Silver Screen: Inferno 1/2*
Inferno must be a conspiracy.
If I’ve learned anything from Ron Howard adaptations of Dan Brown novels, it’s that there has to be some secret map hidden within the frames of the film that point to a shocking truth— the identity of the next Pope or the true dark nature of the Iowa Corn Palace or how many licks it really takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.
That must be the case, because it’s hard to imagine anyone creating a story so daft and formulaic, so deeply, fundamentally unsatisfying, unless it was merely a ruse to obfuscate a greater purpose.
Author Dan Brown’s clunkily written Robert Langdon thrillers are daffy potboilers that retain a bit of chintzy charm in their original format, as paperback novels made to be stuffed in suitcases and partitioned into short chapters that perfectly fill the time it takes the airplane to reach cruising altitude so you can turn on your electronic devices. Disposable characters race from one art history-based puzzle to the next, in a series of episodes that never invite the reader to consider them in their loosely linked, unlikely succession.
Even in the hands of a reliable craftsman like Ron Howard, the Tom Hanks-starring film adaptations never worked. The bright lights on the big screen reveal all Brown’s gaudiest flaws— well, except for his MadLibs-esque prose— yet the pacing of film disallows the audience from even nominally participating in the beguiling puzzles. The Da Vinci Code was a snooze and the followup, Angels and Demons, was an interminable absurdity, climaxing with people leaping out of helicopters and a giant column of heavenly light and possibly the Pope actually being a lady or something. It was the kind of experience the human brain is designed to suppress, thanks to some deep-seated survival instinct.
Angels and Demons was a critical flop and a financial failure compared to The Da Vinci Code. The existence of a third big-budget entry in the series suggests that even a failing intellectual property is valued more highly than a terrific idea without precedent. Inferno fails to validate that cynical approach.
The first two-thirds of Inferno play out like a mildly amusing, programmatic thriller. Fussy academic Robert Langdon (Hanks) awakens in an Italian hospital with no memory of how he got there— not just at the hospital, but in the country. Before he can ask even some basic questions, a relentless T-1000 model Italian policewoman (Ana Ularu) shoots her way into the place in search of him. Langdon is rescued by Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), the latest in a series of disposable, dainty, foreign-born brunettes (previously played by Audrey Tautou and Ayelet Zurer) to run alongside him in high heels while he solves riddles.
As Langdon’s memories begin to return, in a spell of amnesia that’s just perfectly spotty enough to facilitate the plot, he remembers that there’s an art-history mystery afoot. Of course.
A dead environmentalist billionaire (Ben Foster) obsessed with human overpopulation has designed a deadly plague to give planet Earth a bit more elbow room. Rather than just casually release it, which would seemingly be quite easy to do, he hides the viral load in a ticking bomb, the location of which can only be sussed out by following a series of clues centered around the life, work, and influence of the poet Dante.
It’s, like, so obvious.
Both the billionaire’s disciples and those looking to stop the bomb must battle to solve the puzzle first. But it’s as if Brown and his cohorts aren’t even trying to make the puzzles interesting anymore.
At one point, Langdon and Brooks examine a recreation of a famous painting depicting the levels of hell Dante describes in his epic poem Inferno. After studying the picture for a spell, Langdon notices there are letters tattooed on some of the tormented figures in the painting, ones that were not written on the originals. Then he realizes the levels of hell have been rearranged, and that putting them back in the correct order solves the anagram of the letters.
And then he notices, after all this obsessing over tiny details, that the bad guy has just written out a quote in English in at the bottom of the painting. But Langdon fails to see this until after he’s discovered the tiny irregularities.
The worst is yet to come. Howard and company aim to pull the rug out from under the audience with a big twist to end the second act, but it’s so ridiculous as to invalidate everything that’s come before it and render everything that happens afterward meaningless. It registers a full 8.5 on what film historians will surely come to know as the Now You See Me scale of implausible plot twists.
Inferno is terrible, and terribly boring. It’s buoyed only briefly by Irrfan Khan’s unmistakable gravitas, which makes you wish the movie would just follow his supporting character instead. Ben Foster is one of the best young actors working— see Hell or High Water, one of this year’s best, most overlooked movies— but he spends almost the whole movie dead, wasted in brief flashback.
And in a grim twist of irony, Hanks is such a good actor that he represses almost all of his wonderful Tom Hanksiness to credibly portray the grumbling, smug Robert Langdon. That on top of the inherent irony of such a shoddy piece of commerce being predicated upon great works of art.
Surely the real intention of this film is to convey a secret message vital to the survival of our culture, perhaps our very species as a whole. But damned if I’m going back to watch the movie a second time to find it.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.