“Why Dante?” By the time Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) poses this question in Inferno, he’s long past the point of no return. Which is to say, the world-famous Harvard symbologist (a fictional field of study), unable to resist puzzles, is already deeply immersed in a puzzle.
Suffice it to say that you know “why Dante” even if Langdon doesn’t. Suffused with symbols, again, the puzzle this time, like the two that drove his previous filmic outings (The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, all based on Dan Brown novels), pits Langdon against a gigantic adversary. This time, it’s an update on the Black Plague, a virus devised by a geneticist-turned-proselytizer named Zobrist (Ben Foster) to decimate the world’s population before it’s decimated on its own accord, some decades into the future.
Zobrist makes his premise clear, that “Mankind is the cancer on its own body!”, as Inferno begins. Addressing an auditorium full of well-behaved followers, he paces the stage Steve-Jobs-style, a giant screen behind him offering glimpses of apocalypse: writhing bodies, ravaged faces, and raging fires.
Come to find out, a scene or two later, that these images are also flitting across Langdon’s mindscape. That he first appears in a hospital bed in Florence, Italy, his head adorned with a bloody bandage and his arm attached to a fluids tube, invites you to worry for his mortal condition. Are his hallucinations a matter of foresight or flashback, wild invention or cultural mapping, or — most likely, of course — his version of Dante filtered through all of the above?
It’s not long before Langdon has the opportunity to start fitting pieces together. As usual, he’s got help from a pretty girl, here a doctor named Sienna (Felicity Jones), who likes to wear shoes that make it hard to run. She also happens to be “crazy about puzzles”. Or so she says, describing her nine-year-old self to Langdon.
Impressed that she’s a Langdon fan from way back, he instantly entrusts her with his life when he finds himself the target of a killer. As tends to happen in such movies, the killer is one of many players in a multi-faceted plot, this one involving the World Health Organization, corporate intrigues, a dashing hitman named Bouchard (Omar Sy), soothsayers and serpents, and lots of running around from Venice to Istanbul. And oh yes, a couple of references to the Church because: franchise.
Until this moment, Howard’s movie has been propulsive and grisly, as Zobrist’s vision bleeds directly into Langdon’s trauma (Sienna attributes his shaky memory to his head wound). Here it turns plainly preposterous, as the killer appears dressed as a carabiniere astride a motorcycle. Drawing her weapon and striding through the hallway, Vayentha (Ana Ularu) looks positively Terminator-esque. When she removes her helmet, a stray strand of hair escapes her ponytail and falls across her very stern, very mean face. Grrr.
Sadly, as vividly daunting as Vayentha appears, she has precious little to say as she pursues her mission, her curt radio contact with her employer revealing only that she does have a mission and that she means to pursue it. She insists, concisely, “I am not dispensable.”
Happily, her employer is Irrfan Khan, here playing Harry, the CEO of a monstrously expensive private security company called “The Consortium”. Beautifully dressed and consummately rational, Harry operates at a speedy clip (“We’re not the government,” he snaps, “We get things done.”) Bringing a darkly comic resonance to the proceedings, Harry’s a brusque respite from Langdon, whose rumpled affability is punctuated by a habit of over-explaining everything, from words added to on Botticelli’s Map of Hell to the backstory of the Vasari Corridor to the vagaries of bio-tubes to off-topic musings on life: “The most interesting things happen in doorways.”
That Langdon likes to issue such explanations and annotations while on the run, sometimes reading text as you see it on screen, with highlighting to guide your eye, can’t help but slow down the action. It also raises the specter of the ever-tricky relationships between a franchise’s books and movies, and the fans of both or either. What works in a novel doesn’t always translate in a movie. If Langdon’s verbal displays of knowledge constitute plot and characterization in the novels, on screen they can create other sorts of effects, not least suggesting that the movie doesn’t quite trust you’ll keep up with the escalating silliness.
Put another way, the over-explaining amplifies the silliness. It also rather epitomizes the franchise, which combines what it calls “science” and “religion”, as well as stunts and puzzles and dashes through cobbled streets.
Langdon manages all of this with his usual prodigious niceness. As difficult as any situation may seem, as ambiguous as any figure looks, he remains a more or less fixed center of sweet, smart optimism. As he seeks to save the world, Langdon is vexed by all manner of irrationality and brutality, framed by deception and Langdon’s hallucinations. Langdon’s worries about what he sees and whom he can trust extend to himself, owing to his loss of memory.
Still, Inferno frames these mysteries and their solutions by way of over-explaining, so that even if they are surprises, they don’t feel like surprises, landing with thumps. So again you’re grateful for Vayentha, conspicuous and mean as she can be, not to mention, not dispensable.