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Bowie’s in the Indiana Jones soundtrack, so…my movie review!

Let’s get the Bowie connection out of the way quickly— “Space Oddity” is in the Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny soundtrack (click on the bolder title to link to a story). I actually didn’t notice it in the movie, but I’m assured its in there somewhere. There’s no “Space Oddity” video connected to the movie, so instead I’m posting the trailer. All of which gives me an excuse to write about the movie, which, other than the inclusion of the song, has nothing to do with Bowie.

I’m going to reference things that happen in the movie, so if you haven’t seen it, come back later. OK, here it goes:

This is a movie that was made for me. It was terrific. I felt that while watching it, and after pondering it for a little less than a day, I think I know why this one hit my chords. The nearest thing to it that I can think of is the 2019 movie, Joker, which takes a familiar character from fantasy, The Joker from Batman, and makes a completely different type of movie. That one was about mental health. This one is about aging and the passage of time. It’s a movie for old men, or soon-to-be old men, about an old man. Actually, the movie’s villain, Jurgen Voller, played by Madds Mikkelsen is also an old man and within the movie serves as Indy’s antithesis, a necessary feature for delivering the film’s overall message.

And what is the film’s overall message? Despite all the regrets and reflections of age, we can’t change the past. We can’t change the past, but we can change the future. But changing the future does not involve magic or time travel. Change starts right now. Only the future lies ahead. And in that respect we do travel through time— we travel forward through time. At the speed of life (intentional Bowie reference).

The plot of the movie revolves around the pursuit of an artifact that, like the map in Time Bandits, serves as a mechanism to identify fissures in time, allowing for time travel. Voller wants to find it to travel back to the early days of Nazi Germany and correct Hitler’s strategic errors in order to win the fight for the future on behalf of the bad guys. Amidst a lifetime of regrets including failure to deliver on a promise to destroy the device when he had the chance, Indiana Jones wants to stop him. Meanwhile, a third character, Helena Shaw, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is running around trying to get ahold of the same device for the less grandiose purpose of selling it to the highest bidder.

Of course, the bad guy gets the device and with Indy and Helena as prisoners flies through a time hole thinking he was going to return to 1939, only to realize he miscalculated and ended up in ancient times where he and his remaining thugs get killed by ancient Romans. Indy and Helena meet Archimedes, who built the device. Archimedes reveals that they were always going to end up exactly there. Time is an inalterable loop. Indy wants to stay, but Helena knocks him out and drags him back to his time. I’ll come back to that.

The fantastic elements of the movie are a direct response to recent movies that rely on magic and illogic to save the world, especially the Avengers franchise which solves the problem of Thanos destroying half the universe by going back in time. From that has spawned the subsequent multiverse storylines, which are both a convenient way to tell the same stories multiple times with small variations but also to explain what happens if going back in time changes the future. In the Marvel movies, time travel is the solution to catastrophe. There is no analogy in real life. The multiverse is the answer to the question of what happens next. The Dial of Destiny answers the question a different way— the past doesn’t change, no matter what. So asking the question about time travel is the wrong question.

The right question is very much analogous to what fans like me who grew up with Indiana Jones are going through right now. Much like James Bond, who shares inspirational DNA with Indiana Jones, women want him and men want to be him (I’m not the first to make that observation). We live vicariously while we watch Indy do fantastic, impossible things. Indiana Jones is how a young man, brimming with ambition sees his own future— action, excitement, historic, world-changing accomplishment.

The Indiana Jones of The Dial of Destiny is how a middle-aged (and presumably, old) man sees himself in the light of reality. Indy is retiring from a very real Hunter College. The fantasy universities where Professor Jones was a star in Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Last Crusade are never named because they are not real. But there, Indy’s classes were packed with attentive students. Pretty girls write “Love You” on their eyelids to distract their hunky professor. So many students crowd the hall during office hours that Indy’s only escape is through a window. Perhaps that’s how the old Indiana Jones remembers it.

But now, in 1969, we see a shirtless old man awakened by the Beatles (familiar to us, but seemingly more alien to him than the crystal skull of the last movie). Body ravaged by age, we see Indiana Jones start the day with alcohol before teaching a sparsely populated class of uninterested students who didn’t do the reading. Indy is bored, too. And he’s retiring. His colleagues— much younger, faceless colleagues, throw him a pedestrian surprise party and present him with a clock. This is the end of the celebrated Indiana Jones? The discoverer of the Lost Ark of the Covenant and Holy Grail? His Hunter College colleagues seem not to know that, or know anything about this grumpy old man who seems… out of his time.

