At their core, the original Indiana Jones films were about introducing a new kind of space to American cinema – what might be described as hyperreal chamber spaces. Just as Steven Spielberg had pioneered the blockbuster as a format with Jaws, now he pioneered a new kind of film-ride hybrid, in the form of spaces that were so palpably plastic and so lovingly artificial that they already felt custom-built for amusement parks. As befits the containment of a ride, these spaces were nearly always underground – caves, tombs, tunnels – and typically took the characters, and the audience, through a series of discrete thresholds. Not only did one of these spaces introduce the franchise as a whole, in the form of the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Temple of Doom actually fused film and ride altogether in its closing sequence, providing us with an exact blueprint for the roller coaster this sequel would eventually spawn, the Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland. By combining film and ride in this way, Spielberg produced an early version of 4D cinema, supplementing the sound and images on screen with a visceral bodily identification, a vertiginous freefall of involvement.
While these hyperreal chamber spaces served a clear imperative in terms of branding and spectacle, they also reflected broader shifts in American culture on the cusp of the 1980s. In his iconic book Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson suggested that one of the key traits of the postmodern era was a waning of any genuine sense of history. As media, consumerism and image culture accelerated throughout the 80s, history was replaced by historicity – a reduction of the past to so many interchangeable images. More specifically, Jameson argued that postmodernism involved subordinating temporality to spatiality, such that the past simply became a different kind of replicable space. We see this situation play out in the early Indiana Jones films, which reduce both the recent past of World War II and the more distant archaeological past to so many hyperreal spatial arrangements. Since the past is nothing more than a series of different tableaux in the franchise, there’s no sense that ancient history is any more remote than modern history, producing the same recurring plotline in which archeological artefacts exert their influence on the modern world.
While these artefacts were drawn from many different eras, Spielberg evinced a particular preoccupation with their modern appropriation by Nazism. Insofar as the franchise has a grand narrative, it revolves around ancient objects that are co-opted to contain and condense all the accumulated occult power of Nazism in the present, which in turn transforms Nazism itself into an object situated in space, rather than a discrete temporal or historical period. This produces a somewhat paradoxical project, since on the one hand this allowed Spielberg to confront Nazism without losing the family-friendly veneer of his films to a deep dive into the atrocities of actual lived history, but at the same time it uncannily presaged the way in which neo-Nazis would abstract Nazism from its original context in the intervening years as well. By looking at Nazism awry, or reducing it to a plastic space, Spielberg actually anticipated the way in which it would become a locus for right-wing grievances in the present day, a lineage that Mangold’s film makes abundantly clear in the way it positions its Nazi protagonists too.
Since the franchise was founded on relics that transformed Nazism into a fungible space, these relics tended to be somewhat atemporal in and of themselves. The Ark of the Covenant was an object that was designed to attach the moment of its conception to whoever accessed it; the cult of Kali was a source of eternal life, and allows its adherents to transcend the body; the Holy Grail of the Last Crusade turns out to have preserved an ancient knight in perpetuity; and the fourth film collapses human temporality altogether into an extraterrestrial timeline. Granted, not all of these films involve Nazis, but they all revolve around artefacts that splinter time. All of those artefacts find their logical conclusion in the object at the centrepiece of this fifth release – the Dial of Destiny. Constructed by Archimedes, the Dial literally spatializes time, by mapping “fissures in time” to produce a “temporal meteorology.” Knowledge of the Dial can apotheosise a Fuhrer into a god, and provide endless power to those who harness it.
Just as the preceding objects in the franchise emerge from planned Nazi war crimes, so this culminative object emerges during the final flight of the Nazis, which the prologue portrays as an attempt to escape Berlin by train, archaeological booty in tow, the Dial included. The franchise’s own fissures in time condense around this train as the entire fabric of Nazi German and Western Europe collapses around it, hurtling us into a storm that we later learn is one of the temporal portals that the Dial itself maps. This opening scene, which features an uncannily de-aged Indy, establishes the ultimate and unimaginable singularity of the franchise: the moment when the events of the franchise meet up with the period when it was initially filmed, and thereby force postmodern historicity to come up against the real historical conditions that produced it. What do these hyperreal chamber spaces look like when they start to encroach upon the late 70s, when the franchise was filmed, as a matter of historical fact? That weird zone between space and hyperspace is the terrain Mangold sets out to map.
Our first sense of this shift comes as a profound rupture in both the texture of the film and the entire franchise, as Mangold wrenches us from this Nazi flight to 1969, where Indy is awoken in his New York apartment, on Moon Day, by his hippy neighbours playing “Magical Mystery Tour” so loudly that it reverberates the walls of his living room. Mangold then gradually establishes this new setting with a kind of provisional porosity, suffusing every space with a fine particulate that both recalls the granularity of the original film, but also obscures these new mise-en-scenes with it, as if they are choking slightly under their own texturality. That produces an uneasily glary aesthetic, especially since so many of the spaces are backlit, acknowledging that the hyperreal chamber spaces of the original franchise don’t quite ramify in our current era of digital porosity, while simultaneously refusing to make the film totally porous as well. The result is an uncanny atemporality, as Mangold tacitly refrains from fully replicating the look and feel of New Hollywood at the very moment that the franchise historically arrives at it, thereby splitting history and historicity, space and hyperspace, to leave us suspended in a field that feels curiously unformed, but also pregnant with possibility.
