85. Inferno

Here we are, at the second film that made my list of 10 Fourth Quarter 2016 Films to Be Excited About.  You may know by now that Tom Hanks is my favorite actor.  You may also know that Felicity Jones has won me over in the last few years and that I consider her to have been robbed of an Academy Award.  And I also love Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novels and found Inferno, specifically, to be exceptionally gripping with an unpredictable climax and some incredibly thought-provoking ideas.

Brown always performs extensive research into his books, basing the fictional narratives on very real-life facts and theories.  The results are simultaneously entertaining and didactic – a difficult combination to top.  The two previous Tom Hanks films based on his Langdon novels, The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, were strong, exciting efforts that couldn’t possibly capture the detail and informational aspects of the books, but did an admirable job of telling the story.  I knew going into Inferno that, unless major plot points were altered for the film, the deeper ideas were unavoidable.  And that’s great because more people need to be made aware of them.  We can’t depend on China to save all of us, folks.

Having said all of that, how you receive the movie will probably depend on your perspective.  I’ll first assume that most of you haven’t read the book (I’ll get to the rest of you, shortly).  In that case, the movie is fine.  Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks (i.e. fantastic) and he has more to work with in Inferno than in the two previous installments in the series. Langdon is a central part of the mystery and is suffering from some physical maladies that add an extra wrinkle to the proceedings.  Jones continues her upward trajectory with a solid turn, as well.  She isn’t pushed very hard and her part will likely be remembered more for the character’s moments than the performance aspects, but she perfectly delivers what she’s given, casually conveying intelligence, elegance, and urgency.  Jones is about six weeks away from seeing her career truly explode as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is right around the corner.

The story wastes absolutely no time getting started.  Right off the bat, we hear about the power and danger of exponential growth (which I was actually teaching in my classes, this week, so nice timing, Sony!) and then the action begins!  And it rarely lets up.  Typically that’s a great thing, and I enjoyed the chaotic nature of the narrative, but I do think the first half of the film could use a few more moments where we all pause and take a breather.  So much is happening so fast that neither the characters nor the audience is allowed a moment to consider the repercussions or consequences of what it all means.  The movie clocks in at almost exactly two hours long (that includes the credits) but I think it would have truly benefitted from an extra fifteen or twenty minutes where huge events were allowed to resonate before speeding on to the next one.

The second half is paced much better and actually does allow time for reflection.  I’m under no illusions that director Ron Howard is unaware of the points that I’m raising.  I can only speculate, but my guess is that he reasoned the movie would play better to general audiences if the first hour was a nonstop adrenaline rush.  Maybe it will.  I guess we’ll see.  That’s not what my instinct tells me, but I’ve never made a movie.  I like Ron Howard but he’s been hit-and-miss for me, personally.  I usually feel like he makes really good movies that aren’t . . . quite . . . great.  But I always root for him and I’ve never questioned his talent.  Here, he excels at suspense and directing the cast.  But that pacing is going to vary depending on taste.

I mentioned at the top of the column that the deeper ideas in Brown’s book were unavoidable if the story was to be adhered to, at all.  And adhered to it is.  Mostly.  Here’s where there will likely be a divide between those who have read the book and those who haven’t.  Allow me to restate what I’ve said in previous columns: I have no inherent problems with changes – big or small – being made to a story that is being adapted to film if 1) the changes help make the transition to the medium of film and 2) the changes don’t betray the spirit of the original version of the property.  I’m going to work really hard to dance around the details, here, and avoid spoilers in the next paragraph.

The ending.  It isn’t “changed” as much as it’s shortened.  And the critical part that makes the ending to Dan Brown’s book so powerful and thought-provoking – the revelation that changes everything for the characters and the world they live in – is gone.  That original ending is not easy to digest from an intellectual or philosophical point of view.  It puts Robert Langdon and his allies in a place of moral ambiguity.  And it makes it nearly impossible to truly determine who was in the right and who was in the wrong.  Truthfully, the literary version of Langdon was always more conflicted during this adventure than the theatrical version.  The movie touches on it, but Book Langdon was more consistent in wondering if they would be better off failing at their goal, though he knew they had to try, anyway.  And then the revelation comes and changes everyone’s worldview.

I wanted that for this film, not just because it was in the book, but because it’s simply better.  It’s complex and philosophical and modern and relevant and something we should all be thinking about.  But the movie plays it safe.  And safe is fine.  But safe doesn’t get people talking.  It doesn’t get people talking about the movie and it doesn’t get people talking about a very real-life problem that is imminently threatening our species.  I hate that a movie that could have been truly important in sparking conversation instead opts for “safe”.  Maybe Howard didn’t want the film to be topical and wanted to stick to entertainment.  Or maybe he was afraid it was too deep for his target audience.  But I think that’s underestimating the people who are drawn to this sort of film.  So, as a result, this Ron Howard film, as with so many others, could have been great, but falls just short.  And it betrays the spirit of Brown’s novel.

If you haven’t read Dan Brown’s book, you’ll never miss that, though.  And if you’re ready, willing, and able to stay focused and hit the ground running, you’ll likely have a good time.  The same can be said for those who have read the book as long as you’re capable of separating the two and recognizing them as the two independent entities that they are.  But, even if people have a good time watching it, Inferno falls frustratingly short of being important or particularly memorable.  There’s no reason to avoid the film; it’s not poorly made in any way.  It just reminds me of those people we all know who are hesitant to try anything for fear of failing.  Inferno has the ability to reach for the stars, but settles for the roof.

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