series’ past through a renewed or updated lens quickly evaporates.

The series is inseparable from the orientalism baked into the western adventure genre, whose unsavory origins involve applying supernatural and fantastical reasons for the mere existence of ancient non-white/non-western civilizations (e.g. the idea that aliens must have been responsible for the Great Pyramids). The original four films each have their problems in this regard; the way they frame Middle Eastern, Asian, and South American characters and locations involves a simultaneous exoticism and flattening (the India-set second film, Temple of Doom, is especially egregious). Dial of Destiny does, to some small extent, attempt to improve upon this problem. The first film took a brief detour to a version of Cairo that exists largely in the white, western imagination, an endless “bazaar” so filled with ne’er-do-wells, and so removed from modernity, that it may as well be Agrabah from Disney’s Aladdin. This new film returns to a more honest depiction of North Africa (specifically, Tangiers) as a postcolonial mixture of cultural influences, and a people with their own distinct lives and personalities. It’s a minor course correction, but a welcome one, even though it results in a particularly grating subplot: the introduction of one-note Moroccan teenager Teddy (Ethann Isidore), Helena’s sidekick, meant to be a modern update on Indy’s own ward from a previous film, Short Round (Ke Huy Quan).

Phoebe Waller-Bridge plays Helena in “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.”

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

The issue, however, is that beyond echoing the locations and characters from previous films, Dial of Destiny does little to actually reckon with them in any meaningful way. Helena’s accusation of Indy’s methods is but a fleeting line of dialogue during a fast-moving, disorienting action scene, appearing and disappearing so quickly that it may as well have been excised. The film’s lip-service towards a more nuanced view of the past frequently pales in comparison to its adherence to the series’ existing lore. Take for instance, white British actor John Rhys-Davies as Sallah, Indy’s Egyptian associate from previous films. He’s a caricature verging on Brownface and one best left in the past, but his brief appearance in Dial of Destiny is intended to push nostalgic buttons, even at the cost of yanking the series’ unsavory optics into the present. This is, perhaps, why the resurgent events Indy has to reckon with are either created specifically for this film, or occur off-screen. The actual events of the series—a valuable property Disney purchased from Lucasfilm alongside Star Wars—are essentially a religious text, approached here with a sense of reverence beyond reproach.

This problem extends far beyond the series’ racial optics. Its own thematic core is left half-baked because of the film’s trepidatious approach to Indy himself, wherein it views his apparent failures—divorce, and potentially poor parenting decisions—as temporary setbacks independent of his own decision-making, rather than events requiring introspection. The idea of traveling to the past, as Schmidt seems to desire, comes up in conversations involving Indy as well. Courtesy of a genuinely moving performance from Ford, the character initially seems to wrestle with the idea of what he might have done differently in his life, given the opportunity. It’s the perfect set up for a payoff that might differentiate Schmidt and Indy—two men obsessed with living in (and returning) to the past—by having our hero forgo the temptation to change time itself for personal gain. In addition, it might also prove to be a powerful, character-centric bookend to his four-decade cinematic journey, via a difficult but necessary form of dramatic acceptance, wherein he moves forward despite his mistakes, instead of trying to erase them.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge (left) and Harrison Ford in “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.”

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

However, instead of treading this powerfully human path established by the film’s own story, it takes a last-minute detour that renders this entire setup moot. Without delving into spoilers, the film not only robs Indy (and the audience) of a meaningful catharsis vis-à-vis reckoning with past events, it also robs the character of both choice and agency in this regard—and in the process, unburdens him of responsibility altogether.

By the end of Dial of Destiny, references aplenty have been made to the mistakes made by Indiana Jones, both the character and the series. But while the character would be better served, from a story standpoint, by dealing with the weight of past regrets, the franchise is better served from a business standpoint by preserving the past in amber, rendering the franchise infallible, and rendering Indiana Jones more of a cultural mascot than a flawed human being.

Published on May 26, 2023

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter