Written By Matt Gilbert
Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is in Europe. He is being hunted by international law enforcement. He is racing against time to prevent an unthinkable catastrophe. To do this, he must follow a path hidden in some of the most famous works of art several centuries old. He takes along a young and beautiful woman (Felicity Jones) who speaks the plot-relevant languages and has a particular affinity for history and puzzle-solving like his own.
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because every above sentence can be followed by the word “again.” Seven years out from the smash hit Angels & Demons, Ron Howard and Tom Hanks return to Italy on another one of Dan Brown’s historical mystery epics, Inferno. This time, however, the template has truly lost its novelty. There is clearly a finite amount of times and ways Tom Hanks can stare at art and give the camera his “I know what we have to do” face, just as people with guns start chasing him. Perhaps where Inferno fails most is how it still thinks of itself as something new. It has zero self-acknowledgment of how crazy and repetitive, albeit thrilling, Robert Langdon’s life is.
This time, instead of an antimatter canister-turned bomb, or ancient treasure long believed to be a myth, Langdon and his partner Dr. Sienna Brooks (Jones) search for a scientifically-engineered apocalyptic viral pathogen. It’s hidden by a deceased eccentric billionaire (Ben Foster) with a persuasive nature and a cult of doomsday followers. The path he sets them on is rooted in Dante’s Inferno because…he just really likes Dante. (There’s some explanation in how he sees Dante’s description of hell as a mirror of the 21st century world, but what it boils down to is that the path exists because he put it there.) This time Langdon isn’t unlocking lost history, but merely following an elaborate treasure map. And instead of Interpol or the Vatican police, Langdon is now being pursued by the World Health Organization, who are, according to this movie, as formidable and funded as one might expect the CIA to be.
The script for Inferno would have been laughed out of any major studio boardroom if the names Hanks and Howard weren’t attached on principle. As the first act unfolds, the setup gets more and more complex, and feel like an amateur screenwriter’s attempt at creating ominous villains and tension. The second act is spent traveling from artwork to artwork. This is where we see the most of the Robert Langdon character audiences love. However, the connections between the artworks that bring Langdon and Brooks to each stop are virtually invisible. More often than not, Langdon arrives at a famous painting or figure, only to immediately turn around to go to the next one. The path is much longer than it has to be and feels ostensibly like a misguided attempt at creating tension, extending the runtime, or both. In addition to this, characters and events that feel like crucial elements are brought into the movie then immediately dropped, never to be mentioned again.
The film is sloppy, but enjoyable enough through its first two acts. For a good amount of the time though there is a small amount of pleasure to be taken in being off with the professor once again. However, the third act is where the movie truly starts to unravel, both textually and structurally. A large part of the problem is a half-realized twist that’s admittedly unexpected, but changes the logic and motivations of the entire film. It could almost be forgiven as an attempt to circumvent the “female sidekick of the week” the series seems to have if it didn’t then reduce the character by robbing her of her independence, intelligence and declaring her brainwashed because she was in love.
However, the film then follows this reveal with three prolonged, back-to-back scenes of tiresome exposition focused on illuminating who three specific characters are, and what they are doing and why. Given that the movie starts with its protagonist’s amnesia, it is a little satisfying to have someone sit Langdon down and tell him what’s been going on the whole time. But these scenes come off as very passive, and at times rush through their most important information. It leaves the audience scratching their heads as the movie kick starts another time-sensitive race to the next clue. At this point, I had mostly checked out of the movie, but was brought back for the finale due to a tense and very well-directed fight at the finish line where the danger of the Inferno virus being released reaches its climax.
While it’s far from perfect, I have a certain respect for The Da Vinci Code and its thought-provoking nature and instantly memorable characters. I am also deeply fond of how the hunt for the Holy Grail is based on a quest for knowledge or truth, rather than the aversion of an imminent threat. Angels & Demons embraced the latter, but improved on the former with real stakes and tension all wrapped up in an event millions of people no doubt feel some level of connection to.
Inferno, however, clearly attempts to match the latter’s tone, but misses the mark. It feels safe, yet far from the level of polishing and structural tightness audiences have understandably come to expect from Brown and Howard. At its best, Inferno is a fun distraction. At its worst, utterly preposterous. What may be the hardest thing it asks us to accept is that not once does Robert Langdon stop for a moment to think to himself “Again?!”