This sense of porosity extends to Indy’s workplace, which is the next major space we see after his apartment. In contrast to the cosily sequestered small town campus of the original films, he now works at Hunter College, in an open plan office, and lectures to a vastly more diverse body of students, who reflect changes in the outside world that haven’t quite trickled into the dustier realm of academia. His students are no longer especially interested him, let alone seduced by his expertise – archaeology has long since ceased to be sexy – so he contents himself with “spoon-feeding” them the course content, and even then has to periodically remind them that “this is going to be on the final.” Right when Indy is reaching the apex of his lecture, any residually chambered qualities collapse into the porosity of outer space, as a collection of students wheel in a television to show the moon landing happening in real time.
Having dislocated Indy’s personal and professional spaces, the film finally launches him into the public sphere of 1969, by way of Helena Shaw, the daughter of an old colleague, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. No sooner has Helena asked Indy to get one half of the Dial out of storage for her, than they find themselves chased by a collection of nefarious agents, which forces them out into two enormous street events – a parade in honour of the moon landing, and a protest against the war in Vietnam. As the last major scene to be set in America, with the exception of the somewhat fantasmatic epilogue, Indy’s sense of anachronism peaks here, and yet Mangold deals with it remarkably well, presenting him as out of date, but not entirely irrelevant. He may be running in the opposite direction to the protestors, and using their peace signs as weapons, much as he may overtake the moon parade, and upstage it with a wonderful horseback ride, but these two moments of oblivion to the contemporary world are simply part of his eventual effort to set the course of history itself back on track again. Even in the midst of his oblivion from history as it is unfolding around him, Indy is deeply invested in maintaining its deeper flow against the forces of historicity continually closing in.
From here, the action shifts to the Middle East and Mediterranean, where Indy is much more in his element. Most of the tropes of the franchise recur now, starting with the love of global transit, which takes us on sojourns by rail, sea, air, road, and horseback, and often combines several at a time. In fact, this entire journey starts with Indy riding his horse through the New York subway, dodging an oncoming train before outriding another, in an echo of the hyperactive concatenation of transporation technologies that ushered us into hyperspace in the sublime opening trajectory of Temple of Doom. Once we leave America, these trajectories condense into the core ingredient of the franchise and the centrepiece of its throwback to 1920s and 1930s serials – the chase, and its counterpart, the bickering between Indy and his female lead. While I love these chases, the bickering has always been my least favourite part of the franchise, so I appreciated the decision to make Helena his goddaughter, which removes any tiresome sexual tension, as well as Waller-Bridge’s own performance, which translates the shrillness of Spielberg’s shrews into something closer to classic screwball style. It feels right that she devises a wry new nickname – “Jonesy” that causes Indy to double take.
Still, despite all these tropes, the hyperreal chamber space remains absent, apart from a few distant echoes, such as when Indy and Helena tumble down an enormous staircase on a tuk-tuk, in a clunky late rendition of the roller-coaster ride at the end of Temple of Doom. Only in the second half of the film does Mangold and co-screenwriters Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and David Koepp approach this space, and they do so in an ingenious way – by taking us underwater, rather than underground. In an effort to discern the location of Archimedes’ tomb, and so restore their half of the Dial with its mate, Indy and Helena dive deep beneath the Aegean, where the chambers, tunnels and tombs of the earlier films are reimagined as an ancient shipwreck, replete with all the same features – skeletons, treasure, a reticulated crumbling structure and, of course, snakes, now in the form of eels. This space is both contained and porous, since while there are ingresses everywhere to the broader ocean, these are thickened and congealed by seawater. Mangold thus retains an authentic semblance of the hyperreal chamber space while acknowledging its shifting valency in the more porous present, much as the murky ocean water takes the film’s own particulate and granular aesthetic and turns it into a tangible physical space that literally suspends the action.
Having tentatively restored this chamber space, the action now heads to an actual underground location – the Cave of Dionysius in Sicily, reputed location of Archimedes’ grave. At first, this cave seems utterly inimical to the stylised chambers of Spielberg. For one thing, it’s shot on location, and is framed in a largely naturalistic register. For another, it’s enormous, agoraphobic rather than claustrophobic, and so expansive that Indy and Helena have to shout out to discern its smallest point, the site of maximal echo. However, once they find this location, and penetrate to the deeper recesses of the cave, the older hyperreal aesthetic starts to emerge once again. Indy himself references the Temple of Doom, the most plastic space of the series, as he’s hanging on a vertical rock face on the brink of the inner cave chamber – “You’ve never had to drink the blood of Kali!” – but the final tipping-point comes when he and Helena make their way across a rickety rope bridge over a torrential underground steam. This is the space of the imminent Disneyland ride adaptation, and so all the motifs of these subterranean sequences now ensue, a cascade of hyper-spatial, amusement park transitions that begin with the obligatory cavern filled with creepy-crawlies.
