Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Indiana Jones And The Moving Cautionary Tale Against Nostalgia

We’re living in the age of fervid nostalgia. For film, that’s meant an ever-perpetuating cycle of reboots, sequels, reimaginings, and live-action remakes – a Hollywood more stuck in the swamps of the past than the relevant pastures of the present. On its face, “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” can be accused of doing the same: bringing back Nazis, sacred artifacts, and familiar Mediterranean locales, perfect for restaging the Spielbergian wonders of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “The Last Crusade.” And as much as “The Dial of Destiny” does indulge in some of the “nostalgia-bait” many have turned their nose to, the final plot reveal of the movie––heroes and villains trespass into a past where they don’t belong––reorients it from a film that mindlessly celebrates the wistful plunder of the past, and into a surprising warning of nostalgia’s dangerous and seductive power.

Beginning with a 20-minute opening of a de-aged, quipping Harrison Ford punching Nazis in 1944, you’d be forgiven for thinking “The Dial of Destiny” is shamelessly playing the hits for its fan audience. But despite appearances (and criticism) to the contrary, this seems to be a deliberate part of writer-director James Mangold’s design. Like Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” or David Lynch’s late-career masterpiece “Twin Peaks: The Return,” before we can see the cost of feasting on nostalgia, the filmmakers first must let us experience its satiating joy. Look to Owen Wilson’s Woody Allen surrogate, who’s obsessed with 1920s Paris. He only discovers the sour aftertaste of journeying into the past, after, and not before, he delights in meeting Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein.

In “The Dial of Destiny’s” story about traveling through “temporal fissures,” Mangold has us time travel before Indy does, with a flashback prologue lab-engineered as a fan-service dream of what an Indiana Jones movie should theoretically be. There’s a new Holy MacGuffin in Hitler’s clutches (the famed Lance of Longinus), another eccentric evil scientist by the name of Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), a brand-new sidekick Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), and a bike chase that recalls the escape from the Nazi castle in “The Last Crusade.” This prologue is precisely what pockets of Star Wars fandom yearned for in the sequel trilogy, hoping to glimpse Luke, Leia, and Han in their prime once again.

Your mileage may vary on how successful “The Dial of Destiny” works as high-grade pulp entertainment. However, the opening sequence still functions as a cinematic temptation to relive the bygone fortune and glory of the franchise. Indeed, so does much of the movie, which lovingly recreates puzzles, creepy crawlies, quick getaways, and chases modeled around Spielberg’s low-camera vehicular mayhem. By teasing us with an opening salvo of mainlined nostalgia, we’re thrust into the same mindset of both Indiana and Voller at the start of present-day 1969. As the rest of the world is beaming about the future in the wake of the moon landing, the hero and villain are still possessed by the past.

Of course, fixations with bygone eras tend to come from antipathy toward the present. When we meet Dr. Henry Jones Jr. in 1969, he lives alone, and most of his friends and family are dead. His dad, Brody, and Shaw have all passed, as well as his son (a loss that almost dismantles his marriage to Marion through overwhelming grief). We meet him as an empty, sauced-up shell of who he once was, spiking his coffee before a creaky lecture on Archimedes’ mirrors and the Siege of Syracuse. Instead of raiding graveyards and tombs, he’s surrounded by markers of loss, whether it be photographs, letters, or the watch his father gave him. The flow of history has been unkind to Dr. Henry Jones Jr., just as the institution of archeology seems to be on the brink of extinction. Indy’s students, who once painted “Love You” on their eyes, have been replaced by bodies slumped in their desks, some sleeping, unmoved by his lecturing by power-point, shining a light on the lights of the past. Even his god-daughter Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), daughter of Basil, has lost the purer faith in digging into the past. She’s now a criminal, hawking antiquities for fast cash and gambling debts.

This portrait of Indiana Jones is far from obeisant, undercutting the side-stabbing jabs that “The Dial of Destiny” exists only to placate the fanbase. “Thanks for putting up with me,” he says as he retires, reminding us of Indy’s classic dry wit but also of his sorrow, with the shadow of alcoholism and loneliness still lingering in our minds. Those who accuse “The Dial of Destiny” of corporatized “safe” storytelling are underselling its latent, growing sadness, reinforced by how Harrison Ford plays Indy with eyes that carry the burdens of grief.

The more Mangold pushes to recapture the roaring spirit of the franchise, the more it becomes apparent that “The Dial of Destiny” and the series as a whole are no longer what they once were, in ways intentioned and accidental. Take, for example, how the hopscotch plotting thinly motivates why Indiana goes this place or that (note how a “framed for murder” subplot vanishes), or how the digital cinematography awkwardly imitates Douglas Slocombe, whose images in the first three “Indiana Jones” films are some of film’s finest. There are also the action scenes, which are clearly designed for maximum thrill. Yet, in practice, they leave Indy reacting to but hardly influencing the film’s many chases. The days of Indy vaulting himself from horseback to a speeding truck are over; now he gets to drive a little. Staging the action around the senior body of Harrison Ford was a challenge Mangold never fully solved, and as a result, these scenes can feel sedate and passive, leaving Indy as a literal passenger watching the action, just like his life, go by.

Yet, this apparent flaw circuitously reinforces Indiana’s emotional arc. Whether as a professor or adventurer, Indiana Jones has only too many reasons to want to escape to greener days, a man out of time and place. It comes as no surprise then, when he finally time travels through a temporal fissure to 213 BCE, into the same battle he lectured on at the start of the movie, his every instinct is to stay. He’s injured with a fresh gunshot wound, but it’s still an easier history to experience for Indy than his own, blinded by his need to use antiquity as an opiate to dull his pain. He only leaves after he’s “punched” back into the present, urged by Helena that he would destroy the flow of time by staying.

While Indy’s desire to live in the past is to flee a painful present, the Nazi scientist Jürgen Voller’s same desire is terrifyingly ideological. It’s here that Mangold and his co-writer Jez Butterworth plainly connect fascism to nostalgia itself, that the desire to return to an illusory and glorified past is implicitly one of the building blocks of supremacist belief. This relationship is, as many understand, a widely held idea from Umberto Eco, who accidentally began the “reject modernity” / “embrace tradition” meme in his 1995 essay “Ur-Fascism,” to professors at Yale, like Jason Stanley, who told Vox that “fascists are always telling a story about a glorious past that’s been lost, and they tap into this nostalgia.”

Meeting Voller in 1969, he quickly shows his stripes, treating every Black character he encounters cruelly, asking a hotel staffer where his people are “originally” from, and brutally killing another. As you would expect, it’s also the underpinning of his entire scheme. He wants to use the Antikythera (a device devised by Archimedes to locate the fissures in time), travel to 1939 Germany, kill Hitler, and “correct” the Führer’s every mistake and thereby guaranteeing the spread of Nazism around the world. That his nefarious plot is a villainous take on “Back to the Future,” one of the most warmly nostalgic movies of the 1980s, and also partly created by Spielberg, is a poetically meta bit of storytelling.

Each previous “Indiana Jones” movie is built around clear lines of contrast between how the good and bad guys hope to use and seek out each archeological treasure. Belloq opens the Ark; Indy urges Marion to keep their eyes shut. Indy fights to bring the Sankara Stones back to an impoverished village; they light aflame as Mola Ram attempts reseizure. Donavan wants the cup of Christ for eternal life; Indy wants to heal his gunshot father. Indy runs from the interdimensional throne room; Irina Spalko’s mind melts as she gains eldritch knowledge. “The Dial of Destiny” boldly and brilliantly flips the dichotomy, aligning Indiana with his antagonist; they both want to return to the past for equally destructive reasons. Indiana Jones is no Nazi, and he doesn’t want fascism to rule the world, but it’s hinted that staying in 213 BCE Syracuse might have an even worse outcome and that his very presence would upset and dismantle the flow of history itself. In the film’s most powerful lesson, by drinking from the same cup of nostalgia as Jürgen Voller, Indiana risks corrupting the very fabric of history he dedicated his life to researching, honoring, and upholding. “That belongs in a museum” is a punchline that side-steps the ethics of appropriating a culture’s relics, but it comes from a place of celebrating the knowledge that he nearly destroyed in his final adventure.

In “The Dial of Destiny,” nostalgia is treated with the same intoxicating holy allure that would compel Elsa Schneider to cross the forbidden seal with the Grail in “The Last Crusade” and later fall to her death, reaching for it. If the climax of each “Indiana Jones” is a test of temptation – she failed. By the end of ‘The Dial of Destiny,” it’s therefore clear that Voller and Indy failed too, uncomfortably united as sad old men who cannot make peace with their present. That Indy would willfully risk harming history for his own selfish reasons is a brazen, even subversive choice for the character, who, unlike Luke Skywalker in “The Last Jedi,” is not given a chance to redeem the damage he’s (almost) done. He damns himself just as much as every villain he’s faced, saved only by Helena’s fist into his face, knocking him back into 1969. “You belong here, Indy,” she says on their return, only for him to ask, “For who?” For Marion, it turns out, and the film’s final lines update their classic “Where doesn’t it hurt” repartee from a seduction into an acknowledgment of their deep emotional wounds only mutual love and care can heal.

It’s a poignant ending, one “The Dial of Destiny” doesn’t wholly earn, but tears might flow anyway. Some, like The Escapist’s Darren Mooney, have eloquently argued that “The Dial of Destiny” is a movie in opposition to itself, that the over-use of nostalgic story, plot, and visual beats weaken the strong destination this story takes us. Respectfully, I differ. While the first two hours of “The Dial of Destiny” may not work as summer entertainment, every creative choice––those purposeful and those not––suggests that reliving the past isn’t as sweet as we may hope it could be, using the tools of nostalgia to warn us, and Indiana Jones himself, against it. Turning fan service into a cautionary tale against itself is an unlikely message from this year’s most expensive blockbuster. Still, it’s one both the wide audience and the company that made it should listen to.

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Brendan Hodges
Brendan Hodges
Culture writer. Bylines at Roger Ebert, Vague Visages and The Metaplex. Lover of the B movie and prone to ramble about aspect ratios at parties.

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