Here's why the third Robert Langdon thriller crashed and burned at the box office.
Author Dan Brown has become an international sensation with his series of puzzling adventure novels.
Adapted for the screen, with Brian Glazer producing and Ron Howard directing, Tom Hanks took on the role of Brown’s protagonist Robert Langdon for the European scavenger hunt.
He also adopted a horrible haircut.
However after two successful symbolic entries (“The DaVinci Code,” “Angels & Demons”) last fall saw “Inferno [Blu-ray]” flame out in theaters. With all the same players involved in the globe-skipping formula it failed to draw even half of the box office of the sequel.
While the Dan Brown name used to be a bankable brand, this title became instead an emblem of failure.
Certain movies occasionally fail at the box office. As one of these dead on arrival titles arrives on disc it will go under the knife in the hope of determining the causes of death in the marketplace. Spoilers abound!
Looking for signs of trouble let’s wheel this DVD into the lab, check its Medic Alert badge and find out why it went code red in theaters.
(And let’s also knock it off with the symbolic puns.)
00:00:08 Sceptic Introduction
A bearded lecturer named Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) addresses a crowd about global overpopulation. He’s a billionaire botanist (I know, just go with it). Now, I’m no Hollywood mega-producer, but maybe you are distancing your audience when you open things up with a hectoring TED Talk.
00:00:46 Weakened Impulse
Cut to a chase scene, as Zobrist is pursued through the streets of a European city by a group of black-clad men. In voice-over Zobrist intones grave words, and a tense score follows the pursuit. Neither elevates the fact this is a foot chase.
00:01:29 Blunt Force Dialogue
To whomever Ber-Z is speaking he tells them “Mankind is the cancer within its own body.” Even a billionaire botanist should know the biological ridiculousness of this comment.
00:02:57 Invasive Pathos
Bertrand cleverly races up the steps of a tower, where the men corner him. The botanist decides to swan dive onto the cobblestones. Gripping, but at least he won’t be subjected to any more of Howard’s lens flares.
00:03:25 Iatrogenic Direction
In a hospital room we see Robert Langdon (Hanks) in a bed. Camera flashes, blurred zooms and numerous other camera tricks, along with flashback imagery, unspool during a frenzy of edits. This is all done to illustrate Langdon has a bump on his noggin.
00:07:14 Depleted Character Concentration
The nurse gives some details to a groggy Langdon. He learns he is in Florence. He’s got amnesia and came in with no credentials. Yet she knows who he is because she attended a lecture he gave in London. She was a 9 year old crazy about puzzles. This establishes she will be his sidekick throughout this adventure.
00:08:15 Elevated Foreshadow Levels
During the cinematography pyrotechnics the camera focuses repeatedly on the plastic bag of bloody clothes on a chair in the room. I wager a 6-pack of Shiner Bock the clothes will be needed for solving a vital clue at some point.
00:10:31 Adverse Cerebral Activity
A fake cop is shooting up the hospital. Langdon can barely walk, but he and his new sidekick manage to get outside and into a taxi. They speed to safety because rather than run up to the car and opening fire, the assassin shoots at them as she stands about 100 feet away.
00:11:56 Editing Arrythmia
We cut to an apartment. Even though Langdon established he was in a hospital in Florence, a title card announces they are in Florence, Italy. Not 20 seconds later the nurse Sienna announces they are in Florence. Give me a moment here; I feel I should jot down this detail.
00:16:05 Cauterized Plot Cavity
Be prepared for Langdon’s amnesia to be a point of convenience for the script. While piecing things together with Sienna, he suggests they contact the American Consulate. This is rather heady, considering not a minute earlier he did not know the word for “Coffee”.
00:18:55 Irregular Plot Beat
Called it – someone owes me a six-er!
As they raced out of the hospital Sienna grabbed the bag of clothes. Now Langdon discovers a 6-inch metal vial carrying bio-medical content. So the hospital staff, while searching his clothes for ID, was unbothered by the tube with a bio-hazard symbol.
00:21:48 Technological Thrombosis
The vial has a thumbprint scanner so only Langdon could open it. Inside is a smaller cylinder made of human bone. Langdon declares it a Faraday Pointer, and it projects the image of Boticelli’s painting of Dante’s rings of Hell. This will be the impetus to chase down Zobrist’s biological terror. This is all a lot to take in for an audience the production felt could not remember what city they are in.