Even as we return to this older lexicon of the franchise, it is contoured by the submarine textures of the shipwreck sequence, which percolate into each mise-en-scene and plug (or at least moderate) the threat of a more digital porosity. The cave itself is set in Siciliy, so water is never too far away, while the underwater river marks the last threshold of hyperreality. Likewise, Indy and Helena only escape the most toxic chamber by using the Archimedean principle of water displacement to open a hidden sluice, while their ten-year-old sidekick, Teddy Kumar, played by Ethann Isidore, escapes from the clutches of the pursuing goons by leaping into the underground river while still handcuffed to one of their enforcers. Being underwater only enhances the nexus between containment and porosity, as it did in the shipwreck, as Teddy finds himself dragged along to a partially destroyed, submerged grate, with a hole too small for his captor to pass through, but just large enough for him to wiggle across, and then to manipulate his handcuffs so that he escapes just before his lungs give out.
By the time we arrive at the core of this hyperreal space, Archimedes’ tomb, the film seems to have insulated itself against the porosity of the present, and the porosity of actual history, to immerse us once again in the hyperreal historicity of the original franchise. Yet this is fractured by the tomb itself, which doesn’t disrupt so much as radically exhaust this atemporality, since when Indy and Helena look closer at the frieze on the base of the plinth, it features a modern airplane, while Archimedes’ skeleton is wearing a modern wristwatch, a thousand years before the invention of the clock. This anomaly is explained by the arrival of their antagonist, Jurgen Voller, played by Mads Mikkelson, the same Nazi who Indy thought he had disposed of in the final flight of the Nazis in the prologue. Jurgen now informs him that the Dial does indeed have the capacity to map fissures in time, and points to the anachronistic details of Archimedes’ tomb as an example of this, before unfolding his master plan – to travel back in time, and murder Hitler, so as to preserve the longevity of Nazism. In an eerie echo of right-wingers who want to save Trumpism from Trump, Jurgen wants to save Nazism from Hitler, and so produce precisely the historicial, hyperreal and endless Third Reich that the original films in the franchise feared. “As we conquer space, so we conquer time,” he proudly extols to Indy and Helena, both rupturing and fulfilling Hitler’s projected thousand year Reich as an attempt to enact “history’s greatest moment – its end.” His slogan could thus be the rallying-cry of any number of neoconservative movements in the contemporary United States, and of Trump’s brand of palaeoconservatism in particular: “Yesterday belongs to us.”
This ushers in the most extraordinary sequence in the franchise since the temple of Kali, as Jurgen bundles Helena and Indy into a plane, and flies them all towards the next time fissure mapped by Archimedes’ device – the same fissure we glimpsed in the opening prologue. Yet space trumps time once again here, as Indy realises that Archimedes’ ignorance of a spatial phenomenon – continental drift – means that the time map is inaccurate. When they finally emerge from the time fissure, it is not in 1945, in the closing hours and minutes of World War II, but above the siege of Syracuse in 212 BC, where Archimedes himself, played by Nasser Memarzia, gazes up at their plane from the beach, just as he will appropriate Jurgen’s wristwatch as his own when the Nazis finally succumb to the classical battle being raged around them. The time loop crystallises around the meeting between Indy and Archimedes, who reassures him that “you were always going to meet me,” before Indy begs Helena to allow him to remain here, in ancient Greece, since nothing else remains for him in the present.
In Indy’s request lies the trauma of the franchise at approaching the actual historical period that produced its own hyperreal historicity. That is the real singularity, or time fissure, of Dial of Destiny, which perhaps explains why Indy doesn’t quite remain or return from ancient Greece. After he insists on staying put in the past, Helena clocks him on the head, and the action abruptly shifts back to his apartment, where a ticking metronome reprises the equally jarring transition from the 1945 prologue back to 1969, which is presumably where we are now. In both cases, the time fissure doesn’t seem to be fully resolved, as Karen Allen’s Marion, who turns up in a fantasy-like sequence, asks Indy: “Are you back?” What “back” means is ambiguous however, just as it is in the title of Back to the Future. Likewise, when Helena tells Indy that “You belong here – here,” it’s unclear what “here” means, or even if there is a here here anymore. And that is the final note of Dial of Destiny, which raises the question of how to pair the hyperreal spaces that constitute the series’ signature with the history under which they were produced, and the history that has since ensue. In the end, it’s the question of how to periodise postmodernism itself from our strange state beyond it – and the brilliance of Dial of Destiny is that it doesn’t answer this question, but instead aestheticises it as a question.