Thursday, July 18, 2024

Inferno Does Not Improve Upon Its Franchise

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… or its source material, for that matter. I guess as a movie adapted from a Dan Brown book, it does well on getting you to know some new facts and pieces about history, and this one actually carries a smidge of a commentary on overpopulation, but out of all the three movies so far in this franchise, Inferno is the one that falls flattest.

I’m going to try to divide this review in two sections: one talking about the movie with little to no mentions to the books and the second one more on its adaptational value and how it fares against the book Inferno. Spoiler alert for pretty much all things Robert Langdon released so far.

Movie Analysis

Inferno tries giving the franchise a new bolt of adrenaline by, for starters, changing up the formula from “Robert Solves Enigmas Throughout a City” to “Robert Solves Enigmas Throughout a City For The Second Time”. To be more precise, he begins the movie suffering from amnesia and not remembering a thing from his past two days. His mission is to retrace his own steps from these lost 48 hours.

We are introduced to our Black Haired White Female Sidekick™ soon enough – this time, she is played by Felicity Jones and is called Sienna Brooks, MD. Now, I’m sure everyone knows that these stories wouldn’t work if they got the average Joes and Janes, but just as usual, both Robert and his female friend are Mary Sueing the shit out of this movie. And that’s fine, I suppose. It makes sense, when you think about it, that Robert keeps finding these extra intelligent people in his little adventures.

Dr. Sienna Brooks gets her simplified backstory given on a series of pictures and old newspaper cutouts:  she is a child prodigy, a child actor attended college when she was 12, runs marathons, and helps serving soup to the poor. She met Robert when she was 9 on one of his lectures. Basically, she is our designated ultimate person (in the book, her IQ is 208+).

Now that we’ve got our heroes, Robert Langdon, with his eidetic memory and knowledge of art, history, and religion being compromised only when he can’t remember the word for ‘coffee’, and Dr. Sienna Brooks, who also knows a whole lot about art, history, religion, and Dante, we can get to our villains. Well, sort of villains which didn’t really come to much because the movie didn’t handle misdirection that well.

We have the WHO (World Health Organization), lead by Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey, who is trying to stop the plague from spreading. We have Cristoph Bruder who works for the WHO, but then, with a terrible movie-only plot twist, betrays the organization for his own profit. Finally, we have the Consortium, lead by The Provost (Irrfan Khan), who later in the movie has a change of heart and helps the WHO locate the plague.

So, basically, everyone is trying to stop the plague. EXCEPT FOR SIENNA!! HA HA BET YOU DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING! Neither did I!! Well, to be honest, the movie pulled this one out of someone’s ass because not only it went against source material, but also had the mission of subvert previous Langdon Girls and at the same time enhance Langdon himself as our Action Hero!

The thing is I don’t quite think the movie sucked, you know? Sure, I have been negative so far in this review, but I think it succeeds in being a semi-good-even-watchable action movie. It is a “Lethargic afternoon Movie”. A “I’m putting off studying physics Movie”, “Netflix and Chill Movie”, “I’ve read The Divine Comedy in high school Movie”, “Tom Hanks is a personable fellow Movie”. You get my point.

Ron Howard took the direction of Inferno in a different path this time, preferring shaky cams to put the viewer in the same disoriented position Robert was instead of the wider shots from his previous movies (true, Angels and Demons had a higher budget and more aesthetically pleasing sets). He even did a good job, I believe, on throwing some sense of urgency especially on Robert’s vision of the plague.

Robert also gets a love interest in Inferno: Sidse Babbet Knudsen’s Elizabeth Sinskey – another movie-only twist. My guess is Sony wanted our hero to have some romance, but given they didn’t make anything of Vittoria in A&D and Sienna was going to die anyway, they went for the next female in the character list from the script. Go figure.

Most complaints about this franchise are about how much exposition the characters need to give to the audience. I’m sorry, but there is NO way around this: the books pack a lot of information because Dan Brown needs these paragons of knowledge for his narrative to work. So, complaining about Dante’s life being thrown at your face is actually quite counterproductive to the enjoyment of Inferno.

The ending of the movie looked as good as one could want from a cinematographic point of view. There were stakes, underwater fighting, and the old ‘saved at the last minute’ thing we’re used to. Meh. It’s fine. I prefer the far different book ending, but I guess, for a set piece, it works.

Movie v. Book / Movie v. Franchise

Let me start by confessing something: I’ve been bitter at Sony Pictures for mishandling this entire Robert Langdon Enhanced Cinematic Universe (RLECU) since 2009 when I read Angels & Demons.

