This article contains major Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny spoilers.
Indiana Jones is a character who invites you to dream about living in the past. This held true even in his inception, with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Lawrence Kasdan cobbling together the character out of their shared nostalgia for old B-movie serials and adventure flicks from the Golden Age of Hollywood. He would be a rogue who’d stand as tall as they imagined the heroes of Gunga Din did, while also existing in a morally black and white 1930s world where you punched Nazis first and asked questions later.
Also by virtue of his profession as an archeologist, Indy extended that romance even further back in time. The greatest prizes he sought always contained the intertwining mystique of history and myth: presumably real artifacts so great that they disappeared into the hazy, halcyon mist of legend. The Ark of the Covenant. The Holy Grail. Even the Spear of Longinus at the beginning of the new Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.
By his very nature, Indy glorifies the idea of history. He might be the action hero who brings a gun to a sword fight, but when push comes to shove, he is still the scholar so besotted by his studies that he does not see the irony when a rival says, with a Nazi flag waving behind him, “Indiana, you and I are simply passing through history, [but this ark] is history.” Dr. Jones cannot help but agree. He is a man, a character, and cinematic hero both elevated and held captive by an awe for what’s come before.
Which is one of the reasons the utterly sensationalist and bonkers ending to Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny works so well. Time travel and all.
How Indiana Jones 5 Became a Time Travel Movie
All the way up until release, star Harrison Ford and director/co-writer James Mangold have been relatively coy about what the actual MacGuffin at the heart of Indiana Jones 5 would be. And while watching the movie, the reason why becomes obvious. While the picture takes a surprisingly long time to reveal this is going to be a time travel flick, as soon as the Nazi scientist named Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) begins talking about mathematical patterns and holes in time, it becomes clear that the film’s fictionalized version of the Antikythera mechanism will be used for more than just mapping our solar system.
The actual remnants of an Antikythera, which was designed by the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes in the third century BC, was found at the beginning of the 20th century in a shipwreck in the Aegean Sea. However in The Dial of Destiny, it becomes the titular prize which when combined with another lost mechanism, provides coordinates for traveling backwards in time.
Intriguingly, the film waits until its very climax to have the characters explicitly state what they want to use it for, which in the case of the Nazi villains is to travel back to spring 1939 before World War II began and replace Adolf Hitler with Voller, who assumes because he saw where Hitler made mistakes, he can lead the Nazis to victory on a second go-round.
In the biggest twist of the film though, Indy gets to laugh in the exceedingly patronizing Voller’s face right before they enter a time vortex. Voller has used Archimedes’ dial to map out the coordinates one must enter to reach 1939. However, Archimedes based his calculations on living in the third century BC—an era well before humans understood that even land masses as large as Europe and Asia move over time. In other words, two thousand years of continental drift means they are not headed to 1939!
Thus the moment which is sure to divide moviegoers. As soon as you glimpse Roman war galleys at sail beneath Voller’s 1930s German bomber, you either are going with the movie or you’re not. But Indiana Jones and his final movie are better off for riding along.
Why This Is a Good Ending for Indy
Ever since Ford, Spielberg, and Lucas committed to making more Indiana Jones movies decades after the pitch perfect conclusion of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indy and his father ride off into the sunset, the problem has always been the same. Why should we revisit this character? And what should his life look like if we did? For Lucas, at least, it was a chance to insert the 1930s/‘40s Indy archetype into a 1950s sci-fi alien invasion flick with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
On paper, it at least made a certain amount of sense. The Indiana Jones franchise began by modernizing 1930s B-movies, so why not do the same for ‘50s genre cinema with an older Indy? But among the many problems that plagued the fourth Indy flick was the fact the movie struggled with accepting the character’s place in the world had changed.
There were a few jokes at the beginning about things not being as easy “as they used to be,” and he is at last allowed to settle down with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), and discover he has a son named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf). But the Indiana Jones in Crystal Skull really had not fundamentally changed; he still could win every fist fight with men half his age and did not seem to react to the world around him being different beyond the infamous nuclear explosion sequence. His adventure was fundamentally the same race against a foreign power to an artifact, albeit the Soviets were now subbing in for the Nazis.
In Dial of Destiny, however, Ford and Mangold afford Indy the chance to feel his age and at last acknowledge that he was a part of history. And that time–his time–is over. The Nazis he once fought, including Voller, now are American heroes who helped put a man on the moon in 1969. Ironically though, Voller feels as old and obsolete now as Indy. Meanwhile, in the era of the Vietnam War, Jones’ college students couldn’t care less about how the Roman navy laid siege to Syracuse in 212 BC. Indiana Jones has lived long enough to see himself become a relic.
