Inferno, the latest entry in the now-franchise of Dan Brown novel adaptations, wants desperately for its audience to have a good time. Tom Hanks (a.k.a. America’s stepdad) is right at home in a role that requires nothing but good-natured modesty and integrity to succeed. There’s a dastardly villain, a brilliant hero, endless chase sequences and a world-ending plot in play from the film’s overture.
In other words, on paper, director Ron Howard and veteran screenwriter David Koepp have been given everything they need to make a film that’s at least a little entertaining. And for the most part they succeed, at the expense of practically all common sense. Take this exchange between brilliant professor Robert Langdon (Hanks) and his companion Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones):
Brooks: “I just don’t know if I’m on the right side.”
Langdon: “You are. Trust me.”
Brooks: “Alright. I believe you.”
Brooks doesn’t put much thought into her instant acceptance of Langdon’s word. Howard and Koepp argue that, for the sake of enjoyment, neither should you.
The film’s setup is at least forthright in its intention to have fun first and ask questions later. When professor Langdon wakes up in a hospital in Florence with a debilitating head wound and amnesia, he teams up with doctor and puzzle-solving prodigy Brooks to try and recover his memory.
As he begins to piece together the events from the two nights before, Langdon realizes he must race against time to prevent a billionaire madman (Ben Foster) from unleashing a deadly virus (called Inferno, based on Dante Alighieri’s Divine \Comedy) in a plan to prevent world overpopulation.
At its best, Inferno plays like a combination between National Treasure and The Hangover, complete with vague flashbacks sprinkled throughout the film’s running time. Langdon and Brooks frequently find themselves cornered by various government agencies (including the World Health Organization, which appears to have invested in military-grade weaponry at some point) and must escape via a secret passageway that only Langdon knows about.
Along the way, Langdon takes every opportunity to explain the history behind his surroundings, venturing into tangents regarding Dante’s romantic interests and the secrets of famous pieces of artwork.
The whole affair would be a lot more enjoyable if the filmmakers could settle on a tone. Instead, Howard and Koepp want the film to be lighthearted, somber and introspective all at once. The result is a muddled mess of a story and characters that seem to exist only to give Langdon an audience for his “believe-it-or-not” lectures.
And while the pace is purposefully quick, the film is shot and edited in a style so frenetic that it’s easy to be overloaded by the endless barrage of images onscreen. The first 30 seconds alone are a confusing mess, mostly because Howard’s average shot length hovers around one or two seconds. Bring on the headaches.
The film basically amounts to a great collection of wasted talent. There are a number of fine actors assembled here, but Felicity Jones deserves the most praise, if only because Brooks’ inherent weakness and reliance on her male counterparts requires great dramatic talent to overcome. The film displays little of her oft-discussed brilliance or intelligence. By the end, Brooks is simply a conduit through which the male characters act, and she shows little resistance to their bidding.
Her character’s unfortunate shallowness applies to virtually all of Inferno. The film may purposefully jettison complexity in search of thrills, but Ron Howard simply cannot overcome the story’s stupidity. Perhaps that’s for the best. After all, thinking is hard.
Watch the trailer for Inferno below: