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The Dial of Destiny is a bold conclusion to a series unafraid of taking risks.

1969: Archimedes’ Antikythera

Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones
Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones

There are plenty of surprises in Dial of Destiny and some of them go into territory even darker than Temple of Doom. Ultimately, this fifth — and final — Indiana Jones adventure starring Harrison Ford isn’t really about Archimedes and the Antikythera. They’re merely the catalysts for a much more personal discovery for Indy. The real expedition at the center of Destiny is a deeper excavation into the core of Dr. Henry Walton Jones, Jr. himself.

Those catalysts date back to 1944. The movie begins with an opening adventure in which Indy and a friend, Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), infiltrate a Nazi compound. The Nazis have a lot of nice stuff. The problem is, it all belongs to other people. Treasures, works of art, artifacts; all of it stolen during Nazi plundering and some of it identified as helping to satiate Hitler’s interest in the occult. One such item is the Lance of Longinus, the lance used to draw Christ’s blood. It’s also commonly known as the Spear of Destiny.

Even more intriguing is something called the Antikythera, which is considered to be the first known analog computer. For Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), it’s a prized find to present to Herr Hitler. Others deride Jürgen. As the movie’s legend has it, Archimedes dismantled the device for safety’s sake, so a partial Antikythera — something most people have never even heard of — is certainly not going to impress der Führer.

But there are a couple snags to all of this. One: the lance is a fake. Two: Indy Jones.

This opening sequence satisfies a few needs. It introduces the characters of Basil Shaw and Jürgen Voller, both crucial to the rest of the story. And it also allows for a de-aged Harrison Ford to bask in the glory of another confrontation with Nazis. Lots of Nazis.

But there is also one telling line from Indy which plays into the heart of this special movie. “I like to be alone.” In the context of his conversation with the Nazis, it makes sense. But over the course of the movie, it gains more significance.

All That You Can’t Leave Behind

Sometimes it’s helpful to think of movies in terms of music. A band is at its most exciting when it experiments and when it branches out into different styles, explores different themes. But, that very necessary creative stretch and energy release oftentimes leads to upset or disinterested fans.

One of the underappreciated hallmarks of the Indiana Jones series is its unpredictability. It’s been an experiment all along, starting with the poison darts and the roll of the boulder. The Temple of Doom, with its darker tone, hearts on fire, noisy female companion and youthful sideback was not universally praised upon its release. It was too different from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Last Crusade was another turn, but the humorous family dynamics between father and son were irresistible. Nobody saw “saucermen from Mars” coming in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And because of it the term “jumped the shark” became “nuked the fridge.” It’s an unfortunate misunderstanding of what the totality of the Indiana Jones world represents. Crystal Skull was a gutsy push forward.

More flak can be expected with the unpredictability of Dial of Destiny. It’s a fresh riff on a classic Indy theme: assessing history from a distance, merely by examining what’s been left behind. Much like Indy’s quest for the Holy Grail, it requires a leap of faith from audiences, but that leap brings rewards.

Perhaps the best way to sum it up is to play with one of Indy’s phrases. Your mileage may vary.

De-aging Dr. Jones

It’s universally understood Dial of Destiny is Ford’s last outing as Indy. Ford turns 81 in July.

The adventure here bundles it all up with a twist on the very notion of what’s left behind.

So, as a finale, the opening sequence with the de-aged Ford is both a visual treat to salute Ford’s favorite role and a slick use of technology to drive the narrative. It’s a trick used quite often in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for actors including Robert Downey Jr., Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer.

The de-aged Indy
The de-aged Indy

What’s interesting is this is truly intended to be the final cinematic chapter of the Indiana Jones story. This isn’t a hand-off to a younger Indy (such as in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles). Despite previous rumors, there are no plans to cast Bradley Cooper — or anybody else — in the role that Ford created with a little help from his friends George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. But there are rumors maybe the world of Indy Jones will continue in the form of a Disney+ series, perhaps focusing on Abner Ravenwood or Short Round (it’d be great to see Ke Huy Quan, a newly minted Oscar winner, reprise his role from Temple of Doom).

Helena Shaw

After those opening events in 1944, the story moves to New York City in August 1969. It’s a whole new world and it’s striking how much history is packed into Dial of Destiny.

The Big Apple is gearing up for two big events. There’s a parade to celebrate the triumph of the Apollo 11 crew (Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin) and their historic lunar landing, but there’s also a growing demonstration against the war in Vietnam.

History is unfolding right outside his door, but for 70-year-old Indy neither event is of personal interest. He’s got a class of unenthused students at Hunter College and he’s basically resigned to most of them flunking out. (Audiences will be well served by paying attention. His lecture is relevant to the action that follows.)

