Indiana Jones, or the coming-of-old-age

7 July, 2023

We are starting a series of reviews dedicated to blockbuster movies, those titles that everyone talks about and end up at the top of the most anticipated titles lists. These reviews are written by Ramona Aristide and the column is supported by glo™.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (r. James Mangold, 2023) premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival this year, where American actor Harrison Ford was bestowed with the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

The final chapter of the franchise released by George Lucas in 1981 franchise, with a pilot entry in the Steven Spielberg-directed Raiders of the Lost Ark, acts like a small epigone, making a reverential bow towards the series’ tradition[1]; a farewell gesture that functions as an ideal pretext to revitalize the nostalgia of its fans, only for it to unfortunately slip into a symbiotic complication with its past. Meanwhile divorced and turned into a sour and resigned octogenarian, Indy (Harrison Ford) wants nothing more than to drink his alcohol-spiked coffee in the comfort of his New York apartment, but the stronger his desire for isolation gets, the more his environment denies him his retreat into obscurity – be it the late-night partygoers in his neighbors’ apartment, or Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who wants to pull him into one final adventure, following the path of her mathematician father’s intuition that Archimedes’ Antikythera dial is capable of causing cracks within the fiber of time itself.

Of course, the filmmakers could not help themselves or, perhaps just as much, could not avoid staging the conflict between tradition and contemporaneity, given that we have this hiatus in the existence of the main character, and of the actor, himself. The solutions are oftentimes almost ridiculous: a digitally rejuvenated Indy is deployed to perform flashbacks from the Second World War; what is remarkable is that the VFX artists’ attention only crosses off the look of the character, but not the voice. In a way, what disturbs the protagonist when it comes to his relationship with the other characters is the very thing that disturbs the audience itself with regard to the film’s aims, and that is Hollywood’s morid fantasy to unearth various relics and to polish them in a way that allows them to spin the wheel of fortune once again. Why do we need Indy to gloriously return to the screen, and even more so, why do we need Harrison Ford to play his role?

Harrison Ford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Indiana Jones 5. Photo: LucasfilmLtd

This is not to say that the actor’s age is unable to add a layer of complexity to the story, on the contrary – I have the sense that Ford’s character is carefully constructed from a psychological perspective. He’s human, credible, invested with the charm of a regular Joe, and he is not at all unilateral or flat. There are some natural changes to his attitude, as we see in his interactions with his partying neighbors, his students at Hunter College, or his more nuanced relationship with the daughter of his deceased friend, with all of its contextual variations. On the other hand, the film doesn’t boldly open up to the possibility of difference, because, behind the capitalistic spectacle of its impressive technological means, its locations spread across three continents, and its dazzling mise-en-scene, one can still see the cracks of its old tropes, which are nowadays outright anachronistic. If I may say so myself, Indy’s whip (which fans probably revere just as much as believers idolize the holy cross) no longer has the same fatal blow, which makes its juxtaposition with actual weapons seem cartoonish: it’s just as if someone would come on a horse to a car race.

This is not to say that James Mangold and the film’s co-writers Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and David Koepp are suffering from an adolescently naïvete. Besides, mainstream cinema doesn’t shy away from resorting to deus ex machina-like artifices to exert diegetic control over otherwise (that is, realistically) uncontrollable situations, but rather, I have the rather pretentious presumption that they’re walking blindfolded into certain types of choices, guided by a type of anxiety that arises from the series’ radiant influence, a result of both mythological status and of Steven Spielberg’s directorial mastery.

I will avoid engaging in an unproductive and invalidating comparison between Spielberg and Mangold, however, it seems to me that, unlike the earlier, better parts, the action scenes here are amateurishly out of hand. The characters’ confrontations on running trains and their exotic motor-vehicle chases are reprised and extended into redundancy, bloating the runtime to 154 minutes, a time that excruciatingly passes by after its first half. In the end, the sole element that differentiates the various chases between the duo of Helena and Indy and the neurotic nazis is the backdrop, Tangier and Sicily, as the diegetic variations are almost negligible. One could take a suspicious eye to the film’s mammoth budget (approx. 30 million dollars), but here, it seems like this investment only works to the detriment of the story, of the creativity and efficiency of its makers.

Still from Indiana Jones 5. Photo: LucasfilmLtd

Even the political/historical map that they outline here is rather confused and sometimes even outright delirious. The main villain is an undercover nazi, Jürgen Voller, a prestigious scientist that has been hired at NASA: a flat character that at no point escapes the passe typology of the megalomaniacal nazi, which is very apt from a strategic point of view. His monomaniac desire is to rewrite history, replacing the roles of winners and losers, but of course, his hybris is ultimately sanctioned, given that he falls into a temporal as he is drawn into another temporal vortex that transports him back to antiquity, into the Battle of Syracuse, where the narrative forcibly introduces the character whose aura shines brightest in the film, Archimedes. Of course, this entire artifice only serves as a pretext that sets up the millenary encounter between the history teacher cum antique seller and the esteemed inventor from Ancient Greece. Fortunately enough, the situation’s sheer ridiculousness is tempered by Helena’s (shaky) sense of humor, as she refuses to get caught up in Indy’s fantasies. It’s interesting how her character seems to overflow with autonomy, independence, and self-sufficiency, traits that she points out in one of her lines, but still, by the end of the film, one has the vague sense that she is nothing more than a construct that ticks off all the contemporary political hot topics, such as the discourse of female empowerment which, in this case, is insufficiently consistent for it to penetrate the collective mind.

Despite its enormous ideals, the new Indiana Jones languishes in a completely no-risk area, one that paradoxically puts its audience at risk. And even despite its acrobatic leaps through history, the film doesn’t enter even the slightest dialectical relationship with its representations, doesn’t fully shape its characters and, in the end, doesn’t justify this gratuitous wake-up-call to an old man who just wants to drink his cup of coffee in peace.

[1] Except for the part in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that we’re all trying to forget.

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Film critic. She graduated from Filmology at UNATC. She writes and sometimes moderates discussions.