AAfter hitting the bull’s eye at the box office with Jaws (1975) and Dating of the Third Kind (1977), Steven Spielberg erased his notebook of Hollywood prodigies with 1941 (1979). A “spectacular comedy” set in the wake of the Pearl Harbor bombing (yes, really), 1941 cost nearly twice as much as Spielberg’s previous release, but took less than a third of its box office. Chastened, the director teamed up with George Lucas on a project inspired by the cheap soap operas of the 30s and 40s. The result was the moderate price The Raiders of the Lost Ark, which quickly became the highest-grossing film of 1981, and which Spielberg later told me helped him get back to his crowd-pleasing roots.
Four decades and as many sequels/prequels later, the Indiana Jones franchise is still a money-spinner, though exponentially rising budgets (this latest installment costs nearly $300 million) have paid for the relatively cheap philosophy and cheerful of the original. In its place we have an odd combination of high-tech, computer-enhanced nostalgia (Harrison Ford is digitally aged for flashbacks of WWII Europe) mixed with a series of old-but-new action pieces involving big trains, toy cars and nippy bikes – footage that eerily mirrors this summer’s other hugely expensive action franchise outing, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1. The difference is that while the MI7 looks like it’s machined to keep you on the edge of your seat, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Fate just wants you to sit back and indulge in it.
With Spielberg no longer in charge, it’s up to James Mangold to crack the whip, with the help of his Le Mans 66 (AKA Ferrari vs. Ford) co-authors Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. Fortunately, Shia LaBeouf’s insufferable Mutt Williams, who Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Crystal Skull (2008) had clumsily attempted to cast himself as Dr Jones’ successor, departed, his absence easily explaining why Indy finds himself on his own again, naturally.
It’s the late 1960s, and the good doctor has become a sore curmudgeon, a live-action cinematic cousin to the old man of At the top. As Indy grumbles about retirement, the United States co-opts ex-Nazi Jürgen Voller (a landscape-sucking Mads Mikkelsen) to aid NASA’s moon landing efforts. But Voller is aiming for a bigger prize – the titular magical MacGuffin, whom he last got his hands on in 1944. Here young(er) Indy and eccentric professor Basil Shaw (Toby Jones, stealing every scene) do battle with Voller’s Nazi henchman over possession of Archimedes’ Antikythera Mechanism; a two-piece contraption (most importantly, you need both coins) that can not only predict but possibly control temporal anomalies… or something like that. Think Ark of the Covenant meets the TARDIS. But smaller. And in two stages.
Meanwhile, in the ’60s, Basil’s daughter Helena (a clearly delighted Phoebe Waller-Bridge) has her own currency designs on the dial. Helena is Indy’s goddaughter, setting the stage for heated near-family feuds as everyone races around the world, racing to find the ancient artifact with mysterious powers that will change the course of the bla, bla , blah…
According to the British Board of Film Classification’s beautifully direct consumer advice, “Those familiar with the series will not be surprised by the violence and menace”, to which he might well have added: “Either anything other “. There’s literally nothing here to scare the horses or disturb the applecarts, except for the ones knocked down during chase scenes on crowded streets. Even the absurdity of the final act (not so much WTF? as OFFS!) seems par for the course in a series that began with Nazi faces melted by creepy angels and, more recently, Dr. Jones and his co-communicated with aliens through a multidimensional portal in the mythical city of Akator.
Instead, you’re invited to feel warm and fuzzy about reuniting with old friends (even those whose reappearance has proven divisive) and marveling at scenic vistas and pop adventures. -corns fairly mundane, all played to robust John Williams themes. Hats off to Ford, who continues a string of back-to-back role reprisal wins in later life (Han Solo, Rick Deckard), proving that whatever gruff genre appeal he possessed in his prime, he has aged better than Indy lap. He may be 80, but Ford carries the brunt of the film, which, for all its gargantuan spending, feels a bit like those throwaway soap operas that first inspired Lucas – fun while it lasts, but utterly forgettable on release. .