He’s also retiring from academia and he’s in a personal funk driven by some dramatic shifts on the domestic front. (Think of it as his own personal version of the “Black Sleep of the Kali Ma.”) It’s a natural, logical state for a guy who, for every successful Cross of Coronado story, has a couple stories where he had to give up the treasure for any number of reasons. More often than not, the fortune and the glory where both left out on the field.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge is Helena Shaw
Phoebe Waller-Bridge is Helena Shaw

Enter Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), daughter to Basil Shaw and goddaughter to Indy.

Helena is a terrific new character; when she’s on the screen, it’s like a breath of fresh air. Her relationship with Indy is mostly contentious, with the occasional glimmer of heart. Helena has a diametrically opposed view to Indy when it comes to archaeology and artifacts. For Helena, it really is about the fortune. She can do without the glory.

She most certainly has friends in low places. And, well, she’s right down there with them. One of the entertaining bits about this woman is she is on the run from a guy to whom she owes bail money and a “lifetime of happiness.”

She’s terrific and she adds a wonderful new dynamic to this world of shady characters and noble professors. And so it is the two — godfather and goddaugther — are a reluctant duo aided by friends old and new in what turns out to be an adventure every bit as quotable and entertaining as the previous four, along with plenty of action that only an Indiana Jones adventure can pull off.

Nobody does it better than Jones. Indiana Jones.

Space Nazis

When it was revealed Indy would once again confront Nazis in this fifth movie, there was a pang of disappointment. Given the series has closely tracked Indy’s age with the years between movies, Indy 5 was pointing to the mid- to late-1960s. Nazis? Why?

Well, their involvement is much more interesting than expected.

Mads Mikkelsen is Jurgen Voller
Mads Mikkelsen is Jurgen Voller

Jürgen is a high-profile scientist on the eve of meeting with President Nixon. His work — along with other Germans, such as Wernher von Braun — was instrumental in developing the Saturn V rocket used to send Apollo 11 to the moon and ultimately enabled Armstrong’s “giant leap” as the first man to walk on the moon. (History check: von Braun was a member of the Nazi party, but his ties apparently were not known while he was working on the space program.)

With that, the Nazis returning to the series isn’t strictly a nostalgia play. Their lingering impact on history even going through the 1960s allows them to return to the series with a surprising amount of relevance.

What’s more, their activities in pursuit of the Antikythera lead to Indy being framed for murder. But Jürgen doesn’t want to stop there. He’s leading a crazy plot to kill Hitler and thereby advance the Thousand-Year Reich. That is something Jürgen believes can be accomplished if the Antikythera is pieced back together and put to use. This is fantastic, pulpy stuff. Every bit in keeping with the storytelling tradition of the previous four installments.

The Good Doctor

There’s a lot going on in this story. And that’s a great thing. This is not a throwaway. This is not a cheap cash-in. This is not a half-hearted farewell. This is an ambitious movie (in some respects, given the creative license used in the climax, this one could be referred to as “the arthouse Indy”). It does things with a beloved character no other series has even had the opportunity to address; the closest would be the transition of Rocky Balboa into a mentor role in the Creed movies. But in Creed III, he’s completely written out of the mix.

Dial of Destiny presents a tightly packed narrative and without a doubt it’s going to knock some people off the bandwagon. But, in the interest of staying in a spoiler-free zone, many surprises — some delightful, some challenging — will remain unwritten here. What will be said is this one is about the relationships more than any other Indy outing.

Destiny is helmed by James Mangold, who directed Christian Bale in two exceptional movies: the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma and Ford v Ferrari. It’s the first Indy theatrical release not directed by Steven Spielberg; ostensibly, Spielberg was tied up with commitments to West Side Story and The Fabelmans (both excellent, by the way). Here, Mangold (who also co-wrote the screenplay with his Ford v Ferrari collaborators Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth along with frequent Spielberg scribe David Koepp) proves he is worthy and is in that ultra-rarified stratum of directors who could take on a movie this daunting. It’s clear everybody — including Lucas and Spielberg as executive producers — have a deep and abiding affection for Indiana Jones and his world of adventure, while also keeping an eye on the harsher realities of all the glory left behind in adventures past.

It would’ve been nice if more was done with Sallah’s heartfelt sentiment, as also heard in the first trailer, “I miss the desert. I miss the sea. And I miss waking up every morning wondering what wonderful adventure the new day will bring to us.” It would’ve been nice if Indy shared in that feeling, at least a little bit. But, in fairness, when you’re framed for murder, that’s likely not where your head’s at.

Nonetheless, as it stands, when Indy’s back in his gear — the fedora, the jacket, the whip — he instantly looks relaxed and back in the zone. Helena was razzing him when she tells him his hat makes him look at least two years younger. But, he sure does.

Perhaps the most amazing accomplishment is Dial of Destiny — despite the darkness — ends on the perfect note. Not just from John Williams’ score, either. After taking a gander at Indy’s nightstand, there’s every reason to be giddy as a schoolboy.

Like Indy’s favorite jacket, this movie is already gaining in fondness and it’s starting to wear even more comfortably.