“The book was better”. This commonly uttered missive always rears its head with feature film adaptations of popular novels, and sometimes it’s just down to spittle-flinging, keyboard bashing fan bias and not actual adaptation quality. That is tragically not the case when it comes to Inferno, star Tom Hanks and director Ron Howard’s latest adaptation of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon literary series. What makes this criticism more damning for this movie is that the book really wasn’t even that good to begin with.
Inferno sees Hanks reprising his role as Prof. Robert Langdon, the acclaimed Harvard university symbologist who previously used his book smarts to uncover conspiracies of tectonic proportions in The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, once with a very unfortunate haircut. This time around though, Langdon is thrown the curveball of not being able to trust his own vaunted mind, as he wakes up in a Florentine hospital with no memory of how he got there, and with fiery apocalyptic visions crowding his fractured consciousness. At least his hair is now respectable.
If that wasn’t jarring enough, the doctor attending him, Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), finds a mysterious puzzle related to Dante’s “Inferno”, courtesy of a mini image projector hidden in his belongings. Before Langdon can piece it all together though, the hospital is attacked, forcing him on the run, with Sienna swept along in his bullet-riddled wake. Unfortunately they run into even more trouble as a second group headed by Christoph Bouchard (Omar Sy) and his employer (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is hot on their trail as well.
Meanwhile, a clandestine security firm led by Harry Sims (Irfan Khan) is discovering some disturbing secrets about their latest client, recently deceased billionaire geneticist Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster). Before his death by suicide, Zobrist set plans in motion in accordance with his belief that the Earth was doomed due to overpopulation. To counter it, the eccentric scientist and Dante obsessive created a deadly plague he dubbed “Inferno”. And now Langdon somehow finds himself in possession of the only clue that explains where Inferno is and how to stop it. If only people could stop chasing him and Sienna long enough for him remember how he got it and what he’s supposed to do with it.
Cue lots of frantic running away from various individuals with high powered firearms and stern expressions for two hours, using Langdon’s off-the-cuff cultural history lessons to try to not get caught or worse. If that sounds familiar, it’s because this is the same recipe that has played out in the previous films in this franchise with increasingly diminishing returns. This procedural approach may work fine for novels, as fans devour the next offering like comfort food without looking for much in the way of deviation, but for big budget movies this begs the question of a sequel’s necessity.
At least Howard is far too accomplished a filmmaker to stage action sequences so clumsy as to distract. Don’t expect to be gouging out troughs in your cinema seat armrests in suspense, or having your mind blown by cinematic innovation, but it’s still serviceable fare. And Howard makes the most of the film’s rich locations – from Florence to Venice to Istanbul – and good production design. So too the performances from the cast also don’t drop the ball… even if they don’t actually toss it very high in the air to begin with. Hanks is slumming it a bit, but his ingrained everyman veneer still works for this academic fish out of water. And none of the rest of the film’s admittedly stacked cast actually disappoint either, even if this is not exactly career defining work for them either. Felicity Jones and Ben Foster even plumb some dramatic depths, while Irfan Khan is clearly having fun with his role.
But all the film’s bright moments are just that: momentary. It’s bogged down by far too much middle-of-the-road storytelling. But – BUT! – this could have been avoided. And this is where we get to that whole “the book is better” malarkey.
If you’ve read the novel – which I have, as I am one of those gluttonous fans constantly gobbling down Brown’s production line offerings despite being fully aware of its health risks – then you know that the otherwise boilerplate narrative features two rather great twists. One occurs in the two-thirds point, revealing the secret identity of a character in that oh so clever way of the answer staring you in the face the entire time, but you just don’t see it. All that cleverness is purely down to the way Brown writes certain interactions with this character, making you believe they’re somebody else entirely. Alas, that seemingly doesn’t translate to a film script, resulting in screenwriter David Koepp undercutting all that necessary buildup for a rather limp-wristed, out-of-left-field reveal.
The other twist though is the book’s big one – a ballsy narrative shocker revealed after the main story completes, pulling the rug out of from under the entire plot. It’s gut-churningly bleak but also a powerful, thought provoking bit of storytelling, which is not the usual safe Brown offering. So of course it’s far too much for the fragile snowflake sensibilities of the Hollywood studio system, and thus is completely dropped out of the movie. The two most impactful moments of the entire book, kicked to the curb.
Of course, if you’ve never read the book, all of this is moot as you can’t miss what you never knew. In fact, maybe even feel free to add an extra half star to my score below. But it bears mentioning though as it’s the very definition of what’s wrong with this movie. While far from a mangled trainwreck, it always plays it safe, never coming close to taxing its cast or director and never willing to take a gamble on something memorable. The movie essentially boils down to a series of unoffensive and technically solid, but creatively inert character beats and action setpieces. In short: this Inferno lacks fire.
Last Updated: December 8, 2016