Tuesday 1 November 2016

Inferno (2016) - Movie Review

Growing up as I did when the big debacle concerning The Da Vinci Code made headlines, I’ve probably got the same mental association with Dan Brown films as the rest of the world: Convoluted mystery stories justified by a business-casual approach to history. Of course, I’ve spent the years since first watching Da Vinci and Angels & Demons playing a lot of Assassin’s Creed, so fidelity to history and genuine science clearly isn’t an entertainment factor for me… most days, at least. As such, I don’t take as much issue with these films as the general consensus. Sure, they fall into some pretty illogical pitfalls with alarming regularity, and main character Robert Langdon can shift erratically from smartest man in the room to worst investigator ever, but as a couple of potboiler mystery thrillers, they serve their purpose. Yes, I realise how long I’ve spent lambasting Akiva Goldsman’s work, but the Dan Brown adaptations are easily some of his most tolerable contributions. Since Akiva has stepped away from the typewriter for this one, there’s nowhere to go but up for this series… maybe?

The plot: Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) wakes up in a hospital room in Florence, Italy. He has no memory of the last few days, but apparently he must have done something noteworthy because he once again has people who want to kill him. With the help of his attending doctor Sienna (Felicity Jones), he has to recollect his actions that lead up to his hospitalisation, as well as follow a puzzle trail left behind by scientist Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) that could lead to a deadly virus primed for release.

Hanks has been out of Langdon’s shoes for seven years now, but he fits back into them remarkably well, giving the usual level of confidence for a person of his purportedly abilities. However, thanks to the parameters of the plot, he also works with the displacement and general confusion his character is under for the majority of the film. Jones is probably the blandest of the sidekicks this series has shown us so far, but credit where it’s due in that she works rather well with the developments she’s given. Foster may be in the film far less than I would have liked, given how I’ve taken a shine to him thanks to his recent output, but he still carries the grandiose personality to make you believe that this is a guy who could convince people that half the world needs to die. Omar Sy as a government agent working on the case makes for a nice presence, Ana Ularu as this film’s pursuing assassin is alright but she’s no Silas, and Irrfan Khan as the head of this film’s shadowy conspiratorial organisation gives the role the obtuseness and common sense it requires.

As I’ve not-so-subtly hinted at in the above paragraph, Dan Brown isn’t exactly the most versatile author out there. Even with the absence of Akiva Goldsman, this time having Angels & Demons co-writer David Koepp go solo, this has pretty much the exact same narrative structure as the last two films. We have a earth-shattering scheme connected to some facet of traditional Christianity, a trail of clues tied into famous works of art, a shadowy organisation setting the events of the story in motion, and the closest confidante to the leads is revealed to be the main villain. It’s because of this that the cold opening with Langdon in hospital is as effective as it is, because it shows a marked departure from the series’ norm. Not that repetition is bad in and of itself; just that when it’s this pervasive within a single series, you can’t help but question why they would bother with this latest iteration to begin with.

And then there’s the big conspiracy at the heart of the story or, to be more accurate, the two big conspiracies. One of which is related to Zobrist’s views on overpopulation and how he found allies to help carry out his grand plan, and the other involves The Consortium, a private security company specializing in “fabricated realities” that helped fund Zobrist’s plans. As the two are linked together through the narrative, they basically twist and twirl around each other to create the story of the film… and even for Dan Brown, this is far-fetched. Don’t get me wrong, it carries on the usual sins of man theme of the last two, as well as furthering the trend of the grand schemes becoming more grounded in reality the less involvement Goldsman has in the writer’s room. However, the way this film tries (and fails) to juggle both of them throughout ends up muddling what should the explosive conclusion to a trilogy that has already seen mass conspiracy within the Catholic papacy, as well as discovering the last descendent of Jesus himself. A race to stop a virus, aside from being really damn similar to the chase after an antimatter container in Angels & Demons, just fails to have the equal punch of those other stories.

Something else that hasn’t changed between films, and on a positive note this time, director Ron Howard still knows how to stage scenes to make them feel grand and immense… if somewhat incoherent. The man’s sense of scale ends up clashing with returning cinematographer Salvatore Totino’s apparent intent to give everyone a feeling of motion sickness. I get how some action scenes benefit from the use of hand-held cameras, to match the frenetic pace of what’s on screen, but the constantly shaking camera makes the action more than a little disorienting. This film’s production codename was literally ‘Headache’, and after watching it, I can easily see why. This is an extra shame because the red-tinged hellfire imagery from the trailer? All hallucinations on Langdon’s part, and I can’t even complain that much about the most visually enticing moments being fictional even in-universe. The satanic imagery is very well-conveyed and ends up adding a lot to Langdon’s own sense of disorientation, and it shows a more thought-out integration of the classical art clues into the story itself.

All in all, even for a series that I’ve taken a bit of a liking to, this is a pretty weaksauce offering. The acting is still solid, the visuals are stunning and it feels like the most accessible of the series thanks to its lack of theological targeting, but the story is not only incredibly muddled, it also manages to under-deliver for a series that has made its mark with gargantuan conspiracy theorizing. Maybe it’s because this film’s attempt to become somewhat less controversial, by refraining from anti-Catholicism and going with an evil plot that is about as Bond villain as you can get, it has lost its sense of identity and grandeur that made Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons at least watchable.

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