Indiana Jones and the Really Really Bad Focus Group Response
'You can't just make something up, like a time machine.' – George Lucas, round about the time the last one came out
Why would we put ourselves through it, two cynical old men knowing quite well what to expect? Why would we turn up to the teatime showing on opening day, no less, even after every conversation and discussion we've ever had about this film has been about exactly how bad the rumours are? Why behave like dedicated old football fans, turning out to support our club even after the star players have gone, taking any chance of real silverware with them, and the magic has unmistakably dwindled?
There was no realistic expectation of a sequence to parallel the one with the truck convoy, or the airplane fight, or even a single beat as perfect as the one where he shoots the huge Arab swordsman. But we came along anyway, but still burning in our tired old hearts was a spark of love that has been burning there for forty years. It is child-love, this love, the purest and most unselfish kind of love, and it attaches itself to the oddest things – and the operators of major entertainment corporations are well aware of this, and use it to keep us in their thrall. Star Wars, Star Trek, James Bond, the big-name superheroes: it is child-love, child-love all the way, a chance to feel seven again – and it takes something huge to snuff this kind of spark out. So Former Next Desk Colleague Now Manager and I went to see James Mangold's Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, with our eyes open. This is normally the best way to go to the movies, but in our case it was in a figurative sense as well. To be honest, our expectations were in the basement, but what is life without a little hope?
The film opens with a lengthy prologue set during the latter stages of the Second World War, which in addition to laying in some exposition mainly seems to be here to show off how good de-aging CGI has become – Indiana Jones (Harrison, inevitably, Ford) can certainly pass for a man in his thirties or forties despite the fact that Ford is now pushing 80. (Although, to be honest, I still don't think the technology is quite there yet – it's come on since the CGI Peter Cushing in Rogue One, certainly, but there's something off about the rejuvenated Ford's complexion and much of this sequence takes place in half-shadows.) Dr Jones is trying to liberate stolen antiquities from the clutches of more Nazis with the assistance of his latest sidekick Basil (Toby Jones), when he encounters Nazi mathematician Jurgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) and something which everyone calls the Antikythera, part of a clockwork device made by Archimedes thousands of years ago.
(For anyone who cares but may not already know: the Antikythera Mechanism, as it is more properly called, is an actual thing, known as such simply because it was fished out of the sea off the coast of the island of Antikythera. It's the oldest known analogue computer, hand-powered, and capable of predicting eclipses and possibly tracking the orbits of the classical planets. Turning it into a plot-device in a Hollywood blockbuster really does qualify as dumbing down.)
Anyway, twenty-odd years go by and Indiana Jones is now a sad and lonely old man on the brink of retirement, living in a small apartment in New York City. But who should appear on the scene but his god-child, Basil's daughter Helena (Fridge Wallaby), who presumably takes after her mother? Mainly to make some money, Helena is intent on assembling the bits of the Antikythera device, and she needs Indy's help to do this. But she is being tracked by agents in the employ of Voller, who these days has gone from Nazi to NASA and is an influential figure after the success of the Moon landings. Given the completed device is supposedly a guide to 'temporal meteorology' (it predicts sun and showers, with an outside chance of a rift in the space-time continuum), it's probably not a great idea to let a once-fervent servant of the Third Reich get his hands on it...
So off they go, from New York to Tangiers, then to Greece and Italy (though the famous motif where the red line on the map tracks their progress seems to get somewhat forgotten about for a while). And, to begin with at least, it is jolly, lively stuff which has clearly had umpteen million dollars spent on it. The problem is that, well, Harrison Ford is pushing 80, and there's a limit to the kind of action he can actually get involved in. Those huge practical-effect set pieces you used to see in the older films – the truck chase, the tank battle, the bit with the circus train – also don't seem viable these days, presumably because you can do everything cheaper with CGI. And so instead there are a succession of chases which are very busy and complex, in attempt to keep your attention even while you're reflecting on the fact that it all feels rather lacking in stakes and traction, and Indiana Jones spends a lot of the film sitting down .
But you expect this sort of thing from a modern studio blockbuster, and there is still the occasional moment which amuses or touches – the odd good line (though one of those is basically pinched from Fawlty Towers), and a poignant cameo by John Rhys-Davies. The real problem comes along later on, when they have to find an appropriate climax for what may well be the last Indiana Jones film.
The first time I really heard about this film was just before last Christmas, when Former Next Desk Colleague (etc) passed on some intelligence gleaned from a personal appearance by John Williams, where the great composer revealed he had finished rejigging the score to suit the revised ending of this film. The buzz doing the rounds, apparently, was that the original ending for this film had been shown to audiences, who had liked it about as much as the prospect of free samples of anthrax being handed round at the screening. And the subsequent four endings they had attempted to replace it with had not been much better received.
Mangold and everyone else involved with the film have categorically denied anything of the sort. (Well of course they would.) But it does feel like the last act of the film in particular has been the recipient of significant surgery – character arcs and plot beats established early in the story end up not really paying off, while the climax of the film is... bizarre. It's tonally weird and not especially coherent, but I can't really say any more about it for obvious reasons. Suffice to say that people who didn't like the last one because it had aliens and flying saucers in it may want to stand by to revise their opinion upwards.
Apart from this – well, Fridge Wallaby is quite strongly favoured and gives a big old performance, although I never completely warmed to her character. Mads Mikkelsen, before his character turns into a toned-down version of Dr Strangelove, is actually rather good and properly sinister. But Mangold isn't in the same league as Steven Spielberg and the film never achieves that flying-along sense of pure exhilaration and joy the master at his best achieves. In fact, there's something oddly melancholy about the whole thing – Former Next Desk Colleague was worried we were going to get a sad, old Indy in the same vein as the sad, old Luke and sad, old Han from other recent Lucasfilm productions, and I think he called it right. There's a repeated beat where Indiana Jones' friends and associates are caught in the crossfire and the film dwells on his shock, pain and grief at their loss. The conclusion of the film is not entirely downbeat, but it still feels muted, a sigh of acceptance of the inevitable rather than a valedictory hurrah. Coming so hard on the heels of that very strange, and really non-functional climax... it's recognisably an ending, but shockingly weak, considering the film we're talking about. It doesn't even have boldness to commend it.
Largely because of this, Dial of Destiny was a great disappointment for us in the end, even bearing mind that we had minimal expectations to begin with. But – speaking of destiny – perhaps this itself was inevitable. For a film about the desire to return to past glories, it certainly made me want to watch those older films again. But for this one, I think once was enough.