Worse, he also was forced to bury a child, with Mutt Williams revealed to have died in Vietnam. That tragedy has further estranged Indy from Marion. The tone of all this is definitely more sour than the other four Indy flicks, but it’s honest enough about the character aging to be intriguing. How would a man like Indiana Jones react to the world passing him by?
He likely would like to get lost in his studies and his passions, which is then literalized for both the character and the franchise when he is allowed to travel into true ancient history. Yes, the fact he did so is pure fantasy, although not much more so than magic entities escaping from the Ark of the Covenant and melting Nazi’s faces, or the idea that drinking from the wrong cup will turn you into the crypt-keeper in a matter of seconds.
Unlike introducing little green men in Crystal Skull, I would argue Indiana Jones being able to time travel to the Hellenistic period is in keeping with the flights of fancy that made the original trilogy’s endings so fun. But in the case of Dial of Destiny, it explores a side of the character never fully considered onscreen.
Even in his earliest and best screen adventure, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indy is depicted as a flawed hero who lacks self-perspective. When he holds a bazooka at the ark in an attempt to save Marion, he cannot make good on his promise to blow up the great prize if they do not let her go. He values the Ark more than his and Marion’s own lives at that moment. Now add 35 years of time to an aged Indy who’s lost so much more in life, including it would seem Marion, and the chance to literally live within the veritable Ark—ancient antiquity itself—would seem irresistible. Moviegoers still turn up to live in Indy’s remote past, after all.
It also speaks to the poignant effect of time and age that will touch us all if we should live so long. Indy feels his obsolescence in 1969 and sees a chance to escape from it into the past. Yet it’s not a triumphant moment of a dreamer getting to realize his wildest fantasies. Rather it’s Ford’s strongest moment in the movie where he asks his goddaughter Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) who does he have to live for? He believes he’s outlived his usefulness, so he’d rather live and die here in 212 BC.
Why This is a Good Ending for the Franchise
Of course Helena, like the audience, has no wish to see Indiana Jones wallow in self-pity. So when Indy insists to no less than the flesh-and-blood Archimedes that he’s staying in Syracuse, Helena has the good sense to punch one of cinema’s greatest screen heroes right in the kisser.
For the characters of Indy and Helena, this is an obvious crescendo in their relationship. The woman who claimed she didn’t need a father figure will rescue Indy in a manner as roughshod as the guy who once attacked a tank while on a horse. It’s endearingly inelegant… and, in keeping with a Spielbergian touch, exactly what the audience will want to see.
In a modern era where many action stars have it in their contract that they can never lose a fight, and where many more let CGI take their licks for them, Indy is still the flawed, sloppy guy who can make mistakes in the moment. But Helena, Mangold, and likely the audience themselves will not let him.
This movie could’ve gone the Logan route and killed Indy off (which is incidentally is how Lucasfilm handled all its Star Wars legacy characters, albeit less elegantly). It could’ve been bitter. But this is still an Indiana Jones flick. Rather than succumb to misery, it is still about adventure and audience wish fulfillment. Therefore we get to watch the smugly condescending Nazi scientist deliciously realize he made a catastrophic error in the several minutes it takes for his plane to crash. We also get to see the hero live.
At the end, Indy is finally given the grace and perspective by Helena to realize he too has reached the status of a legend. He won’t die onscreen because the people around him, including the audience, will not let him. He also is given a reminder that many an aging curmudgeon should be reminded about: there are always people who care. Perhaps more of them than they know, as Indy awakens to see Marion and Sallah in his apartment. (It’s a shame Ke Huy Quan didn’t also appear as Short Round to take a bow.)
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny has divided critics, including our own around the movie. I’ll respectfully disagree with the detractors. Indy 5 recognizes the ultimate allure of these movies and makes it part of the story where he gets to visit his own idea of a lost golden age. He just doesn’t get to stay there anymore than we should. These stories are escapism, and Indy is the ultimate escapist hero. The thing about escape, however, is you need to know how to come home from it.
Dial of Destiny allowed Ford, the series, and its fans to escape one last time into the past, and then found a way to close the book with dignity. In an age of so many endless superhero and CGI spectacles that conclude on the empty thuds of sequel setups and self-aware winks to the camera, Dial of Destiny finds the grace to be about something and knowing where to leave its legend: in a sparkling but ephemeral past.