It’s funny how certain franchises have a hold over us, even if we weren’t alive to see them being born. Star Wars is the prime example, followed by the likes of Star Trek and Lord of the Rings, but I want to talk about another one — Indiana Jones.
The Indiana Jones movies really shaped my life — they’re probably part of why I wanted to be an Egyptologist for such a long part of my life, and they’re definitely why I owned quite a few fedoras. Looking back on it retrospectively, the MacGuffins — the objects necessary to the plot and the motivation for the characters — were rather fantastical, perhaps even romanticised. Yet, there was something about Harrison Ford’s charisma and intelligence, the dialogue (particularly the funny repartees delivered by Sean Connery in The Last Crusade), and, of course, John Williams’ fantastic soundtrack that I often as a kid found myself humming absentmindedly to.
I was just 10 years old when Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out. Yes, I still loved it, but even then, I could tell something was missing, and that it didn’t capture the essence of the previous movies. As I grew older, I came to realise that the problem with the film was that it was purely fan service. Spielberg and Lucas made it clear that they had wanted to end the franchise with The Last Crusade (as if the title itself wasn’t a dead giveaway). Consequently, the writing and dialogue felt off, if not downright lazy. Seeing Harrison Ford don the fedora and brandish his whip again managed to feel wrong, and not like the character I grew up loving.
Fast-forward to 2023. Whilst I did somewhat follow news articles surrounding Dial of Destiny, I mentally wrote the movie off, especially when I heard that the movie was delayed as Ford recovered from a shoulder injury sustained while filming, telling myself it would be another Crystal Skull fiasco. Still, there was a certain curiosity, so I went to go see it on opening day, albeit with extremely low expectations.
As the movie started with a CGI-altered Ford, these expectations remained low. However, by the movie’s end, I was feeling rather emotional, and all my expectations had been subverted. Why?
When we examine Indiana Jones in the modern day, we see a man who is keenly aware of the fact that he has aged. Yet his ability to behave like a giddy kid in the face of archaeological discoveries remains
The movie achieves this in a very particular way that I believe is only possible for movie franchises that hold significant weight in cultural memory: it plays to nostalgia whilst being keenly aware of the limitations and changes brought by the passing of time. When we do get out of the flashback, and examine Indiana Jones in the modern day, we see a man who is keenly aware of the fact that he has aged — a complex character who regrets his personal choices and has an understanding of the limitations of age on his exploits, both physically and mentally. Yet his ability to behave like a giddy kid in the face of archaeological discoveries remains — even if he can no longer communicate this to Marcus Brody. For the observing audience, this seems appropriate — and nostalgic Easter eggs (certain characters and references for example) remind us even further that this is the same Indy we all loved.
But the quest to get that MacGuffin, and the consequences the protagonists face once they have, combine the classic Indiana Jones scavenger hunt with a theme I think we can all relate to — a desire to fix past mistakes, something which adds a level of vulnerability to Ford’s performance
Now, that brings us to the story itself. The MacGuffin presented here is extremely far-fetched, almost comical — we can agree that Lucas and Spielberg (who were only executive producers here and had no real say in the story or directing) wouldn’t have necessarily considered time travel as a possible plot element. But the quest to get that MacGuffin, and the consequences the protagonists face once they have, combine the classic Indiana Jones scavenger hunt with a theme I think we can all relate to — a desire to fix past mistakes, something which adds a level of vulnerability to Ford’s performance. He is accompanied on his travels by his goddaughter Helena, portrayed by the brilliant Phoebe Waller-Bridge, a material opportunist who realises at the very last moment the values for which Indiana Jones stands for and represents. The film also boasts a strong supporting cast. Mads Mikkelsen makes a very compelling villain — to the point where I find myself wanting to watch Hannibal, simply to see another performance of this ilk from him. There is a brief yet funny cameo from Antonio Banderas, just one of many, but it will be best experienced in the theatre. I did find the presence of Ethann Isidore’s character Teddy Kumar as a bit of an on-the-nose callback to Ke Huy Quan’s Short Round, but Isidore is able to bring his own charm that makes his performance stand out by the end and justifies his inclusion.
Whilst this review contains no spoilers, the ending necessitates discussion. As I said, part of the reason why I didn’t like Crystal Skull was because it felt inappropriate seeing Ford in that role again, and the ending of that movie was incredibly unsatisfying — Indy and Marion get married, Mutt tries to take his father’s hat and it is snatched from him. There is some hat-snatching here too, but I feel the ending Indiana Jones gets here is far more satisfying, especially as the audience is baited into a certain expectation before seeing the actual ending.
Overall, this movie seriously exceeded my expectations. I came out of the cinema in absolute shock, feeling that I’d witnessed the same old Indiana Jones for one final hurrah. In a world where franchises are being added to and rebooted, such as in the case of a certain space opera, this movie felt like a rare instance in which the fanbase was actually being heard and understood. It felt like something that was able to capture that pure essence of why these films are important in cultural memory and use that to present a product that was filled with that nostalgia but is at the same time keenly aware of the modern context in which it is being produced. In other words, it never felt like a studio pandering hard with fan service, but rather fans sharing their love with other fans. Now if you don’t mind, I have some humming I’d like to get back to.