I'm not afraid to admit that I get a kick out of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon thrillers. Yes, they’re indifferently plotted and predictably written. But I’m a sucker for ludicrous, centuries-spanning conspiracies and indulgent faux-gnosticism. The books serve, if nothing else, as gripping tours through art-world apocrypha, and Brown’s know-it-all symbologist hero makes a clever guide through it all. Do a drinking game around the words “Langdon quickly explained” in one of these books; you’ll be dead within the hour. So it is with a heavy heart that I must tell you that Ron Howard’s latest Dan Brown adaptation, Inferno, is terrible.
Howard’s previous entries in the series, The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, were not exactly critically beloved either, but I dug the first and tolerated the second; they capture enough of the sweep and pseudo-intellectual clutter of the books to make for engaging entertainments. But Inferno seems to have forgotten what makes this whole enterprise click: It streamlines everything down to a basic chase narrative, losing most of the paranoid cultural history lessons Brown is known for. To put it another way: Take the Dan Brown out of a Dan Brown movie and all you’re left with is Tom Hanks jogging in mild irritation.
The story has Langdon (Hanks) waking up in an emergency room in Florence, Italy with a head wound and a severe case of amnesia. He has no idea what he’s doing in Florence or what caused his injury, but as soon as a stone-faced female assassin shows up at the hospital, Langdon and his doctor, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), start running. Trying to piece together what’s happened to him, Langdon discovers in his jacket a nifty Faraday pointer, a laser pointer that works with kinetic energy (I didn’t know that, did you know that?). The device projects an image of Botticelli’s Abyss of Hell, an elaborate painting inspired by Dante’s vision of the underworld in the Divine Comedy. This all seems to relate to the recent suicide of Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), a billionaire biotech visionary obsessed with the planet’s runaway overpopulation.
Cutaways to Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babbet Knudsen), the head of the World Health Organization, who is also looking for Langdon, start to clarify matters: It appears that Zobrist, who believed that humanity’s survival depends on regularly thinning the herd, has created some sort of deadly plague. Now Langdon and Sienna are on a historical scavenger hunt to try and find it, as our hero peruses through his spotty memory to recall what terrifying secrets he needs to uncover, and which ones he already knows. And somebody wants them dead. Maybe. Also, there’s a drone. But, like, a small one.
The running, the chasing, the fighting — in the world of Dan Brown, all this stuff is entirely secondary to the scenery and the landmarks and the curios and the fun historical discrepancies we run into along the way. For some reason, that fact appears to have been lost on Howard and company, who’ve distilled everything down to the chase, keeping only what artistic and architectural minutiae is absolutely necessary to move the story along. They think they’re making an action movie, evidently. They’ve even outfitted the film with a bland action-movie ending, a far cry from what’s in the book — and, indeed, one that changes the motivations and the very nature of a couple of key characters. You know you’ve made some poor cinematic choices when you have to make Dan Brown characters less complex.
Even the beautiful settings — Florence, Venice, Istanbul — feel curiously downplayed. We get a nice glimpse of Florence’s Vasari Corridor, and of the magnificent Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, but it’s strictly tourist-video stuff — there’s no awe or mystery here. Brown can pull this sort of thing off on the page in his own adorably clunky way. Reading Inferno, I got the curious feeling that he might never have actually been to Istanbul — he screws up some basic details of the city — but I also got the charming impression that he really, really wanted to go.
All this would have merely resulted in a mediocre movie, not an irredeemably lousy one. But the story's not just been stripped of personality, it’s been chopped up into fragments, many of them incoherent — possibly in an effort to add some fake tension and excitement to the plot. Langdon sees random visions throughout his journey: men with their heads on backwards, the streets in flames, blood exploding through doorways. All this is in the book, to be sure, but there it’s incidental, while here it’s been turned into a governing aesthetic. It’s as if Howard knows his story won’t keep us entertained enough, so he’s decided to spice things up with some fast, nonlinear cutting, none of which suits him as a filmmaker. It results not in energy but confusion.