They did the equivalent of releasing Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix as the first movie in the Harry Potter franchise or adapting A Dance With Dragons as the first season of Game of Thrones. See, Sony released The Da Vinci Code (TDVC) as the origin story of Robert Langdon to cash in on the controversy the book generated without bothering to adapt Angels & Demons (A&D) first. They picked the book with the most recent release date.

For Sony’s credit, it was a relatively well done decision in financial terms given TDVC generated a lot of box office revenue, but it still doesn’t justify skipping an entire first book – a better one, really. So when Sony finally decided to adapt A&D, they did it as a sequel to TDVC.

Then, to really bother me, they announced the adaptation of The Lost Symbol (TLS) only to scrap it off years later when the book Inferno was released with Ron Howard and Tom Hanks saying the “just couldn’t crack it” and “it is too tonally and thematically close to A&D and TDVC”. Honestly, TLS is, in my opinion, WAY better than Inferno and even TDVC, so I really wanted to see it adapted.

While I think Inferno is the worst book, I don’t necessarily mean it’s a bad book. I’d say it was a frustrating read when I compare it to the other three books. Dan Brown can create a page-turner as it was for me with A&D, TDVC, and TLS, but with Inferno, I had to force myself to turn the page just because I was feeling obligated to finish it.

The book is well written, but it suffers from prolonging the mystery for far too much time. Also, the twists weren’t that good and Dante’s work doesn’t make for the best and most interesting theme, especially when you compare to Leonardo da Vinci, the Illuminati/Catholic Church, and the Masons (I’m sorry, Dante fans out there).

The fact is: Dan Brown can create a compelling narrative if you suspend your disbelief enough. If you don’t know a lot about history, art, and religion and just take everything at face value, you can finish one of his books believing that 100% of the narrative is true. To be a little hyperbolic here, I may even say that, if Dan Brown wanted, he could make me believe that Bush is behind 9/11 in a 400 page long book where Robert Langdon and Female Character With a Doctorate of Architecture and Civil Engineering run around New York city looking for clues.

People read Dan Brown for the twists and that gut feeling that you are discovering the truth behind conspiracy theories – that’s just a fact. The story doesn’t take enough time for character development. It IS just a glorified treasure hunt and that is perfectly fine.

I would say, though, is that what Inferno – both book and movie – improved upon its predecessors was the inclusion of more female characters and how it touched on a more socially & current relevant issue – the dangers and risks of overpopulation. To the movie’s credit, it had a far more diverse cast than the previous installations, – I think even more than the book – but too bad most of the minorities got killed one by one in the movie (Yay for poor adaptational decisions!!)

So, the best part of the book? By far, the ending. I really loved how Dan Brown stepped outside his comfort zone in not writing a Robert Ex Machina, having some real consequences on a worldwide scale. Basically, the virus was not going to kill anyone, but it turned one-third of the population infertile even before Robert’s journey began. It was a futile quest from the beginning – which doesn’t quite make for a visual medium, I guess?

To have even more grayness, it was decided in the book that the WHO would not try to revert this situation because, in the end, Zobrist was right about the dangers of overpopulation and his vector virus was a hard, but necessary measure.

So, of course, naturally, obviously, with no surprise to anyone, Sony changed the ending for a more cinematographic third act set piece where Robert saved the world from a virus that would, in fact, kill half of the world. Apparently, Robert needed to be enhanced by the narrative or whatever – they kind of did the same thing in A&D as well when Robert saved the last cardinal instead of having him drown.

The movie also took away much of Sienna Brooks’s depth besides deciding to make her the bad guy and kill her off in the end. Now, yes, that is, by far, the most different ending for a Langdon Girl, but not really a good one. Sienna had redeemed herself by the end of the book and subverted people’s expectations by being an originally-good-turned-bad-but-actually-was-good-all-along person. Movie Sienna is an empty husk of Book Sienna.

If I wanna be really nitpicky, Book Sienna is blonde. Second, she has undergone so much depression and stress in her life that she literally developed alopecia – her blond hair is a wig. Now, apart from her physical traits, Sienna was someone who really wanted to change and improve the world. She was highly independent, self-taught, had PTSD after almost being raped while on an expedition to help the poor, and much, much more.

In the end, if you liked The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, you’ll probably end up liking Inferno. It has similar vibes when it comes to their treasure hunt plot, Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones are as good as they can be, and the set pieces are pretty. As a book adaptation, it is equivalent to the cliff notes of Inferno, but with the last quarter significantly altered without the dramatic punch as its predecessors. If you can suspend your disbelief enough, you might just enjoy the 2 hours.

Given that these movies are popular internationally, we should get an adaptation of either The Lost Symbol or Origin (Dan Brown’s next book) eventually. Let’s just hope that, if those get made, Sony can learn from its mistakes and produce a movie in this franchise that can break 40% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Images courtesy of Sony

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