Hot Take: Inferno Is Not Good

inferno

Inferno
Directed by Ron Howard
Opens October 28

One-man conspiracy-spinning bestseller factory Dan Brown is back in theaters, which means the entire world is in danger, and the only man who can stop the destruction is, again, Tom Hanks, or rather his dogged Harvard symbology professor Robert Langdon. Indefatigable professional Ron Howard returns to helm, following up The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels & Demons (2009) with what has been hinted is the final installment. That promise might hinge on a box office surprise or if Brown has another divine inspiration about how to combine apocalypse with Grand Tour hot spots and arcane code-cracking. As much fun as it can be to parse and mock this series, they’re popular with the public (especially the mega-hit first entry), and it would be a sadder world without the odd blockbuster featuring a professor (or treasure hunter or rare book dealer) as the superhero instead of a caped member of the Marvel or DC universes. They might play on the same juvenile fantasies and historical looseness as comic book movies, but fare like Brown’s, National Treasure and the Indiana Jones films (non-hits like The Ninth Gate also apply) are a welcome alternative to the teased-at-ComicCon kid’s stuff.

Which isn’t to say that Inferno is good. The threat here is a new plague that will erase about half of humanity. It’s the final solution of one Bertrand Zobrist, a “transhumanist scientist” who gives TedTalk-like presentations warning about the Earth’s imminent demise due to overpopulation. The science is vague, but as even Langdon concedes, Zobrist is “compelling,” frighteningly declaring that “it’s one minute to midnight,” that “humanity is the disease—Inferno is the cure,” and trotting out that old saw approving that the herd-thinning of the Black Plague lead directly to the Renaissance. Ben Foster, having a big year between this, The Finest Hours, Hell or High Water and, uh, Warcraft, plays Zobrist effectively as a bloodshot-eyed YouTube sensation from hell in douchey suits. Unlike the previous films, Langdon isn’t flown in from Cambridge to assist; rather, he wakes up from a coma with blurred vision, ringing headaches and amnesia. Helping fill in his memory is this installment’s token pretty female sidekick, Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), and the first hour manages some excitement inherent in the amnesia film, a tried-and-true trope familiar to fans of Unknown, The Bourne Identity, Memento and several noir era blackout drunk mysteries.

The semi-coherent remainder of the plot features a (surprisingly militarized) World Health Organization, a crucial clue-packed Botticelli map of hell as conceived by Dante and, in a first for the series, a Langdon love interest, the WHO head played by Sidse Babett Knudsen (this romance was not in the novel, whereas the Angels & Demons film lacked a romance that was in the novel). As head of “The Consortium” that once employed Zobrist, Irrfan Khan is an amusingly droll killer bureaucrat. Florence, Venice and Istanbul are the destinations here—though Howard’s preference for frenetic closeups show little sensitivity for setting, there are some nice chopper shots. Langdon and Brooks dodge bullets while putzing about the attic of the Palazzo Vecchio and discover clues etched on the back of Dante’s death mask while in the Baptistry of San Giovanni. Hanks largely sleepwalks, his talents already better employed this year in Sully and A Hologram for the King. If you were a fan of seeing him daub and analyze his fleshy face in a mirror in the latter film, you’ll be delighted to see more of the same here. Howard’s direction patronizes, as lines from a three-sentence email are unnecessarily repeated twice, and most scenes feature two characters excitedly talking through a solution to a problem. There is some inspiration in the climax, which features an onscreen orchestra performing the same Hans Zimmer score we’re hearing, in a possible nod to The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). The comparison doesn’t favor Inferno, but the moxie is admirable.

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