For real people, the plot points of our lives are seldom explained before the credits roll. And the Indiana Jones saga has always known this. Back in 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark presented a perfect metaphor for this kind of intellectual untidiness: At the very end, the ark itself is placed in a massive warehouse, in a sealed box, among countless other sealed boxes. We never really found out what was in those other boxes, and we never saw the Lost Ark again. The story and events of Raiders of the Last Ark were fantastical, but its ending was realistic — the mysteries of life are often concealed, unsolved, or so elusive we may never even be aware of them.
So, if you go into the new film, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, and you fully expect to have all your nitty-gritty plot questions answered, you’ve already got the wrong mentality. Like its predecessors, the treasure-hunt plot here is just armature. The story isn’t the situation, and Indiana Jones isn’t solely defined by his hat. Superficially, aspects of Dial of Destiny resemble the four Indy movies that have come before, but, this movie is different in one crucial way: It’s a film about aging and adulthood, and it’s not afraid to sacrifice a few crowd-pleasing opportunities in favor of a quieter, human, theme.
Because Dial of Destiny debuted at Cannes in May 2023, spoilers and reviews have been floating around for a while now. If you’ve heard anything about the movie, it’s probably that the reviews have been mixed. Without spoiling the plot at all, here’s why the reviews are mixed: this movie doesn’t give audiences what they thought they wanted. Instead, it delivers a more thematically introspective, and down-to-Earth version of Indiana Jones. Am I calling a movie in which 80-year-old Indy rides a horse into the New York City subway during the 1969 Apollo astronaut parade, a down-to-Earth movie? Yes! Yes, I am. And the reason why is simple. Dial of Destiny outright avoids being lost in its own nostalgia. You may have heard that the film opens in a 1940s flashback, giving us a de-aged Harrison Ford, looking roughly as he appeared in the 1980s. This is true. But, when Indy awakens in the present — furious that the kids next door are blasting “Magical Mystery Tour” — he’s just some old guy in 1969. Washed-up adventurers who teach history at Hunter College in NYC might be as boring as listening to the Beatles with earmuffs, and that’s okay. Not only is it okay, but making Indy out of touch and cranky is also the point.
It’s strange to say this, but setting Dial of Destiny in 1969 almost feels as though the movie is set in the present. The New York of 1969 has more in common with 2023 than our shared perception of the historical settings of the previous Indy films. Of course, the creator of Indiana Jones, George Lucas, is the original purveyor of cinematic nostalgia. American Graffiti (1973) celebrated the 1950s, the first Star Wars (1977) celebrated the Flash Gordon serials of the 1940s, while Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) reimagined James Bond as a daring archeologist in a pre-Casablanca-esque fantasy version of the 1930s. But, other than the movie’s prologue, nothing about Dial of Destiny’s vibe evokes that kind of historical nostalgia. Yes, like all things Indy, there are a lot of cool history lessons here (some more literal than others) but, the film’s core feels contemporary.
Indiana Jones makes a few “getting too old for this sh*t” jokes in Dial of Destiny, but he’s not turning to the camera. At one point, he asks his goddaughter, Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) “What am I doing here?” He feels irrelevant and unneeded, and the entire story of the film revolves around this idea. When a parent is no longer a parent, what do you do with yourself? When the adventures of your youth are over, is teaching the next generation of young people enough to fulfill you? For Indiana Jones, those are hard questions. And the reason they are hard questions is that they’re hard questions for us, too.
Although some might say the nostalgic aspects of Dial of Destiny are aimed at the Boomers, for parents in their 30s and 40s right now — from elder millennials to young Gen-Xers — this movie will feel like it's made for you, and in some ways about you. For those of us who grew up with Indiana Jones, he wasn’t a hero that was fully claimed by our parents. Yes, our parents who saw Star Wars in their late twenties totally loved Indy in their thirties, but these days, the Boomers can’t really claim him. And unlike Han Solo, the story of Indiana Jones isn’t set in a timeless fantasy realm. Indy has seen things you people wouldn't believe, but the story of his life has taken place on Earth, in actual history. What Dial of Destiny does is treat him more like a real person than any of the previous films in the franchise. Which, doesn’t sound that odd, but ends up being profound as hell.
The action sequences in Dial of Destiny are wonderful, and one of the chase sequences feels like a remix of all the best Indy chases from all the previous films. There’s also a moment in the movie’s climax where, truly, you won’t really be able to predict what will happen next. It’s big, epic, bold, and wonderful. Does it feel like it loses its footing somewhere in the middle? You bet. But, because Indy is literally losing his footing, the flaws of the film feel, if not intentional, at least thematically forgivable.
Because, for all of its bluster, the film is bookended by Indy’s small, humble apartment in 1969 Manhattan. Throughout the film, he’s not a hero. He’s not a legend. He’s a normal guy who has forgotten to buy groceries, wondering what he’s supposed to do with his life. The Indiana Jones of this movie isn’t our past. For many from a certain generation, he’s living a life that looks like our near future; older, confused about his career, and wondering where he fits in with his family. And, unlike some action heroes who get older, Indian Jones dares us not to get lost in contemplating old age and mortality, but instead, encourages us to do something harder — figure out how to keep living.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny hits theaters on June 30, 2023. Here’s Fatherly’s guide to streaming all of Indy right now.