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Film Preservation: “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” reviewed

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny feels like an emphatic period at the end of a very long sentence, a sequel making its own case against some future further resurrection — not unlike last year’s Cannes blockbuster premiere, Top Gun: Maverick, or 2021’s fourth installment of The Matrix. That’s not just because Harrison Ford is turning 81 this summer. It’s in the text; Dial of Destiny argues, explicitly, that you have to leave the past in the past, that the only way to ensure the world continues is to put one foot down and then another, moving into the future.

Ironic, yes, for a movie built on giant piles of nostalgia and made by a company that proudly spends most of its money nibbling its own tail. In fact, the entire Indiana Jones concept was nostalgia-driven even before the fedora made its big-screen debut. Harrison Ford’s whip-cracking adventurer descends from swashbuckling heroes of pulp stories and matinee serials that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg loved as kids; like that other franchise Ford launched, the Indy series is both original and pastiche, both contemporary-feeling and set in another time, another place, a world that’s far, far away.

Dial of Destiny is loaded with related ironies, though they’re mostly extratextual. On the screen, it’s fairly straightforward: a sentimental vehicle, one that hits familiar beats and tells familiar jokes, comfort food to make you feel like a kid again for a little while. The Indiana Jones movies, even the bad ones, have always been pretty fun to watch in a cartoon-movie kind of way, while also being aggressively just fine as films — I mean that with fond enthusiasm — and Dial of Destiny fits the bill perfectly.

This installment turns on pieces of a dial created by the Greek mathematician Archimedes, which, like most of the relics that pop up in Indy’s universe, may or may not bestow godlike powers on its wielder. Naturally, the Nazis want it, especially Hitler. So the film opens in 1944, with Indy (a de-aged Ford, though unfortunately nobody thought to sufficiently de-age his voice) fighting Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) to nab it while getting out of one of his signature high-octane scrapes via a familiar combo of costume changes, well-aimed punches, acrobatics, and dumb luck. Then we jump forward to 1969, to discover a very much not de-aged Indy collapsed into his armchair in front of the TV, shirtless and in boxers, snoozing and clutching the dregs of a beer. This is a movie about getting old, after all.

You can deduce the rest — old friends and new, tricks and turns, mysteries, maybe some time travel, the question of whether the magic is real. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is in this movie as Helena Shaw, Jones’s archaeologist goddaughter, and injects it with some much-needed joie de vivre. There are some fun chase scenes, though director James Mangold’s visual sense (richly demonstrated in previous films like Logan and Ford v Ferrari) falls a little flat next to the memory of Steven Spielberg’s direction. But for the most part, it’s all here again. I don’t want to spoil your fun.

It’s all very fitting in a movie about an archaeologist set in the midcentury. But you have to notice the weird Hollywood resonance. When Raiders first hit the big screen, it was always intended to be the first in a series, much like Lucas and Spielberg’s beloved childhood serials. (The pair in fact made their initial Indiana Jones deal with Paramount for five movies.) But while some bits (and chunks) of the 1980s films have aged pretty badly, they endure in part because they’re remixes that are alive with imagination and even whimsy, the product so clearly of some guys who wanted to play around with the kinds of stories they loved as children.

Now, in the IP era, remixing is a fraught endeavor. The gatekeepers, owners and fans alike, are often very cranky. The producers bank on more of the same, not the risk of a new idea. The artifacts belong to them, and they call the shots, and tell you when you can have access or not. (The evening Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny opened at Cannes, Disney — already infamously known for locking its animation away in a vault and burying the work of companies it acquires — announced it would start removing dozens of its own series from its streamers.) Rather than move into the future and support some new sandboxes, the Hollywood of today mostly maniacally rehashes what it’s already done. It envisions a future where what’s on offer is mostly what we’ve already had before.

In this I hear echoes of thinkers like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer — two men who fled the Nazis, incidentally — who proposed the culture industry was giving people the illusion of choice, but only the freedom to choose what they said was on offer. You can have infinite variations on the same thing.

After 40 years and change, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny releases into a world where there’s more stuff than ever to watch, but somehow it feels like we have less choice, less chance of discovery. It is our moment in history — an artifact of what it was to be alive right now. When the historians of the future look back, I have to wonder what they’ll see, and thus who, in the end, they’ll think we really were.