There it is— Indiana Jones is out of his time in 1969, yet that’s exactly where Helena felt compelled to take him precisely because 1969 is his time. How can that be? All around are signs that the world has bypassed Indiana Jones. Americans are celebrating the next generation of action heroes— astronauts. Astronauts don’t actually appear in the movie, but we see the signs of excitement about them and their adventures all throughout the middle of the movie. The shadow of the space age serves two purposes— to underscore the sense that Indy has been replaced. But also, in that the villainous Voller had a leading role in developing rocket science (think Wernher Von Braun), he wants to relive the glory of his own past achievements to next conquer time. This proves to be not only impossible, but pathetic.

Voller is somewhat like René Belloq, then main villain in Raiders in that he’s the anti-Indiana Jones. But in more respects he’s an unusual if not unique villain. Unlike past villains from the franchise, Voller is not backed by an army. He has a few Nazi dead-ender thugs to help, but he’s aided more by obvious officials. He has a CIA handler who apparently doesn’t recognize the threat Voller poses, and indifferent police officers ignore villainy taking place in plain view on 5th Avenue in New York City. The Nazis can literally shoot someone on 5th Avenue in broad daylight and not lose a beat. Hmm…Nazi villainy taking place without repercussion on 5th Avenue? Sounds familiar…

But that’s not the main point. The main point is that Voller is obsessed with revisiting the past to correct his mistakes and the mistakes of his compatriots. Indiana Jones might be a man out of his time, but there’s no sign he’s so much as looking for another chance. He’s more or less given up as his world collapses around him. Voller makes a different kind of mistake men who reach my stage of life make— vainly attempting to go back and try again.

Helena represents the merciless and mercenary present. For most of the movie she moves the plot along but provides no relief for the two old men who surround her. Bad things happen but the plot and time itself keep moving. At one point she’s giddy after escaping certain peril and Indy reminds her that an old friend of his had just been murdered. “Sorry,” she replies, but we in the audience aren’t convinced. People die. Bad things happen. Life goes on.

But in the end, its Helena, the realist who brings Indiana Jones back to reality; back from one last fantasy, to die in the ancient world, to become exactly the type of artifact he had been chasing for his entire career. I am reminded of the Mike Tyson quote that everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the face. Helena punches Indy in the face. We don’t even see exactly how they return to 1969.

But we then see, in the closing and most important scene that we can change the future. At one point in the movie, Indy reveals that his life began spiraling when his son, the co-star of Crystal Skull, joined the army to spite his father and died in war. That was the beginning of the end for the marriage between Indy and Marion— earlier in the movie we saw divorce papers. But now we see Indy waking up, as if from a dream, to find a very much aged Marion back in his sad little New York apartment bringing groceries. And we see them begin anew from that exact moment. I teared up.

Helena, who throughout the movie had been an obstacle for Indian Jones was suddenly a catalyst for a more hopeful future. She is less a human character than the personification of the present, a kind of Ghost of Christmas Present. Accept reality and reality becomes a tool, reject it and it becomes a problem.

The first three Indiana Jones movies centered around artifacts that came out of Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity respectively. The artifact this time is repeatedly said not to be magical— its a mathematical tool (the real of version of which very much exists in a museum today, unlike the Lost Ark, Holy Grail and Sankara Stones from the earlier movies). The religion of this movie is science. As is hinted at by the fake holy Speer of Destiny that appears at the beginning of the movie, this Indiana Jones adventure is not only the least magical but is also the least religious of the series. The point is that none of that matters. What matters is what we do with the time we have in the real world, today.

I wrote that aside from “Space Oddity,” this movie has nothing to do with David Bowie. But that’s not quite right. I am reminded of Bowie’s later albums. They are reflective, somber and about age, regret and death. If you are expecting Ziggy Stardust when you listen to Heathen or Blackstar, you’ll be sadly disappointed. With Dial of Destiny, if you’re expecting the kind of lighthearted adventure of your youth, you’ll be disappointed with this, too. But for me, the idea that Indiana Jones’ adventure ends in 1969, when mine (I was born in 1969) and David Bowie’s career (the year of his first hit) began, underscores how this movie resonates with meaning and relevance for the 54-year old me.

The very last scene shows Indy’s iconic hat on a clothesline for a few seconds before a craggy hand at the end of the sleeve of a leather jacket snatches it. The end. Or maybe not. There’s hope for the future yet.

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