What’s the recipe for a good thriller? Does it entail globetrotting adventure? A labyrinthine conspiracy with consequences that could doom the human race? The placement of America’s sweetheart David S. Pumpkins (neé Tom Hanks) in the lead role? All-you-can-eat spaghetti, made fresh in the birthplace of pasta itself? Well, if so, then Inferno has all of those qualities in spades. (Except for that last one, which was just wishful thinking on my part.) Director Ron Howard’s finale in the trilogy of films centered on symbologist Robert Langdon, the star of Dan Brown’s billion-dollar Da Vinci Code book series, is largely entertaining, offering the same visceral pleasures that Brown’s beach reads do. It is also guilty of moments of profound stupidity, and a baffling need to bludgeon the viewer over the head with exposition. Yet, for all its sins, Inferno is an awfully good time in the theater, thanks in part to its charismatic cast, lavish cinematography, and a startling amount of horror influence.
Much like past outings with Robert Langdon, the world’s most well-known symbologist must use his considerable grey matter and advanced knowledge of Renaissance era Europe and early Christian history to stop a cabal of madmen from another high concept scheme. The film finds Langdon returning to Italy, but this time not to stop an evil Ewan McGregor from stealing a vial of antimatter; no, this time our put-upon professor wakes up in an Italian hospital, suffering from short-term memory loss, and having no recollection of how or why he’s there. Before he can get his bearings, the bullets start flying and Langdon finds himself on the run from armed assailants. Along for the ride is Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), his attending doctor who is committed to helping him regain his memories. But there’s no time to convalesce because the dynamic duo finds themselves caught up in a race against time (and across Europe) to prevent an eccentric billionaire (Ben Foster) from releasing a virus that would murder billions of people.
Sounds like a terrifying situation to find oneself in, right? Except this rebel billionaire, who repeats his plan and twisted M.O. constantly through flashbacks and archival video, put his bioengineered murder-virus on a convenient timer. So rather than releasing immediately upon his untimely death, which—spoiler alert—happens just about five minutes into the film, it is set to go off a few days after his demise. And to make matters easier, he left a handy-dandy trail of Dante-themed clues that lead directly to its location, so it’d be a damn shame if the world’s preeminent symbologist and one of the most highly regarded Dante scholars in the world was trying to stop it.
These are the kinds of convenient narrative developments that prevent Inferno from being a categorically good film. I’m told that there is a better rationalization in the book for why the virus doesn’t deploy immediately, but it just feels like lazy storytelling here. What feels even lazier is having Foster repeatedly vocalize his villainous intent and his world-ending M.O. practically every time he’s on the screen.
Now, while I had plenty of issues with the script itself, I found myself willing to put them aside because of how much fun the film manages to be. There’s a certain glee to seeing Langdon, a human research library, trying to stay one step ahead of his myriad pursuers. Equally enjoyable is Hanks’ supporting cast, which includes Westworld‘s Sidse Babett Knudsen as an old flame/World Health Organization official, Omar Sy as an intimidating WHO agent chasing Langdon down, and, best of all, Irrfan Khan as a high-ranking executive of a private security firm who deserves a spin-off of his very own.
One of the film’s greatest assets is its score, composed by Hans Zimmer, which combines gurgling synths, pounding drums, and staccato electronic sounds to create a sense of technologically-tinged dread that would be right at home in a cyberpunk story like Deus Ex or a Cliff Martinez score.
Though some of the twists and turns feel a bit telegraphed, Howard acquits himself well with well-directed set pieces, surprising amounts of horror (e.g. Dante-influenced nightmare sequences that see rivers of blood, the world in flames, and body horror galore), and a generally fast pace. Will Inferno change your life, sparking a lifelong interest in epidemiology and the collected works of Dante Alighieri? Probably not. Will it put a big, dumb smile on your face, raise the occasional eyebrow, and keep you entertained for a few hours? You’re damn right it will. So pass the popcorn and enjoy all the empty calories that Inferno has to offer.
Rating: 3 out of 5 burritos
Inferno is in theaters on October 28.
The Inferno cast on the film’s horror influences:
Image: Columbia Pictures