Movie Review: Inferno
By Matthew Huntley
November 3, 2016

Save us, Felicity Jones! You're our only hope.

Inferno is the kind of movie you seek out when you want to watch something intelligent but have the movie do most of the thinking for you. Like its predecessors, The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, also based on Dan Brown novels and directed by Ron Howard, Inferno is slick, capable and pretty to look at, and despite an absurd and labyrinthine plot, it's more or less easy to follow, probably because the characters are always giving us the play by play and telling us exactly what we need to know and when (hence it's thinking for us).

At their core, Brown's stories have more in common with mainstream police procedurals than high-intelligence crime dramas, which is fine, because the results are involving and entertaining just the same. This is mindless escapism posing as something greater, but because we get the sense the filmmakers knows this, and therefore don't allow the movie take itself too seriously, we let it lead us and simply enjoy all the exposition and spectacle.

As routine as Inferno is with regards to its structure and execution, one thing that's different (and refreshing) about it is we finally learn something personal about the central character, Robert Langdon, who's once again played by Tom Hanks. Hitherto now, the Harvard Professor of Symbology and author has mostly functioned as brilliant cryptologist and makeshift detective without having much of a personality of his own. In the first two movies, his role was to follow a series of clues in order to prevent a crisis, yet he remained rather stoic and unaffected by what he found. Hanks was perfectly serviceable as Langdon, but because the character was so dry, we didn't get the sense Hanks really owned the role like he usually does and the character may been better suited for a different actor. This time around, David Koepp's screenplay fleshes Langdon out more, lending him a history, even a love interest, and it's these new aspects of Langdon's nature that Hanks imbues with his usual nuance and credibility.

When the movie opens, Robert lies in a hospital bed in Florence, Italy and is having nightmarish visions of a plague: people walking around with their heads on backwards; men wearing plague masks (black eyes, crow's beak); a mysterious woman with her face covered by a scarf; fires burning, etc. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), the young British doctor treating Robert, tells him he arrived at the hospital with with no identification and a bullet wound to the head. Now he's having trouble remembering things, including the name of coffee, let alone standing and walking.

Things get worse when a female assassin disguised as a cop (Ana Ularu) enters the hospital and starts shooting at Robert with an intent to kill. What could the gentle and kind Robert possibly know that would make anyone want to kill him? Could it have something to do with the recent suicide death of Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), the young billionaire and medical engineer who threw himself off a tower at the beginning movie? Or is Robert's condition linked to Agent Bouchard (Omar Sy) of the World Health Organization, who was chasing Zobrist just before he jumped?

Zobrist was famous for his lectures on the end of the world and preached that because humans ignored the signs and solutions to our overpopulation epidemic, Earth will be unable to sustain its some eight billion people. “So far there have been five mass extinctions and unless we take drastic action, the next will be our own. It's one minute to midnight,” Zobrist says.

We eventually learn what Zobrist thought he could do to curb the effects of too many people living on the planet and using up all its resources, but his untimely death means someone else has to take over. We hear him address an unknown character, “You are my contingency plan.” Could he have been talking to Robert? Is that why Robert is in possession of a Faraday Pointer kept inside a vile only he can access? The content of the pointer is a modified version of Botticelli's “Map of Hell," which he illustrated for Dante's “Divine Comedy.” Upon the map are various clues Zobrist added in order to lead the onlooker toward what Zobrist thought would be humankind's salvation. But what do they mean and where do they lead? Luckily Sienna was a child prodigy and loves solving puzzles, so she's a perfect aid to help Robert solve the mystery. In fact, she first met Robert when she was 9-years-old, which is how she knew who he was when he first arrived at the hospital, and after she helps him escape, their quest begins, not only to try to survive those out to kill them, but also prevent another crisis.

If you've seen The Da Vinci Code and/or Angels & Demons, then the setup for Inferno will be familiar, perhaps with he exception of Langdon being initially handicapped. But this latter aspect offers a refreshing twist because it gives Langdon a vulnerability, which makes him more interesting and sympathetic. There's also a bit of role reversal as Langdon, a renowned professor, suddenly finds himself at the mercy of his “student,” Sienna. We see her teaching him a thing or two as they unearth objects and translate messages. When Robert mentions he needs a copy of a specific book to look something up, Sienna replies, “Copy of the book? That's quaint; I use Google.”

Also shaking the structure up a bit are the supporting characters, who have more of a presence and purpose this time around. In addition to Agent Bouchard, Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is another agent at the WHO who has a personal history with Robert. As the story progresses, we actually wonder if they'll end up together in the end, which is surprising because the answer is usually so obvious. Adding further dynamism and even humor to the mix is Harry Sims, well played by Irrfan Khan, who's becoming more prolific and irreplaceable with every movie he appears in. Sims runs the private security firm hired by Zobrist and is the keeper of many of the story's secrets, which Khan doesn't deliver through dull exposition but rather through sly wit and humor.

In the grand scheme of things, Inferno doesn't bring anything new to the table, but it has everything it needs to be a fun, engaging thriller: characters who are articulate and quick-thinking; exotic locations and imagery (from Florence to Venice to Istanbul); and a strong sense of rhythm and energy. Collectively, these build up toward a standard yet still exciting conclusion and I'd be curious to know how much of the ending was shot on location in the actual cistern underneath the Hagia Sophia basilica in Istanbul and how much was recreated with sets. Whatever the case, it's a great setting to end a thriller, which of course boils down to the last possible minute and involves a perfunctory digital readout where red denotes catastrophe and green denotes safety. I probably don't have to tell you what the final color is, but it doesn't matter. What does matter is the movie is well made and entertaining, and even though we're aware it's manipulating us every step of the way, we still watch it with enthusiasm. And like Brown's literary page-turners, we're not likely to remember much about Inferno too long after the fact. It's the kind of short-lived entertainment that becomes less enjoyable the more you think about it, which is another reason you should just let the movie think for you.