When people talk about Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy,” they most commonly reference “Inferno”; when they talk about Dan Brown’s novels or Ron Howard’s cinematic adaptations of said books, it’s almost inconceivable that the same might prove true. While Inferno is not strictly abysmal, it is sufficiently infuriating to have warranted its box office underperformance and critical lambasting. Even for those with an appreciation of Brown’s dubious authorial oeuvre, Howard’s film feels like a dumbing down of a story that was pretty profoundly dumb in the first place.
Tom Hanks returns to reprise his role as Robert Langdon, the Brown proxy and Indiana Jones by way of Rick Steves’ midlife crisis wish fulfillment fantasy that anchors most of Brown’s work. This time around, his expertise as a renowned “symbologist” — an entirely fictitious field of academic endeavor, mind you — is put to use in the quest to stop a truly bizarre plot to decimate the planet’s human population via plague on the part of a mad billionaire played by a criminally underused Ben Foster. If this premise looks silly on paper it’s exponentially worse in practice, with Howard and screenwriter David Koepp taking every lazy narrative shortcut to place their protagonist in picturesque peril across a variety of exotic European settings. The only real surprise here is that Langdon doesn’t travel exclusively by Viking River Cruises.
The film is a stylistic abomination, with Howard’s visual sensibilities so severely ill-suited to his subject that I experienced more dread at the prospect that this middling journeyman director might someday turn his attentions to making an actual horror film than any of the amorphous threats in the film’s plot could drum up. Several hallucinatory dream sequences ostensibly intended to be evoke some sense of fear or existential menace come across as damned near comedic as a result of Howard’s ineptitude, including one notable scene redolent of the famed elevator sequence from The Shining if Kubrick had replaced his fake blood with cherry Kool-Aid and decided to punch things up with a computer in post-production. If you’ve ever wanted to see Opie’s conception of Dante’s Hell, you’ve earned the cinematic retribution such sinful thinking incurs.
Koepp’s screenplay doesn’t fare any better, with the film’s purported twists seeming every bit as contrived as its protagonist’s made-up profession. The screenwriter is clearly operating from the Gilligan’s Island school of story design, with his script’s infighting incident entirely dependent upon a convenient case of medically implausible limited amnesia. This opens the door to scene after scene of exposition being conveyed through awkwardly worded dialogue, amounting to a film that plays more like Hanks narrating the CliffsNotes of the novel than a fully formed movie in and of itself.
Like Brown’s work in general, these films clearly passed the point of diminishing returns some time ago, and yet stubbornly refuse to give up the ghost. Any film that can make Hanks this thoroughly unappealing is a film that should not have been made. While this potboiler melodrama may play well for devotees of the author’s works or ardent fans of the franchise, I find it increasingly difficult to believe that such people actually exist in the wild. If the point of Dante’s meditation on the afterlife was to examine the nature of sin and redemption, Inferno’s raison d’être must be to clarify that in some cases eternal damnation is entirely justified. Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, disturbing images, some language, thematic elements and brief sensuality.
Now Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.