Sixteen years into the twenty-first century, Conspiracy Theories populate the Internet and broader culture like sand at a beach. Occasionally sensible, but prevalently insane, the Conspiracy zeitgeist occupies a niche but specific role, which was formerly religious and which still suggests a new hybrid religiosity. In Conspiracy parlance, all the events of history, past and present, are directly manifested by malignant puppet-masters, shadowy cabals manipulating the masses for their own nefarious intents. In other words, the Conspiracy basin has become a repository for all the things -usually horrible- that seem to defy understanding. Where historically man attributed the forces beyond his control to God or his Nemesis, he now creates a virtual rabbit hole of his own making in his befuddling attempt to make sense of history.
Ron Howard’s new movie Inferno, with its tangential religious inference, like his other two Dan Brown adaptations –The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons– is a measured reflection of this modern paranoia. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), Brown’s hero, is constantly flashing between apocalyptic visions of mass death, rivers of blood, shadowy memories and demons.
After waking up in a Florentine hospital with amnesia, Langdon and his nurse Sienna (Felicity Jones) are immediately shot at and forced to flee. A puzzle quickly emerges, and through the clues encoded in a projection of Botticelli’s Map of Hell, they learn that an eccentric bio-engineer named Zobrist (Ben Foster) is planning to unleash the Inferno virus: a deadly plague designed to solve humanity’s over-population problem by wiping most of it out.
Of course, nothing and no one is as it seems. Langdon’s world and sketchy memories have been designed to confuse and obfuscate by the nefarious figures tailing him at every step.
In a movie about a conspiracy, it’s a major problem when the conspiracy ends up being its most superfluous attribute. The problem with Inferno is that, by the end, all the obfuscation seems like a very round-about, unnecessary way of getting at something very simple. Stripped of its calculating guises, the film is just about a maniac trying to release a virus, and not much more. So while the trip it takes to reach that underwhelming point is fun, the point itself is underwhelming.
What compounds this disappointment further is the sheer contrivance of the main twist. The about-face done by one main character is completely unconvincing, entirely contrived when it comes without a single suggestion beforehand. From there it veers into autopilot while Langdon arbitrarily reconnects with someone from his past.
What does suit the story extremely well is its visually enticing backdrop of Italian piazzas, cathedrals, lofts and galleries. It provides the film not only with a sense of historicity, but an involving spatial environment, which -outside of Langdon’s CGI acid flashbacks- is the film’s most authentic feature. Likewise, Hanks is well cast not because his everyman persona has ever been particularly versatile, but because it grounds the film in something that leastways resembles reality.
Due largely to the direction by the always reliable Ron Howard, Inferno is a solid piece of entertainment. If the plot is prima facie redundant, that’s probably Dan Brown’s fault –he has a zeitgeist to please.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10