Friday, October 28, 2016

Inferno: Flickers and dies

Inferno (2016) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, for action violence, dramatic intensity and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

I’ve no idea why this series continues to be popular; each entry is sillier than the one before.

Dan Brown may be able to maintain reader credibility in a lengthy novel — Inferno runs a self-indulgent 609 pages — but director Ron Howard’s film adaptations are no more sensible than the old Perils of Pauline silent movie serial.

A series of arcane, art-related clues eventually lead Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and
Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) to the fabled "death mask" of Italian poet Dante
Alighieri. But what has this to do with a potential world-wide plague? And do we care?
David Koepp’s screenplay for Inferno reduces the plot to little more than a race-race-race against time, occasionally alleviated when famed university symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) pauses for breath in order to solve another arcane riddle locked within a famed piece of artwork.

On top of which, attempting to make sense of the conspiracy-laden supporting characters is beyond the ability of mere mortals. “Duplicitous” doesn’t begin to cover the crosses, double-crosses and triple-crosses in this ludicrous plot, which quickly devolves into a tiresome guessing game.

Lessee ... first they’re all bad guys. Then some of the bad guys become good guys. Oh, wait, no; that one was bad all along. And that one was good. Until turning bad again.

All with poor Langdon caught in the middle.

It quickly becomes impossible to believe — or care about — any of these people. All we can do is wait for the murk to clear, accompanied by tediously complicated explanations, so matters can build to a staggeringly inept climax, and we can go home.

Brown may have sold all this meandering nonsense to his readers — full disclosure prompts acknowledging that I’m not among the faithful — but Koepp can’t begin to distill it into a two-hour film. We can’t help wondering, as loyalties finally become apparent in the third act, why Certain Parties didn’t simply ask for Langdon’s help, rather than concocting such an elaborate means of “forcing” his assistance.

What makes Howard’s Dan Brown adaptations even more exasperating is their insistence on taking such stuff and nonsense so seriously. Robert Langdon’s profession and expertise make him a close cousin to Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, but director Steven Spielberg wisely turns those chapter-play adventures into larkish thrill rides, with plenty of winking and nudging.

Brown’s style, on the other hand — reproduced here by Howard and Koepp — always collapses under the weight of its own pomposity.


This new film opens on a lecture hall presentation by billionaire geneticist Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), who warns that “zero hour” is fast approaching, with respect to world overpopulation. With no end in sight to exponential birthrate, the result — human extinction — is inevitable. Drastic action is necessary ... and Zobrist truly means drastic.

Elsewhere, Langdon shudders to wakefulness in a hospital bed, clawing to consciousness past nightmares of hell on Earth. His young doctor, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), tells him to take is easy; he has a head wound, and likely is suffering from a blend of confusion and short-term amnesia. Langdon can’t even imagine why he’s in Florence; the last thing he remembers is being on his own campus.

He doesn’t have long to ponder such questions. Glancing through the open door into the hallway, he and Sienna are horrified to see an assassin — dressed as a police Carabinieri — shooting her way toward his room. The quick-witted Sienna yanks out Langdon’s various tubes (ouch!), hauls his stumbling body in her wake, flees the hospital and barely gets them to the safety of her nearby apartment.

Where we pause, as Langdon tries to make sense of the situation. His bafflement intensifies when he finds, in a jacket pocket — Sienna having grabbed his bag of clothes on the way out — a small biohazard cylinder. Rather impulsively deciding to open it (not something I would do!), he discovers a medieval “bone cylinder” reconfigured into a miniature projector.

The image: Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli’s multi-layer “Map of Hell,” which gave image to the horrors described in Dante’s Inferno, the opening chapter of his epic Divine Comedy. Ah, but Langdon’s educated mind continues to function, despite his bewilderment; this version of Botticelli’s masterpiece has been altered, with random letters inserted throughout. Some sort of anagram?

But of course! And this naturally points to another work of art — Giorgio Vasari’s “Battle of Marciano” — which involves a trip to Venice’s St. Mark’s Square, and then to Florence’s Palazzo Pitti, and ultimately the “Hall of 500” at the Palazzo Vecchio. Which in turn yields a clue that points to the Baptistery, in the Piazza del Duomo, resting place of Dante’s death mask. Which ... but you don’t really care, right?

Navigating the ongoing clues of this maddening puzzle would be difficult enough under calm circumstances, but of course Landon and Sienna have other worries. They’re dogged at every step not only by squads of Florentine police, but also by:

• A group of nasty-looking thugs, led by the relentless Christoph Bouchard (Omar Sy);

• A larger posse of (supposedly) World Health Organization officials, supervised by the grim-faced Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen);

• Unspecified agents working for a sinister “consulting group” known only as The Consortium, which operates from a huge, ocean-bound luxury liner, and is run by the quietly ruthless Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan); and

• The aforementioned not-a-Carabinieri, actually a brutal female assassin named Vayentha (Ana Ularu).

(I supposed we should be grateful that, for once, Brown hasn’t included any Catholic/Vatican cabals in this overcooked mess.)

The reason for all this lunacy? Zobrist has developed an über-powerful “bio bomb,” with which he intends to eradicate at least half the world’s population in one quick strike. Worse yet, this whatzit is gonna go off in LESS THAN 24 HOURS!!!!!

Zobrist’s acolytes (whoever they are) want this to take place; certain nasty parties (whoever they are) want to deactivate the whatzit, but reserve it for their own nefarious purposes; and actual World Health Organization officers (whoever they are) wish to destroy it. Supposedly.

I complained, back in 2009, about how the Howard/Koepp adaptation of Brown’s Angels & Demons crammed an impossible amount of activity into the story’s series of 60-minute deadline periods. So much movement, is such short spans of time, clearly was beyond physical possibility; the whole exercise became stupid on its face.

This one’s even worse.

With less than a day in which to solve all these puzzles, while dashing hither and yon, evading multiple unknown pursuers, knowing that the Fate Of The World hangs in the balance, Langdon would need at least three clones to accomplish what this film demands. And such physical and temporal limitations become even more ridiculous, when the final clue sends everybody to the Hagia Sophia.

In Istanbul.

Oh, puh-leaze.

Hanks can’t begin to bring credibility to any of this claptrap. He may have given some character depth to Langdon, back in 2006’s adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, but here he’s no more than a puppet, jerked around by an increasingly incomprehensible plot. Hanks’ “acting” is limited to various stages of bafflement and panic, which may suit the contrivance of Langdon’s amnesia, but also suggests that Hanks, himself, doesn’t have the faintest idea what’s going on, from one scene to the next.

Jones, at least, has a handle on Sienna: resourceful, sympathetic, courageous and almost as outside-the-box smart as Langdon. (She was a child prodigy, obsessed with puzzles. Of course.) Jones also adds some badly needed levity, as her occasionally mocking asides are the closest this film gets to a sense of humor.

Foster is persuasively messianic as the doomsday-spouting Zobrist, and Ularu makes a great, grim-faced assassin. Khan exudes Machiavellian intrigue as the mysterious Sims, and Sy’s Bouchard looks and sounds dangerous in his own right.

Ida Darvish is a breath of fresh air as Marta Alvarez, a credibly human — and wholly ordinary — museum director at the Piazza del Duomo.

Howard’s film may fail as a suspense thriller, but it functions superbly as a travelogue, and production designer Peter Wenham has fun with some of the elaborately fictitious sets, most notably the expansive “cistern symphony hall” where the story’s climax takes place. That’s about the best that can be said.

I note that Brown (thus far) has two more books in his Robert Langdon series, The Lost Symbol and Origin. Is it asking too much, that we be spared big-screen adaptations?

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