When Roger Ebert famously defended (and wildly overrated) Crystal Skull, his general claim was that it was the perfect kind of stupidity. It was derring-do from certain glory days of Hollywood that made for an action-adventure treat, logic be damned. Maybe you can’t make your way down a sail with a dagger, or whatever, and maybe cars can’t do some sort of stunt, and maybe nuclear explosions don’t exactly have their effects negated by a fridge, but who cares? This is fun, and popcorn, and losing yourself.
This is, very generally speaking, a theory I can get behind. I don’t need, to go back a long way to what was a popular example of a similar story, the world’s leading fire expert to walk me through the flaws of Backdraft. But, at some point suspension of disbelief simply isn’t what’s being asked for anymore.
However, apparently buoyed by Ebert’s view, the continuing adventures of Indiana Jones only upped the game, with the nonsensical and structurally-expedient now almost a character, and one that is omnipresent.
Dial of Destiny finds us walking through the end of Indy’s time “working” his real job at University, but reliving another of his previous adventures with Nazis, which put him near half of the titular dial. Along the way we meet Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), the daughter of Indy’s close companion, Basil (Toby Jones), who became obsessed with said dial, and its alleged ability to mathematically do… something magical.
From here we are off on yet another adventure in classic Indy fashion, which is going to involve a lot of travel, wacky scrapes, and mad dashes with Nazis on our heels. Despite the rather schmaltzy “next stage” scenes of Indy’s retirement, the movie has everything going for it at about 30 minutes in. Harrison Ford sucks the audience in with a charm that has morphed with time but hasn’t diminished in the slightest. Waller-Bridge is only up against the script here, and easily proves herself (again) as the moment’s most screen-bewitching actress. There’s a passable Nazi in Mads Mikkelsen who is similarly stymied by the script’s demand that he caricature himself nearly into a coma. Finally, there’s a treasure beyond treasure, just like every other adventure, which involves some key to the past. What could go wrong?
Unfortunately, the bullet points that sell a film that could have been the next genre-altering hit weren’t fleshed out with any effort to have anything make the slightest bit of sense. No part of the story connects even to its own rules and world-building, and most of what happens simply appears as though two pages of the script got stuck together. The logic behind everything seems to flow from a kind of ipso facto mentality, which is nearly brazen in certain specifics, but permeates every moment on screen. A certain “trap”, for example, simply could not exist where and how it is, a fact made worse, oddly enough, by the film’s explanation of it, but the film apparently believes it refutes this idea simply by the idea that, “Look, it is in fact there, so it obviously could be there.”
When it isn’t suspiciously boring in its lack of effort to pay attention to itself, events move by way of the laughably impossible. As though digging in its heels with the notion that sometimes happenstance can move mountains, the Nazis show up magically at points where they couldn’t know they should be, because the clock says it’s time for adversity to reemerge.
Luckily, two of the most necessary components of the film manage to actually be covered pretty well – dialogue and chase mechanics. There’s a slightly rough start to Helena, because the character is initially given to us in ways that are overly contradictory even given an idea of some subterfuge inherent in her entry to the world. Sure, she’s not quite who we might have thought, or at least certainly has motivations pulling her in different directions, but the options aren’t limited to “straight-forward” and “loony.” Still, once the film trudges through its somewhat condescending effort at Helena’s worldview, Waller-Bridge and Ford quickly materialize as the sort of duo that would have lit the marquees Ebert longed for, even if that’s a bit more unwieldy than the eras famous pairs. The least unbelievable thing in the film is how quickly they move to a kind of comfortable animosity, sniping away like the old chums Indy and her father must have been, and while that is still an order of magnitude more unbelievable than anything in a film should be, it works here in very much the way Ebert would suggest – we just have to overlook some things to take this ride.
The chases are, when removed from how we got into them, largely on par with the best you’ll find. Ducking and running are Indy’s stock-in-trade and on that score we have a movie that delivers solidly. There’s a bit of comedy thrown into things, for good or ill, and there are enough close scrapes to keep you on the edge of your seat. Then someone fires a ballista at an airplane and at that point the film has decided all bets are off. At a certain point the truly bonkers takes center stage and all redeeming qualities flee.
It’s a rough combination. It’s a film with some of the best scenes in the franchise, or scenes that could be if it could be bothered to pay attention to them, but also with the majority of the most ridiculous. But, the middle hour is nearly impossible to deny. It’s layered and wild with every element an audience might be looking for. Perhaps screwball fun, but the kind you truly get lost in, without the insulting idiocy. It’s a rollercoaster you’d ride all day with characters you’d never shy away from cheering.
In the end, this is a film that destroys itself as the sense of thrill and wonder melts away in the face of ludicrous events and character-breaking decisions and dialogue. It is an effort far better in theory, or blissfully-faded memory.
Below catch our podcast episode that also includes our review of Extraction 2.