Inferno (2016): When A Success Formula Wears Off

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Alexander Vandewalle

Alexander Vandewalle

Screenanigans is a blog that aims at a casual talk about film and television, just for fun! It was founded in 2016 by Alexander Vandewalle in the belief that the often made distinction between 'high culture' and 'low culture' is unnecessary and basically useless. Screenanigans therefore tries to combine the two. Pay us a visit at screenanigans.wordpress.com!

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code novel from 2003 was a spectacular success. I was only seven years old at the time (it probably came out later where I live), but I still remember a crazy amount of copies of it lying in every possible bookstore. It refreshed people’s interest in the mystery genre by presenting a thrilling experience that was based in extensive historic, literary, religious and symbolic research. It also featured an interesting main character: Robert Langdon is not defined by being muscular or by being good with a gun, but instead he is a Harvard University professor of iconology with a love for tweed jackets. The Da Vinci Code was actually Brown’s second Langdon book: the first was Angels & Demons (2000), though the film adaptations would subvert this order without major problems or narrative implications.

These stories then found their way to the big screen. The Langdon film series currently consists of three films (The Da Vinci Code (2006), Angels & Demons (2009) and Inferno (2016)), all directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks as the lead character. Yet, while those first two are great compelling rides, Inferno seems a bit — off. There’s just some problems with it that the previous two films didn’t have, and to be honest it’s a pity that Inferno turned out to be the disappointment it was. Since I’m going through a bit of an obsession with history these last couple of weeks, I thought I’d write about Inferno today, and see why the movie failed. Disclaimer: this analysis will concern itself exclusively with the film, and no attention will be given to the book on which the film is based.

Tom Hanks;Felicity Jones

Quick recap: in Inferno, Langdon teams up with Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) to stop a super-virus called Inferno from decimating the global human population. The name Inferno refers to the first chapter of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, a long medieval Italian poem depicting a character called Virgil being led through the different stages of hell, purgatory and the divine paradise. This work fits right in Dan Brown’s wheelhouse, of course, as he’s shown his particular affection for important artworks of the past with a spiritual/religious touch on more than one occasion. In the end, (spoiler), Langdon is able to prevent the world’s population from being affected by the virus.

The first problem with Inferno has to do with the monumental stakes presented by the story. As opposed to The Da Vinci Code or Angels & Demons, where the stakes were rather “low” in comparison — to be fair, Angels & Demons did present the threat of the Vatican being blown up by antimatter, but still, in terms of scale this is almost minuscule when compared to killing off a large part of the world’s population. This smaller scale worked in the first two films, since these are not the kind of mega-hit blockbusters where the security of the planet is threatened. We have other movies and franchises for that. Avengers: Infinity War (2018, Anthony & Joe Russo) was able to get away with killing off 50% of all life in the universe since the rules work on that particular intergalactic scale in that particular franchise. The Langdon franchise, which is closer to real life and deals with a iconology professor travelling around the world to solve religious mysteries, is much smaller in scale and fares better when that smaller scale is kept small. As far as narrative plausibility is concerned… Size matters.

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A second major problem revolves around something that I’ve written about a couple of weeks ago: the balance between surprise and suspense. Simply put, suspense is when you give your audience multiple strands of information that all build up toward a highly anticipated climax, whereas suspense is the explicit denial of information and involves unexpected events. At the beginning of Inferno, Langdon is being brought into a hospital in Florence, Italy for a gunshot wound to the head. Sienna Brooks then reveals to him that he is suffering from amnesia. This results in Langdon trying to remember what happened to him throughout the course of the film. While perhaps a neat story gimmick, it also results in the narrative containing more and more surprise events, whereas the franchise’s greatest strength lied in the building of enticing, intellectual suspense that the audience member was able to participate in. Brown’s The Lost Symbol (2009) has not been adapted onto the screen (yet), but I still vividly remember the excitement I had when I was doing a 2AM reading session and figured out the setting of the final showdown before the book got to that part. It’s what good thrillers do. This amnesia sub-plot could be seen as a new and original way to start the story but in the end, that story is not necessarily better off because of it.

Finally, Inferno is also plagued by a hurdle most franchises have to overcome: familiarity. Story franchises often struggle with finding the right balance between staying true to their defining core elements and calculating just how far they can push their boundaries without any new innovations seeming unfitting to what made the franchise to what it is. Inferno is an example of this struggle. It perhaps brings something new with the introduction of Langdon’s visions in the beginning of the film, but in the end, the films is more of the same. Typical character tropes such as pairing Langdon with a young woman who opposes Langdon’s signature way of doing things have been exhausted by now, I think. (True, Inferno does reveal that Sienna Brooks isn’t the person she says she is, thus adding something “new” into the mix, although this moment would’ve been better if it were built up more, instead of being the surprise event that it is.) For a possible fourth movie to be successful, I believe some adjustments to the core narrative dynamics are definitely in order.

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I’m a fan of both the book and film series (and am still eagerly awaiting that Lost Symbol adaptation), but I really wasn’t able to get into Inferno as much as I would’ve wanted to, and with this post I hope to have elucidated some of the things that bothered me about it. There’s definitely potential for a fourth movie in the franchise (Lost Symbol!), but some problems do need proper addressing. Sadly, however, all we can do is wait and hope for the best.


Written by Alexander Vandewalle. For the featured image, click here. Click here for the Langdon & Sienna picture, the museum picture and the film poster

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Alexander Vandewalle

Alexander Vandewalle

Screenanigans is a blog that aims at a casual talk about film and television, just for fun! It was founded in 2016 by Alexander Vandewalle in the belief that the often made distinction between 'high culture' and 'low culture' is unnecessary and basically useless. Screenanigans therefore tries to combine the two. Pay us a visit at screenanigans.wordpress.com!

Inferno (2016): When A Su…

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