Tim Schildberger - July 6th, 2023
** No real spoilers in here. **
There’s a lot of talk about why the latest chapter in the Indiana Jones adventure series underperformed at the box office. There are many reasons, but let’s stay focused on the main culprit – the script. It’s not good enough to deliver a billion dollars in revenue.
Sure, we can obsess about the de-aging tech, (it looked fine but Indy sounded 80 years old), and speculate about audiences not being into retro stuff, or kids not caring about Indy, or even Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s overwhelmed performance. Contributing factors, sure. But a decent script would’ve overcome them all. This script broke a bunch of rules, and delivered a bunch of mixed messages to the audience. And it’s FAR too long for what it’s trying to deliver.
For a start – the Dial of Destiny. So important it’s in the title. And yet, this script established early that Indiana Jones had no interest in it. He didn’t believe it worked, he was annoyed it was a crippling obsession of his super best friend we've never heard of, and it did not generate the sort of excitement he felt about the Ark of the Covenant. It didn’t generate any excitement at all. So, the filmmakers are asking the audience to care about an artifact the ‘hero’ isn’t into. Which instantly dilutes Indy’s reasons for being in this movie. That’s a stupid way to launch a movie.
Then the first action set piece – the FIRST. Indy destroys a bunch of artifacts, carefully secured in a university archive. All in the name of a stunt. I’m sorry, but the famed archeologist Indiana Jones I know from the last 42 years would not do that. So what subliminal message is this seemingly small act communicating to the audience? Either Indy has stopped caring about his life’s passion, in which case, why are we here? Or worse – the film makers really don’t have a grasp on their central character. But hey, it made a cool stunt?
So, the first 20 minutes of the film establishes Indy doesn’t care about the central object, or any artifacts, he has mixed feelings about his criminal God daughter, and he’s a borderline alcoholic now. Which is never addressed. And there’s one other entirely under explored ‘stake’ involving a crime, which is laughably thrown in. But yeah, let’s go on this adventure!
Let’s discuss Indy’s God daughter ‘Helena’, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I love Ms. Waller-Bridge – she is my writing hero. But she was done no favors in this movie. It felt like she was struggling to figure out who Helena was, and how to play her. Which is fair, because the audience was doing the same thing.
Helena’s character, as written, is a mess. She’s kinda a villain, kinda immoral, and cash obsessed, with no real reason why. She kinda hates Indy – for somehow abandoning her? She’s living and traveling the world with a young teenage boy in a weird and borderline creepy relationship where they commit crimes together? Which is supposed to be okay? And then she kinda shifts. Just because. No real reason. Her character just evolves, a bit. There are also two moments where she lustily pervs at handsome men, but there is no follow up. It is in no way relevant to anything, or contributes to the plot. It’s thrown in there – twice – maybe to remind the audience she’s a heterosexual woman with age-appropriate desires? Awkward.
Helena is the reason Indiana goes on this ‘final’ adventure. For blurry reasons. And at one point he’s seen to be almost begging her to stay in the adventure. Why is he bothering? Who is this Indiana? What are we watching? But hey – the action sequences cost a lot of money.
And what was Antonio Banderas doing in this movie? Was the original role larger? Rarely will you see a better example of filmmakers wasting talent/money.
Now, before you wonder if maybe audiences just aren’t into old movie characters – let’s go back to ‘Top Gun – Maverick’. Old character, past his prime. One last adventure. Lots of action sequences. Lots of callbacks to the original. And a LOT of box office revenue. So why did that work and Indiana didn’t?
Top Gun thought about the audience. And the audience responded. People came out of the theatre (during a deadly Covid wave) and used words like ‘must see on the big screen’.
People are coming out of ‘Dial’ using words like ‘fine’.
The only part of ‘Dial’ that truly works is the last two minutes. It’s beautiful, moving, and lovely.
The rest is a great example of a script that needed more work, filled with characters who needed a lot more work. It desperately needed more attention paid to what it was delivering to the audience. Indiana Jones is a beloved character. The least filmmakers could do was give him one last flash of passion and desire for his life’s work - risking everything in the name of recovering history. They misinterpreted our relationship and expectations for that character – badly. And they are seeing the results at the box office.
No actor, director or expensive stunt can rescue a mediocre script that doesn’t have full awareness of the audience experience. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny’s script is mediocre. With a tad more thought it could’ve been so much stronger.
I continue to naively wish studios realized the script matters just as much, if not more, than any director, actor, or action set piece, and allocated resources accordingly (paid actual writers more). Maybe then they would avoid wasting soooo much money, and give us a genuinely satisfying experience.