00:24:58 Cliche Malignancy
As the pair pour over the painting for clues they spot random letters, then Langdon points and says, “And what is that, is that text? Is that in English?!” Because that is how people in real life speak when they discover a sentence, rather than taking 0.43 seconds to read it.
00:29:21 Depleted Character Concentration
Robert and Sienna elude the same Black Ops members that pursued Zobrist. As they break into her apartment we learn who they are. It’s not the CIA, Interpol, nor the military intelligence agency of a superpower. It is The World Health Organization.
00:30:29 Cranial Atrophy
While a number of agents all converge on the alley and the female assassin from the hospital is there. She spots the two in the distance running from the scene, and she starts to run off after them – instead of using her motorcycle. I’m just going to make the call: She’s horrible at her job.
00:34:02 Exploratory Story Incision
In a massive ship at sea we learn Harry Simms (Iffan Kahn) runs a shadow corporation that operates . . . um, operations – for numerous client operators, I suppose? There is some mention of Zobrist having been a client. I’ll operate on faith they will explain this to us at some level.
00:35:42 Cauterized Plot Cavity
Langdon directs them to go to an Italian museum because of a famous work containing a puzzle, and he prattles off numerous arcane details of the works and artists. Immediately after this he is incapable of remembering his own middle name!
00:36:15 Invasive Pathos
They start to piece together that Zobrist created a labyrinthine puzzle for somebody to follow and discover the bio-weapon that will wipe out one half of the Earth’s population. I could suggest it would have made more sense for the billionaire to just tell a devoted follower where it was hidden, but then we’d have no movie.
00:38:02 Tympanic Trauma
Langdon and Sienna encounter a roadblock, so they get out to run. The police take up the pursuit — with a camera drone. The oppressive soundtrack suggests this is highly gripping action.
00:38:40 Adverse Cerebral Activity
As they escape through a forest Langdon — the forgetful coffee drinker with no middle name — informs Sienna he remembers a secret unknown doorway into the plaza.
00:46:50 Irregular Plot Beat
In another museum Robert, for no discernible reason, is brought upstairs to see the death mask of Dante. When they arrive it is discovered to be stolen. By now I barely even care what is happening, or why.
00:48:30 Weakened Impulse
That fluid-amnesia makes a return. In the security office they all watch the camera footage. Langdon has no memory of he, and an associate, having visited two days earlier and stealing the mask.
00:51:27 Script Graft
After slipping away from security they calmly leave the museum and Langdon states his partner in the video has gone into hiding. His partner has also left clues for him to solve. That’s great, because we don’t have enough of this symbolism hokum taking place already.
00:58:24 Script Graft
Back on the mystery ship executives watch a tape from Zobrist detailing the plague he wants released. They all look stern and speak with import — and still give no idea why they are so vital to this film. This only means they will be shown to be vital by film’s end.
01:00:08 Exploratory Story Incision
After being told Langdon has the vial, and is on the run, Simms next goes to a desk and opens a drawer filled with ornate knives. He declares he will be going to Florence himself. The film has finally managed to get me excited – we may finally learn who the hell these guys are!
01:04:28 Plot Stimulant
Langdon and Sienna break into a renovated church to find the Dante mask sunk in a baptismal dais. Of course more opaque clues were found inscribed. Then an WHO worker named Christoph enters the scene. They learn the next place to look for clues is Venice, as we look for reasons to care.
01:06:45 Irregular Plot Beat
The screenplay now decides to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. They tell Christoph of Venice. He books them plane tickets to Geneva. Other WHO agents are shown rushing to a plane terminal to stop the plane. Simms arbitrarily shows up at the ticket counter while the trio is on a train. This all transpires inside of 45 seconds of screen time.
01:08:09 Continuity Failure
On the train Christoph draws up a scenario where, days earlier, the WHO had approached Langdon to help them decipher the images inside the Faraday Pointer. However, the only way to access the device was the bio-vial, set with Langdon’s thumbprint. (Ooops).
01:09:05 Plot Stimulant
Langdon soon realizes that it was not Christoph, but the director of the WHO, who initially approached him on campus days ago. So Langdon and Sienna flee the train — meaning the list of people now chasing them down only increases.
