Beware: Some spoilers follow. I won’t give away the big surprises.
Tom Hanks’ new film “Inferno” is essentially a two-hour-long chase. I endured it only by wringing my very obliging husband’s hand for the duration and managing with great effort to limit my surprised shrieks. Normal people who like action films will probably enjoy the adrenaline rush. Heck, even I did, which is why I keep watching action movies even though I need medication afterwards.
Even though it has a dark theme—a billionaire’s cult threatens to unleash a plague upon the earth that will kill half the population to cleanse humanity for rebirth rather than continued slow extinction by overpopulation and global warming—the movie feels more like a summer blockbuster than a think piece. It spends far more time on action than thought.
That actually may have increased the quality of the thought available. One suspects that if this production were intended to be the cinematic equivalent of a think piece it would be far less fun and far more predictable political harangue. Instead, in this third cinematic adaptation of Dan Brown’s novels, we get another attempt at updating Indiana Jones: antiquities professor traipses across the world solving ancient mysteries with a revolving cast of female sidekicks.
Unlike Harrison Ford’s Indy, Brown’s puzzle-solving Oxford literature scholar, Robert Langdon (played by Hanks), uses more brain than brawn. That’s not the most important difference (although his physicality also makes Ford’s Indiana Jones far sexier). “Inferno’s” pace and lack of development for what could be deeper subject matter means eliminating the possibility that the Langdon series can endure, even just in pop culture, the way Indiana Jones has.
A Refreshing Relief from Overt Propaganda
Mostly the film is an Italian-themed remake of “National Treasure.” It’s a fun movie to watch, but probably just once. In ten or 20 years, you probably won’t pull it out to show your kids like you will Indiana Jones. And it’s not because Hanks is a worse actor. He’s still great. It’s because in this series he has less to work with. It’s unfortunate, but better than the likeliest alternative of hammering leftist drivel. It also leaves some scope for rumination.
Almost the only scene where we had a chance to compare any transcendent ideas, rather than just spending all our mental energy figuring out what is going on during multiple major character and plot shifts, occurred during the movie climax. Let me set the key dialogue up a little first. The plot of the show initially is that Langdon is thrust into attempting to solve a centuries’ old puzzle while suffering amnesia. He has to traverse Europe in the company of Siena Brooks (the gorgeous Felicity Jones), a doctor and child prodigy with her own penchant for puzzle-solving.
Their ostensible aim is to find a biological agent prepared by a genocidal billionaire (Ben Foster) who believes population growth is causing humans to slowly commit species suicide, necessitating an immediate kill-off of half the planet. “Humanity is the disease,” Bertrand Zobrist says ominously. “Inferno is the cure.”
Since the World Health Organization—hilariously selected to play global good guys in this film even though ultimately shown up in world-saving spycraft by a private organization—refused to recommend forcible sterilization, Zobrist takes matters into his own hands and sets off his own anti-population bio bomb: “Pain is the only way we’ll change. Pain can save us.”
My husband pointed out to me that nobody in the film questioned this madman’s long-debunked anti-human environmentalist premise. Yet the most anyone comes to approving it who is not portrayed as a genocidal madman is when Langdon tells Brooks, “Zobrist’s rhetoric is persuasive, but his means are horrific” (slight paraphrase). It’s a pretty light push, if it’s a push. It’s refreshing to see a movie leave the political implications of its underlying topic up to viewers’ own interpretations, and mostly play it straight, even making the bad guy one who accepts a common, long-held leftist idea and takes it (much) too far.
While Hanks has been talking up the film’s overpopulation theme in promo appearances, the movie itself takes a refreshingly more neutral stance. Of course, it does so in the lefty media fashion of thinking that moderate leftism constitutes the political center, but even that is a refreshing break from the overt propaganda moviegoers are used to from movies with environmental themes.
Questions We Should Ask Ourselves
“Inferno” contains a few brief attempts at provoking deeper thought. Consistent with its “upcycled” veneer of class by embedding haphazard, cobbled-together references to classical masters such as Dante and Botticelli, the film luxuriates in imagery from classical conceptions of Hell, death, and plagues.
Yet Zobrist lifts the edge of an interesting idea when he challenges, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, “Humans are inhuman.” Indeed. We are none of us exempt from what Solzhenitsyn called the “line separating good and evil” that runs “right through every human heart.” Zobrist’s central moral failing is in not recognizing his own humanity, and therefore his inextricable inhumanity, and what this recognition implies about his ability to wield globe-affecting power (as well as his need for external redemption).
Another such moment of poignancy brings up, although again lightly, an important public debate, and it does so in a context that expands the effects of the few bits of dialogue. Hanks’ Langdon tells one of the genocidal billionaire’s accomplices: “Genius does not come with extra rights!” The accomplice, struggling to release the bio plague, replies, “No, responsibilities!”
Langdon’s point is that, no matter how much you think you know better than humanity at large and are doing what’s best for them, this belief does not give you the right to inflict your solutions on them for their own good. It’s a basic insight, but one that we all benefit from frequently remembering. Every human is tempted to misuse his or her power, and many of us find the temptation irresistible, especially as we gain power. This film contains many opportunities to consider the evils people will do to acquire power, which casts doubt on their ability to consistently use it justly.
“She thought she was saving the world,” the World Health Organization co-hero (that still makes me laugh) tells Langdon at the end. “They all did,” he replies. It’s true of every mass murderer and pedantic bureaucrat, and should give all would-be world savers pause for self-examination and a more modest appraisal of their ability and right to wield power over other people “for the common good.”
What used to be a basic insight into human nature became codified in American government in our systems of checks and balances and limiting the power of government more generally. Dramatizing this in the context of a potential mass genocide prevented by a man who uses his own personal genius—and therefore power—to limit his opponents’ expression of the same offers an opportunity to consider this age-old debate yet again. And to cheer on Tom Hanks—at least, when he’s acting.