Inferno is unlikely to earn the Robert Langdon movie franchise any new fans – and isn’t worth the long wait that it took to get made.
Renowned Havard professor and symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) awakens to find himself in a hospital in Florence, Italy – feeling highly disoriented, having a mysterious head wound and being unable to recall anything that occurred over the previous couple of days. Before the doctor tending to Langdon, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), can properly explain to Robert the state he was in when he arrived at the hospital, a (supposed) police officer shows up and tries to murder Langdon. With Sienna’s help, the pair manage to avoid being killed and take refuge at the latter’s apartment.
Temporarily safe, Langdon does his best to piece together what happened to him, in spite of his current condition. He goes through his belongings and finds a Faraday Pointer – one that projects an image of Sandro Botticelli’s Map of Hell, as based on Dante’s Inferno, and contains a set of clues that are seemingly connected to a billionaire madman’s (Ben Foster) deadly proposal for how to “solve” humanity’s over-population problems. It’s up to Langdon and Sienna to follow the clues and see where they lead – in the hope that by doing so, they can prevent a horrible, world-devastating event from happening.
After Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novels became part of the zeitgeist during the 2000s, it was inevitable that Langdon would make the jump to the big screen – which he did, under the direction of Ron Howard and played by Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code in 2006 and then a second time, in 2009’s Angels & Demons. Howard and Hanks’ third Langdon movie Inferno, which is based on Brown’s fourth Langdon novel, arrives seven years after the last Langdon adventure – and feels equally behind the times, in the current cinematic landscape. Fans of Hank’s take on the famous “symbologist” character will naturally find more to appreciate about his return – but similar to the recent theatrical release Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Inferno is a stock sequel and comes across as little more than an uninspired attempt to keep the Robert Langdon “brand” going.
Adapted for the screen by David Koepp (who also scripted Angels & Demons), Inferno contains all of the now-familiar Robert Langdon narrative tropes – including, a convoluted mystery at its core that requires heavy suspension of disbelief and Langdon having a female sidekick whose main purpose is to provide him with someone to explain the film’s plot to and bounce historical art/culture facts off of. Inferno aims to mix things up by putting Langdon at a disadvantage from the beginning of the story (see his mysterious amnesiac state), but that “twist” on the Dan Brown formula fails to imbue the Langdon character with greater depth or paint him in a new light. A subplot involving a character from Langdon’s past is woven into the second half of the film, but it’s too under-developed to have much emotional impact in the end. There is a larger, but similar attempt made here to create a thematic throughline about how the past (be it our personal history or cultural heritage) informs our perspective on the future, but it doesn’t get enough development to be of major significance.
Howard, as a director, seems to have a better grasp now on how to sustain a feeling of forward momentum with these Dan Brown film adaptations – meaning Inferno has decent pacing and usually manages to keep barreling on forward, rather that linger too long on any single development, twist or turn that its plot takes (which is good – as most of the twists are rather telegraphed). Inferno is less successful at staging set pieces or its numerous foot-chase sequences around scenic locations in such countries as Italy and Turkey, where it was filmed on-location. Visually, there are striking moments here during the “vision sequences” where Langdon is haunted by flashes of hellish art-inspired imagery, though they tend to be too over-edited and frantic to enjoy; that extends to much of the movie, which has a Jason Bourne-lite look and feel to it. While Inferno did have a production budget of $75 million, that’s half of what Angels & Demons cost to make seven years ago – and unfortunately it shows, in terms of the quality of the former’s production values as a whole.
Tom Hanks settles back into his groove as Robert Langdon here and gives the world-saving, puzzle-solving, Harvard professor a little extra charm – but he still lacks the personality that makes similar characters in other franchises fun to go on an adventure with (see, in particular, Benjamin Gates from National Treasure). Inferno attempts to make Felicity Jones as Sienna Brooks more of an active (and knowledgable) player in the plot here than her predecessors in past Langdon adventures have been, while also giving her more of a proper backstory. Brooks still comes off as being more of a plot device than person whose characterization evolves as is necessary to keep the story moving, but through no fault of the Oscar-nominated Jones – who, of course, will be playing what appears to be a much more rewarding role in a different franchise movie, very soon.
The supporting cast of Inferno is an impressive collection of international acting talent – American actor Ben Foster (Hell or High Water), French actor Omar Sy (Jurassic World) and Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen (Westworld) being amongst its ranks – but by and large these performers are stuck here playing stock character roles that don’t allow them a chance to really flex their acting muscles. Indian actor (and Sy’s Jurassic World costar) Irrfan Khan does bring much-needed levity to the proceedings, playing the head of a shadowy private company whose dark sense of humor and morally ambiguous status makes him interesting to follow. Khan’s character also calls attention to one of the biggest flaws in the Robert Landon movies on the whole: their general lack of self-aware humor and unwillingness to be playful with and/or even acknowledge the inherent silliness of their storylines.
Inferno is unlikely to earn the Robert Langdon movie franchise any new fans – and isn’t worth the long wait that it took to get made. There are aspects of modern culture on display here (the appearance of modern tech like iPhones and camera drones among them), but for the most part the movie looks and – more importantly – feels like something that Hollywood would have released in the 2000s. Inferno comes off as an attempt to return Dan Brown’s work to a place of pop cultural dominance that it once occupied, in a cinematic landscape that has since moved on. Steadfast fans of the Robert Langdon character (and Hanks’ portrayal of him) should get more traction from Inferno, but other Langdon fans may find his latest adventure to be pretty unmemorable… and be disappointed by how little the character and his world has changed, over the years since last we saw him.
Inferno is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 121 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, disturbing images, some language, thematic elements and brief sensuality.
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