Directed by: Ron Howard
Cast Includes: Ben Foster, Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Omar Sy, and Ana Ularu
Inferno is the third movie installment of the Dan Brown books centred around the character of Professor Robert Langdon (Hanks) - the previous installments including The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. In my opinion this is the least successful of the three movies both in terms of content and cinematography.
I usually don't begin by talking about the mechanical aspects of entertainment, but with this film the cinematographic techniques employed by Howard are central to both its construct and themes. In many ways, this is one of the cleverest constructions I have seen in film making. The themes of the story and the book work around the question of illusion and understanding, and Howard has chosen to construct the film around the very modern concept of the affective turn. Modern philosophy questions our relationship to the representational and questions the relationship between the real and the virtual world. Following on from the theories of phenomenology, affect is about exciting visceral responses which inform us about our world as non-representational knowledge. In other words we feel it, we don't think it.
To engage feeling over thought, Howard has tried to immerse our senses in the confusion Langdon feels by cutting scenes in a temporally ad hoc continuum, blurring images, shifting the colour palette out of the realistic and condensing and elongating time. He uses sound to excite and surprise and muffle and amplify. These techniques are masterfully applied, but in the end they obfuscate the journey for the audience rather than allowing the mind to engage in the puzzle.
Let's face it, you read a Dan Brown book, or see a Dan Brown film because you want to solve a puzzle. Audiences who follow Dan Brown are the same ones who follow National Treasure and Tom Clancy stories. These people want to engage their intellect and want permission to feel smart at the end. By disengaging the frontal cortex Howard has alienated the very audience he has courted with choice of material.
Having said that, Inferno is not Dan Brown's best effort either. It lacks the accessibility of content and complexity of puzzle solving which made The Da Vinci Code so exhilerating. Angels and Demons also failed to excite the intellect to the same level, but for me Inferno falls even shorter.
Interestingly, there are layers to Howard's film which would have added to the intellectual intrigue had the film been more accessible. Inferno rests on Dante Allighieri's epic poem Commedia (The Divine Comedy as it is now known). Inferno is the first of three stages - Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Inferno is Dante's journey through hell, Purgatorio is the place for repentant souls, and Paradiso is heaven. Although titled Inferno, Langdon metaphorically travels through all the spheres in this story.
Time is a hugely important construct for Dante's journey, and Brown has cleverly brought in the more modern concept of the Doomsday Clock as an allegory. The Doomsday Clock was created in 1947 to measure how close the world was to nuclear annihilation. It has more recently been co-opted as a measure of how close humanity is to extinction through global warming and overpopulation.
The premise is that billionaire bioscientist Zobrist (Foster) is in a panic and places the clock at 1 second to midnight. As such he poses the moral dilemma - is it better to kill half the population to save the rest or allow all of humanity to die? He makes his choice and sets events in motion.
Many layers of activity are in play as Foster enacts his plans. The World Health Organisation (WHO) try and stop him and Langdon tries to figure out who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, and how to save the world. Layer after layer after layer of sin and repentance are stripped bare as Langdon (as Dante) travels this convoluted path.
One of the great strengths of the story, if not the film, is the unanswerable moral question of who is doing the right thing. Is Zobrist right? Is WHO right? Who do we follow?
One of the disappointments in the film involves Howard changing the ending. As with all Hollywood product there has to be a happy ending, and there has to be good guys and bad guys so Hanks saves the world as we know he will. The book is not so clear cut however, and follows Dante's own questioning of good and evil. The outcome is more surprising - and more realistic and terrifying.
There are wonderful little nods to Dante including his enchantment with Beatrice and her journey with him through Paradiso. Langdon and Elizabeth Sinskey (Knudsen) mirror the courtly love of the real Dante and Beatrice, and the temperance discovered in Paradiso. In simple terms, Zobrist represents the punishment and indulgence of Inferno and Dr Brooks (Jones) embodies the Purgatorio as a love with improper ends. I really enjoyed Khan's portrayal of Sims as the repentant soul. Khan is great in anything of course...
In the end, I think it is probably better to read the book than see the movie. You won't get what you came to see in the cinema and whilst I applaud what Howard has done as a movie innovator, it won't satisfy any fans of the author, the actors, or even of Howard himself because it is so different to everything else done before. This is one of those instances where innovation is detrimental to the project.