Inferno is the latest entry in Ron Howard and Tom Hanks’ long-running series of Dan Brown adaptations. It’s more of the same tangled mysteries and baffling historical references that fly far above the heads of most viewers, but with just enough alterations to make the whole affair feel new once more (just as long as you don’t think too hard).
Both The Da Vinci Code and Angels And Demons found Brown’s ever-creative protagonist Robert Langdon (Hanks) wrestling with historical religious mysteries that offered big screen exploration of ideas previously only found in books and random conspiracy theory blogs. Inferno abandons the church and its twisted past for the story of a woefully misguided billionaire (Ben Foster, seen largely through flashbacks and internet videos) who believes mankind to be the cancer of the Earth and carries a penchant for the works of Dante. The man commits suicide at the top of the film, but before his death he created a path to a newly created virus capable of killing half the planet’s population in a matter of weeks.
When we meet Langdon he’s waking from a gunshot wound in an Italian hospital. He has no idea where he is or how he got there, but he soon finds himself wanted by criminals, police, and the World Health Organization for reasons he cannot remember. He is haunted by truly disturbing visions of hell. Thankfully, he finds a kindred spirit in a stereotypically spunky brunette (Felicity Jones) that is sorta like every other companion that has ever come and gone from Langdon’s side. She’s just as smart as he is, if not smarter, and their clashing minds leads to a promising relationship littered with mixed messages that help distract from the lack of tension inherent in a plot that relies on references for the Jeopardy crowd.
Anyone who has seen the other films in this series already knows the beats of Inferno: Langdon runs from the bad guys just long enough to find another clue and spout off another historical tidbit before he once again must run from the bad guys in order to find a clue. That clue, which is slightly harder than the one before, will ultimately lead to another clue, but not before—you guessed it—the bad guys come around. Langdon appears a bit heavier set this time than in previous installments, but his stamina is as good as it has ever been.
David Koepp’s script attempts to make up for the familiarity with a handful of third act twists, but none of the revelations prove all that surprising. This, coupled with the fact that the ties to Dante’s life and infamous depiction of Hell are so loose they fail to ever be all that thrilling, prevents Inferno from finding the tension needed to keep casual viewers engaged with its familiar story. The film is nearly a full hour shorter than The Da Vinci Code, but still it struggles to defend its runtime despite having far more twists and turns. The story just isn’t there.
Inferno’s second major sin is the fact that everyone on screen takes themselves and the admittedly unique situation they find themselves in far too seriously. There is inherent tension in the idea that someone is trying to wipe out half of the world’s population, but there is also something hilarious about the thought of someone attempting such a preposterous mission. Just once I wanted to see Langdon look up from his reflection and say, “Can you believe we now find ourselves in the plot of a bad spy movie?” Instead he talks a lot about Dante and the reason his death mask makes him appear sad (which, surprisingly, is not believed to be because he is dead).
There remains one more Robert Langdon adventure that Ron Howard and Tom Hanks have yet to adapt, but watching Inferno you get the sense that story may never find its way to the big screen. The formula that made this series something adults could enjoy on a night away from the kids has become as predictable as the blockbuster tentpoles those same adults frequent when taking their kids to the cinema. There is next to nothing that sets Inferno apart as something special, or even something that must be seen, and considering the caliber of talent responsible for bringing it to life, that may be the biggest mystery of all.