At some point in a movie series the overall feel comes together. By around the third installment, you either know what you’re going to get, or you just don’t care. For Inferno — the third of Ron Howard’s adaptations of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novels starring Tom Hanks as the art history professor turned potboiler action hero — this means contrived medieval- and Renaissance-inflected puzzles and absurd plotting.
In fact, the only person who doesn’t seem to know what to expect by now is Langdon himself. Admittedly, he’s just woken up in an Italian hospital with a gunshot graze to his head, two or three different groups of people after him, and no idea how he got from Harvard to Florence. But when he finds a modified version of Botticelli’s depiction of Dante’s Inferno, then notices that the ten ditches of the Malebolge are out of order and each have a letter added, it somehow comes as a surprise when his doctor, admirer, and now sidekick Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) exclaims “it’s an anagram!” Of course it’s an anagram, because it’s always an anagram, every time Langdon gets into one of these situations. And somehow, despite being smart enough to land an Ivy League professorship, he fails to see the pattern.
Worse, he digs in to solve the anagram on paper, rather than simply looking up the correct order of the ditches and using that to rearrange the letters. This does, however, keep with the other pattern of the Langdon novels and movies: appearing smart without actually being smart. Inferno keeps throwing highbrow references at the audience. The World Health Organization is classier as an obstacle than the CIA would be in a typical espionage potboiler, and Renaissance art is classier than typical spycraft tropes, though they serve identical functions to the plot. But while the script relies on the audience being smart enough to recognize these references, it also relies on them not being smart enough to actually understand them.
The motivating MacGuffin of Inferno is a prime example. Biotech billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) is terrified of the Malthusian catastrophe of exponential population growth, and so he designs a plague that will wipe out half of humanity. Of course, it won’t alter the fundamental dynamics of overpopulation, so he’s only pushing the clock back a few decades on his model, rather than saving humanity like he claims. But the deeper problem is there is no overpopulation crisis. Birth rates are already on their way down, and the human population is on course to level out or even start shrinking over the next century or so. Productivity continues to outpace consumption, so the problems that do exist are less about limited resources than they are about their efficient and fair allocation. If Zobrist wanted to put his money to good use solving this problem, he’d put it towards something like curing malaria, as Bill Gates has. And of course there’s no actual resolution at the end of the movie, so if you bought the idea that it’s a problem at the beginning, it’s still a problem now.
Over and over, the script throws these items at the audience, hoping that you’ll pat yourself on the back for being smart and cultured enough to recognize each one as a thing, but not quite so on-the-ball as to know more about any of them than Brown does.
Screenwriter David Koepp, now fully replacing The Da Vinci Code‘s Akiva Goldsman, is less slavishly bound to the details of Brown’s prose, but there is no escape from his pandering, paranoid style. Koepp’s involvement brings an actual cinematic pacing to Inferno that was previously missing, but it comes at the same time as the shallowness of Brown’s pool of ideas really begins to show. It’s one thing to posit ancient conspiracies that have woven occult meanings into the fabric of Renaissance culture, but this time around the excuse for the puzzles is simply cheating on Brown’s part. The only saving grace of the mysterious organization that he conjures up to serve as primum mobile is Irrfan Khan as its “provost”. The man is a human lampshade, serving mainly to say, in so many words, “we know that this is incredibly stupid and implausible, but go with it anyway”.
And so for Khan’s sake we go with it. We ooh and ahh at the lovely shots of the Ponte Vecchio, and the Hagia Sophia, and the Canałasso, which all show up in any number of spy flicks set around the Mediterranean. We watch Hanks, genial as always, if not half so interesting as he was in A Hologram For the King, or even in Sully. And, if we don’t want to be constantly distracted by the absurd, swiss-cheese plot, we turn off our brains to be able to enjoy a movie that spends so much time congratulating us for having them in the first place.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.