This article appeared in the June 22, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (James Mangold, 2023)

“Too many Nazis,” growls Indiana Jones. I would add: too many punches to the face, too many bullets, too many arrows, too many dank caverns and murky passageways, too many speeding vehicles that eject passengers like Tilt-a-Whirls without a rail, and too many digitally enhanced stunts that turn human beings into Gumby toys. What makes Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny bearable and occasionally even touching is that Harrison Ford proves indestructible. He counterpoints lickety-split reflexes with pungent delayed reactions, and displays his paradoxical signature—efficient yet larger-than-life expressions that generate surprising emotions and intensities. “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage,” says the youthful Indy in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now, 42 years later, the octogenarian Ford’s sags and crags add deep mellow tones to Indy’s semi-streetwise, semi-academic wit and wisdom. It’s too bad that this less-is-more pro gets snagged in a more-is-more production.

Raiders, the first (and best) Indiana Jones movie, abjured excess. Responding to an avalanche of schadenfreude after the fiasco of his overblown 1941 (1979)Steven Spielberg was determined to work with the new project’s prime mover, George Lucas, on a fixed budget ($20 million) and timetable (73 days). The result was exhilarating and innovative pulp that transformed harum-scarum movie serials the way Breathless did old-school films noir. Raiders excised the pedestrian connective tissue that made fans restless between cliff-hangers. And Spielberg’s self-imposed limits gave this “movie-movie” its ornery get-up-and-go. He mixed virtuosic episodes (Indy running away from the giant rolling boulder) with throwaway black comedy (Indy, forsaking his whip, simply shoots a master swordsman) and blatant shortcuts (Indy somehow hitches a ride on a U-boat). What made Raiders work wasn’t only Spielberg’s seat-of-the-pants film sense but Lucas’s notion to transform and elevate the Hitchcockian “MacGuffin”—the obscure object of desire that sets the characters in motion. For Hitchcock, the MacGuffin could be meaningless (though not always: e.g., the uranium in Notorious). For Lucas, the MacGuffin meant everything. It had to excite the audience and keep the narrative stakes sky-high. The Ark of the Covenant did just that: it held the two tablets of the Ten Commandments and contained mesmerizing powers.

Writer-director Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff), who shared story credit with Lucas, had thought of the Ark when they brainstormed about Indy in the mid-1970s. As a boy, Kaufman had read his Hasidic great-uncle’s annotated Hebrew-English Pentateuch, whose commentaries suggested that the Ark could emit a mysterious, rocket-grade electric charge. As a college student, he’d discussed it with a doctor who theorized that it served, as the Raiders script would put it, as a “radio to God.” Kaufman and Lucas envisioned an archeologist hero battling Nazis for possession of this ultimate Jewish artifact. Kaufman’s spiritual vision tinged Lawrence Kasdan’s script: the Ark scorches the Nazi insignia on its shipping crate and incinerates the French archeologist who collaborates with Nazis.

In the end credits of The Dial of Destiny, “Based on characters created by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman” wins unusually high placement—with good reason. Director and co-writer James Mangold roots the film in the link Kaufman forged between Nazi despotism and Hitler’s lust for relics of power. The prologue, set in the Third Reich’s waning days, depicts Indy (a bland, computer-youthened Ford) and Oxford archeology professor Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) struggling to keep the Lance of Longinus (which pierced Jesus’s side) from becoming Nazi property. Midway through this hyperactive introduction, packed with colliding planes, trains, and automobiles, Mangold switches focus to a different legend of antiquity: the title’s “dial of destiny,” an analogue computer called the Antikythera Mechanism or the Archimedes Dial—a MacGuffin so lamentably complicated that it requires a code and an instruction manual.

When the action leaps from Nazi-occupied Europe to Manhattan on August 13, 1969 (the day of New York’s ticker-tape parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts), the script adopts a stutter step, raising questions and dodging answers. Who is Indy’s gawky female stalker? (Oh, it’s Helena, Basil’s daughter.) Who are the various agents working at cross-purposes—especially the ones blithely killing off Indy’s Hunter College colleagues? Did the Nazi scientist (played by TV’s Hannibal Lecter, the great Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen) change his ideology as well as his name when he worked for NASA? What makes the Archimedes Dial so valuable to all of them, and how does it navigate what the script repeatedly calls “fissures in time”? Mangold and his co-writers (Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, David Koepp) mistakenly rely on sketchy, melodramatic flashbacks to root the relationship between Indy and Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), his goddaughter. The movie’s dialogue can scarcely be deciphered amid the general clangor on the soundtrack. The words I did hear didn’t make me curious about the ones I missed. This is what passes for a clever exchange—Indy to Nazi: “You stole it!” Nazi to Indy: “You stole it.” Helena to both: “Then stole it! It’s called capitalism.”

To be fair, not even Spielberg’s sequels recovered Raiders’s scrappy spirit: the franchise turned into an expensive game of “can-we-top-this?” But Mangold’s action sequences are so overthought and under-felt that they seem to go on forever. In his terrific Ford v Ferrari (2019), Mangold demonstrated how humane an action filmmaker can be: he filled every spectacular stunt or race with vibrant personality, nurturing Matt Damon’s suggestive minimalism and Christian Bale’s exuberant striving even as they pushed the pedal to the metal. Not a single crash or death was mere “collateral damage.” Here the director provides cold, tinny mash-ups of set pieces from movies as different as Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) and Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975). Mangold stages promising variations on Spielberg’s action scenes—like snake-hater Indy descending into an eel-infested sea—but shoots them so flatly or murkily that they never pay off.

Whenever Lucas knew his MacGuffins were weak, he filled the resulting vacuums with primal emotional connections—the seriocomic depths of Indy’s bonding with his father (Sean Connery) in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Tom Stoppard did the inspired rewrite), or the slap-happy heights of Indy’s partnership with his son Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)Mangold tries and misses with cheeky godchild Helena, who’s meant to come off as the daughter Indy never had. For two-thirds of the picture she matches him physically, blow for blow and jump for jump. Waller-Bridge can take and throw a punch. But her performance rests on acting breathless and fresh-faced while embodying every sort of cynicism and paying lip service to present-day shibboleths (she slams Indy for stealing from Indigenous peoples). She’s strictly reactive, even in her one affecting scene: she responds beautifully to Ford as Indy uncorks his bottled-up grief over losing his son and failing as a husband.

Only one woman registers as Indy’s equal: Marion, his estranged wife. Karen Allen plays her with limpidity and grace (the opposite of Waller-Bridge’s archness). Allen’s 11th-hour entrance is infinitely poignant. But it’s too little, too late.

Michael Sragow, a Film Comment contributing editor, wrote Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (Pantheon, 2008), wrote and co-produced the 2019 documentary Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers, and co-wrote and co-produced the 2022 documentary Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen.