The more reverence you have for Lucasfilm’s original Indiana Jones films and the younger, scrappier Harrison Ford who made them so mesmerizing to watch, the less fun you’re likely to have with director James Mangold’s The Dial of Destiny. But if you, like Ford, have spent some time really disabusing yourself of the idea that nostalgic warm and fuzzies are the only feelings moviegoers should be searching for in the cinema, The Dial of Destiny might just surprise you with how hard it’s working to say something poignant about who Dr. Henry Walton Jones Jr. is.

Set largely in the late summer of 1969 right as he’s planning to retire, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny tells the story of how, after years of being out of the madcap adventuring and treasure-hunting games, Indiana Jones finds himself sucked into yet another unbelievable predicament stemming from — what else — his time fighting Nazis during World War II.

This post includes very spoilers for Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, so proceed with caution if you’ve not yet seen it.

Before The Dial of Destiny fully focuses on Indy’s present, the movie actually opens decades before in the mid-40s right as Jones and his fellow archaeologist Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) were captured by Hitler’s goons while searching for a legendary (and biblical) artifact to steal from them.

As old-hat as Indiana Jones using his wits and charm to out-maneuver cartoonish European villains is for the franchise, The Dial of Destiny tries to breathe new life into that facet of these stories by working the deepest, darkest de-aging technological magicks on Ford’s 80-year-old face during flashbacks to transform him into a barely convincing likeness of his 45-year-old self. For the most part, it’s genuinely astounding and only but so unsettling to see Ford-as-Jones in his swarthy, sweaty prime punching Nazis and ogling the invaluable relics they’re attempting to spirit away to the führer as the Allied forces descend upon Germany.

Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

Part of what makes the de-aging here work so well for Ford but less so for the younger version of Nazi researcher Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) is the way that flashback Indy is very clearly the product of VFX artists using AI tools trained on old Indiana Jones footage to subtly dial back the aging we’ve witnessed Ford go through. But as soon as Ford — who delivered a motion capture performance for the flashbacks assisted by stunt double Mike Massa — begins to talk and move around in his youthful guise, you immediately clock that there’s an octogenarian acting beneath all those visual effects and the illusion’s effectiveness wavers.

It feels a little too generous to call the uncanny dreaminess — a not altogether off-putting un-reality — that defines the de-aged Ford wholly intentional on The Dial of Destiny’s part. The effect smacks of an unsettling desire on Disney’s part to keep the Indiana Jones IP machine running complete with Ford’s likeness long after he himself steps away from the franchise. But the way The Dial of Destiny juxtaposes the idealized frozen-in-time Indy of 1944 with the world-weary, worse-for-wear, and regretful Indiana of 1969 does a magnificent job of establishing one of the movie’s core ideas: that obsessively reveling in the past’s greatness rather than embracing the present is a surefire way to set one’s self up for misery.

There’s quite a bit of that idea present in The Dial of Destiny’s depiction of Jones as an older, wiser man whose specialized passion for history feels at odds with the younger public’s fascination with the Apollo Moon landing and really the future in general. But you can also see it reflected in the way the movie catches up with Voller in the present, where he and a number of Nazi sympathizers are rather free to move through the world — so long as they’re with their government handler Mason (Shaunette Renée Wilson) — after having been hired by NASA to help put a man on the Moon. Pitting Indiana Jones against Nazis is nothing new for these movies.

What does feel surprisingly fresh and quite tapped into our own current real-world political moment, though, is the way The Dial of Destiny frames Voller’s past and his fixation on lost glory as evils that’ve become subsumed into society rather than stamped out — in part because of people’s refusal to fully engage with the past and see the man as the quiet, deranged Nazi that he actually is.

Image: Jonathan Olley / Lucasfilm Ltd.

In presenting Indiana Jones as a historian who remembers things (because he was there) rather than an old man who feels like he’s being left behind by the progress of time, The Dial of Destiny avoids some of the cringey narrative pitfalls that made 2008’s The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull such a rough ride. But this presentation also lends a kind of narrative neatness to the way that Basil Shaw’s daughter Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) — a brainy student of history who takes after her godfather — comes crashing into back Indy’s life for the first time in more than a decade.

Because we’ve had so much time to spend with Ford’s Jones over the years, with him specifically, there’s a certain degree to which The Dial of Destiny’s able to get away with merely mentioning and gesturing toward off-screen events that’ve turned him into the man he is here. Because Helena’s such a new presence, though, and the movie doesn’t spend all that much time really letting her just exist before the action picks up, it’s often hard not to see her and her pickpocket sidekick Teddy (Ethann Isidore) as Disney’s new, remixed spins on Marion (Karen Allen) Short Round, and Crystal Skull’s Mutt. But as somewhat derivative as their characters feel, Waller-Bridge and Isidore are clearly having proper fun with the roles and know exactly what sort of energy classic Indiana Jones supporting characters call for.

But ultimately, that strength ends up cutting both ways like a double-edged sword because of how they highlight some of The Dial of Destiny’s less-inspired instances of drawing on classic Indiana Jones beats. As good as it is to see The Dial of Jones pump the brakes on the exoticism that’s always plagued these films, there are many times where it feels as if, after making that solid judgment call, Mangold opted to recreate more than a few too many moments from older Indiana Jones, only with new characters delivering those same iconic lines.

Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

This all has a handy way of making The Dial of Destiny play like a big, epic retrospective of Indy’s greatest hits, which might work for some viewers (the way it did for me). But for hardcore fans looking for something that feels innovative and new on all fronts, they might find the film lacking.

Thankfully, something the film isn’t lacking at all is a broad variety of action-packed (if occasionally overlong) set pieces that play to Mangold’s strengths as a director who knows how to use his camera to transform even the most haggard-seeming characters into revitalized, robust, heroic versions of themselves — a talent that works to Ford’s benefit. With Ford insisting that The Dial of Destiny is his final outing as Jones, it’s not entirely clear what the future holds for the franchise, let alone any of this movie’s new characters. But the way The Dial of Destiny comes to a close is one of the more fascinating and risky choices Lucasfilm and Disney have ever gone with for an Indiana Jones movie, and it very well could be a sign of even more interesting things to come.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny also stars Antonio Banderas, John Rhys-Davies, and Alaa Safi. The movie is in theaters now.

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