01:11:12 Cauterized Plot Cavity
Simms sits down with Elizabeth, head of the WHO task force. They stipulate that whatever Simms’ organization does he’s been thwarting WHO, on behalf of Zobrist, for two years. He takes this time to ask WHO to do a favor. Somehow he also knows Christoph has gone rogue. INTRIGUE! (So long as you don’t ask how he manages to know everything.)
01:17:55 Invasive Pathos
Following yet ANOTHER chase, as they escape a basilica, Sienna reveals that she was after the pathogen all along. Even though she was a multi-lingual nurse with a deep interest in every step of Langdon’s pursuit, and with a willingness to risk her life, her becoming a turncoat is a complete surprise to the professor. Like the script, maybe I should blame this on amnesia.
01:18:00 Plot Stimulant
This also means the list of people chasing down the pathogen continues to grow.
01:21:38 Cranial Atrophy
During a lengthy flashback we learn Sienna was not only Zobrist’s lover, she planned and designed the outbreak virus with him. This makes his hiding it in complex fashion for her to find all the more asinine.
01:25:52 Visual Adrenal Infusion
Christoph takes Langdon by boat to an abandoned marina. As he is detailing why he wants the virus to sell on the market suddenly Simms creeps up and kills him. The impossibility of his knowing where they were is barely overshadowed by relief that he ended Christoph’s monologuing.
01:26:26 Plot Stimulant
Simms informs Langson he did not have a head wound, and that his amnesia was actually due to a chemical he was injected with. That was convenient!
01:29:09 Cauterized Plot Cavity
Simms details the extremely convoluted manner he “convinced” Langdon to follow this trail. All the screwed up plot points are now “intentional” and even the inept occurrences involving the female assassin were actually her “failing” to kill Robert to scare him into action. So basically nothing in this film up to this point has had any merit.
01:29:10 Empathy Arrest
It is exactly at this moment where you can go from apathy to hatred for the movie, while Hanks is actually chanelling the audience’s feelings.
01:31:07 Irregular Plot Beat
On a plane to Istanbul the WHO director tells Langdon that Zobrist once came to her office to propose a plan for mass sterilization. She then says she kicked him out, and placed him on a watch list; “But he disappeared”. Zobrist — the billionaire; the man shown giving speeches to packed houses. The man we have been told has followers, across the globe. They couldn’t find that guy.
01:38:54 Continuity Failure
Okay, so the whole crowd is converging on Instanbul; Langdon, WHO, Simms and Sienna (and by now probably the Boy Scouts, some membrers of the Shining Path, and a troop of Belgian white supremecists.) Sierra visits a nearby professor who is aware of the hiding spot, and also has two bombs for her to use to set off the plague.
A question: If this clown already knew of these key details, WHY ALL THE MYSTICAL SYMBOLIC JUMPING THROUGH HOOPS AROUND EUROPE?
01:43:35 Tympanic Trauma
Everyone streams down to an underground aquifer where an orchestra has been set up due to the acoustics. (It’s Europe, don’t ask.) This means as they all frantically search for the hiding place of the pathogen they have an onsite dramatic soundtrack welling up in real time.
01:48:04 Collapsed Climax
Simms gets stabbed by a goon, and then Sienna finishes him off. Then she tosses the bombs into the water, but cell phone signals were cut off. She jumps in to manually detonate, but the WHO got a containment chamber over the pathogen just before it was released.
Garbage. They would have had no way to have such a chamber since they only learned it was to be an airborne aerosol release just minutes earlier. But hey, you knew it would happen — all signs pointed to a happy ending.
Brown’s thrillers were supposedly rooted in historical mysteries with robust treasure hunt scenarios added in. “Inferno” suffers from a contemporary threat, a wholly fabricated mystery that is undercut by a deus ex machina corporation and the last-minute inclusion of characters with all the answers, who never had to follow the clues.
What Brown and Howard missed here is that if all of the intrigue ultimately doesn’t matter then your thriller becomes nothing more than a two-hour cop out.
Here’s one last sign: Do Not Enter.
Brad Slager is a freelance writer who has contributed to The Federalist, Breitbart News and Pop Matters. Follow him on Twitter at @MartiniShark