Harrison Ford Rises Above This Dusty Franchise [Cannes]

May 20, 2023

In “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” the sturdy lark, positioned precariously in the liminal space between commerce and taste, there are the familiar callbacks, the big set pieces, the cracking bullwhip, dashing fedoras, nefarious Nazis, exotic locales, old friends and new faces. Something, however, is missing. More on that in a bit. It starts with a recognizable canvas: Nazi Germany is nearing the end of World War II. A hooded Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), wearing a German officer’s suit, is hauled with a sack over his head for questioning. He’s looking for the Lance of Longinus, a religious relic purported to have pierced Jesus on the cross. Hitler wants it, of course. No one knows, however, the even greater treasure—discovered by Nazi scientist Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen)—that’s hidden on the train. It’s half of a dial belonging to Archimedes that holds the possibility of traveling through time. It’s called the Antikythera.
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What ensues is an expected skirmish: Jones breaks free from his captors to retrieve the stolen artifact. He commandeers a German car, careens through country roads, leaps onto a train and infiltrates the baggage cars teeming with Nazi soldiers. For this opening sequence, Ford has followed in the footsteps of other senior Hollywood stars to be de-aged. The results are shockingly firm, demonstrating how far the technology has advanced. Similar to Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino in “The Irishman,” however, Ford can’t wholly behind this computer-generated face. His older, gravely voice scratches the veneer of the illusion. He also has more choices at his disposal, deciding to use mannerisms and facial expressions he’s developed in the last twenty years. What arises is a tension between the actor’s past self and his contemporary aims. 
And yet, that’s just a taste of the competing desires complicating this fifth, and presumably final installment in the classic franchise. At every turn director James Mangold desperately wants to recapture the glory of old-school Hollywood filmmaking, but turns, painstakingly to the worn-out tools of present-day tentpole moviemaking. 
As such, the film noticeably lumbers through its plain set-up: Our hero, Jones, nearing retirement, lives miserably alone. His wife Marion Ravenswood, who he married in “Crystal Skull” wants a divorce. His son, Mutt Williams—previously portrayed by Shia LaBeouf—is absent (the film does provide a brief explanation for the vacancy). The world has passed by Jones: His flower power neighbors awaken him to Beatles music; protesters fill the streets; astronauts are in, and cowboy archaeologists are out; his students no longer fawn over him as eye candy, as they barely accomplish the reading. His goddaughter Helen Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) comes to him asking for one last adventure. Her father (Tobie Jones) was obsessed with the Antikythera. She thinks she knows where to find the other half of the dial. If only Jones would come with her to find it. 
The story further unfolds in drab fashion: Helen wants the dial to deal on the black market before the Nazi-turned-repatriated NASA rocket scientist Voller, now going by the name Schmidt, captures her. After a fair bit of backstabbing and double-dealing, Jones goes on that one last journey with Helen. They’re aided briefly by Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and the deep-sea diver Renaldo (Antonio Banderas). Older men who just want another spark, like the good old days. They’re even joined by Helen’s young sidekick in an obvious nod to Short Round. None of these new or recurrent characters are particularly tantalizing. They’re set pieces in an endless stream of allusions and easter eggs to the prior films. At best, Sallah and Renaldo are totemic of the melancholy Jones feels. At worst, they are underwritten side pieces.
Amid the depths of the modern noise that arises from dull technology—from de-aging to heavily rendered landscapes—and the misplaced directive of self-referential storytelling, Mangold loses his handle on a subject (fathers facing their mortality) he usually lands with aplomb. You can scarcely tell here that “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was born from Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ shared love of B-movies and serial films. “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” of course, doesn’t find comfort in reality. It is a fantastical movie with an unmistakable Hollywood sheen. But that patina was a different kind of sheen from today. It was the kind that transports you to parts unknown for gallantry and heroism, for soaring romanticism and sure death. “Dial of Destiny” isn’t attempting to whisk you away. Like other contemporary tentpoles, it’s trying to pull the wool over your eyes by offering an uncanny valley where physics-defying action can occur without that pesky human physicality barging in. None of it looks timeless. It’s merely timely in a fast-fashion way. 
That doesn’t mean that “Dial of Destiny” is short on action: Helen and Jones race through the streets of Tangier in a rickshaw; they plunge past killer eels deep in the sea; they rifle through ancient tombs, and crack riddles left unanswered for centuries. You just wish the editing wasn’t so workmanlike, the compositions weren’t so obvious, and the queues for John Williams’ stirring music weren’t done at such basic moments. They get the job done. But not much else. Because what’s inherent in adventure is a sense of danger, and there’s no sense of danger when every inch of the frame has been rendered to a biting coldness. 
The only warmth is Harrison Ford: He just seems so at ease. He doesn’t fall for the bait of trying to recreate the past. He pinpoints the exact emotional wear and tear Jones should be feeling at this moment of his life. Ford is a curmudgeon and a charmer; he offers vulnerability and strength, patience and naturalism, the willingness to play with his star persona and the ability to give audience their comfort food. He is everywhere the movie should be and in the places where the film tragically isn’t. Waller-Bridge tries to be a swashbuckling mirror to Jones; unfortunately, she struggles to balance the unlikeable aspects of the character (her devotion to capitalism) without pulling through the clear sorrowful undertones the narrative intimates. She can’t pull off what Ford does, who elevates a rote script for real instances of pathos. 
His lived-in performance, in fact, throws the ending of “Dial of Destiny” in disarray. Not because it’s misguided, but because it’s so much better than the movie. Because when Mangold makes the predictable turn toward the fantastical—in a somehow more absurd yet more plausible way than “Crystal Skull”—it renders the heartwarming conclusion hollow by negating the fate it felt like Ford was building toward for Jones. What’s given is a saccharine final note only made palatable by the sheer will of Ford’s movie star qualities. It’s a sad and safe ending for a series that once prided itself on big escapades, larger-than-life emotions, and the unfettered freedom to audiences both what they wanted and what they needed. “Dial of Destiny” shows that some relics should just stay buried. [C]         
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