In Inferno (2016), Robert Langdon (played by Tom Hanks) and some woman follow a trail of clues that are tied to European religious art and history, as in The Da Vinci Code, only this time the focus is Dante, and Langdon doesn’t know how he got to Italy or why there are people chasing him. The movie doesn’t seem to be popular with viewers or reviewers, but it was plenty entertaining, if you ask me.
What makes the complicated puzzle plot work for me? Partly, it was Langdon’s initial puzzlement about what’s going on, which puts the audience right in the thick of things—we’re not looking over the shoulder of a pompous art expert, we’re looking over the shoulder of a confused victim. We catch glimpses of memories or dreams but, like Langdon, we can’t quite catch hold of them, and whether or not we know where we’re going, we have to keep moving.
Partly it was the amazing Italian settings. I mean, hiring Tom Hanks is expensive, but the filmmakers also apparently rented every major tourist attraction in Florence, and one or two in Istanbul as well, stopping in Venice along the way. Or they just recreated a bunch of famous places in a studio in Budapest, one or the other. (Actually, some of both.)
Partly it was the freakishly believable terrorist, an extremely rich but extremely delusional white guy who gave a bunch of TED talks about how humanity cannot allow the world’s population to double again and who took it upon himself to try to solve the problem by developing a virus that, when released, would cause immense amounts of pain and suffering but also ensure the survival of the race… by cutting the world’s population in half—decimating it, one might even say—like the Black Death did when it made way for the Renaissance.
Partly it was that I particularly liked one of the secondary characters. While I found the villain’s death cult genuinely threatening, I found his pragmatic mercenary quite amusing. (In this much at least, reviewers seem to agree with me.)
Why wasn’t the movie liked?
Maybe it was too cerebral and not actiony enough. Thrillers have to have Bond gadgets in them, not Renaissance paintings.
Maybe, as more than one reviewer says, it’s the related problem that Tom Hanks’ talent is “wasted on the role of Dr Robert Langdon, an academic who is sort of a brainier, duller Indiana Jones.”
Or maybe it’s just that Dan Brown’s novels aren’t very different from each other (or particularly deep), and it hasn’t been long enough since the last installment for people to find his offering very, well, novel.
Anyway, upshot: if you don’t go in expecting the art-historical conspiracy-theory trail-of-clues plot to resemble what spy movie heroes and real-life detectives typically do to prevent catastrophes and solve crimes, respectively, then you may, like me, be entertained. The plot of Inferno is needlessly complicated and fundamentally illogical, but (unlike that of Point Break) it’s still coherent.
Keep reading for a detailed summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
My Beat Sheet for Inferno (2016)
Crazy guy says humans have overrun the globe.
Langdon is in a hospital in Florence and doesn’t know how he got there or anything about what has happened the last two days, and he’s having visions of Hell. Sienna, a female doctor who claims to have met him back when she was a child genius, helps him escape the hospital when an Italian cop tries to shoot him.
Let’s save humanity.
Langdon’s clothes contain a tube that needs a thumbprint match to open.
Should Langdon turn himself in to the US embassy, or try to figure out what’s going on?
Break into Two
He opens the tube. It contains a thingy (the much-derided “Faraday pointer”) that projects an image of an illustration of the circles of Hell, and it contains a clue. Langdon and Sienna run away when the trigger-happy cop as well as a team from the World Health Organization arrive.
B Story / Promise of the Premise
Together, Langdon and Sienna follow the first of several clues. They evade pursuit by cutting through the Boboli Gardens and visit the Palazzo Vecchio to see Dante’s death mask, but the mask is not there. By inspecting security tapes, they learn that Langdon and his colleague stole it the previous day. The discovery of Langdon’s theft sets off another chase, which leads Langdon and Sienna into a room full of rafters above a big hall in the palace. Sienna kills the trigger-happy cop and the pair escape.
In the wake of the cop’s death, Sienna states that she became a doctor to save life, not destroy it, but reaffirms her commitment to helping Langdon pursue the trail of clues. They go to the Duomo where they find the stolen mask in the baptismal font. Just as the mask reveals another clue, a black, French-speaking agent from the WHO joins them. Together they set off for Venice, though Langdon, suffering from a rash as well as visions and memory loss, fears that maybe he’s already carrying the virus himself. However, something the agent said didn’t ring true (he had not been the one to come to Langdon in Boston), so they confront him and fight their way free again.
Meanwhile, an Indian mercenary has arrived in Italy. He was hired by the terrorist, but since, strangely and unlike most antagonists, the terrorist died near the start of the movie, the mercenary felt it would be all right to watch the video he had supplied which was intended to be shown upon the release of the virus. The mercenary, thus enlightened, was horrified by the plan to release the virus on the world. Determined to help stop it, he seeks and joins forces with Elizabeth, the woman from the WHO, Langdon’s old flame.
In Venice, Sienna and Langdon discover that they’ve followed the clue in the mask to the wrong place. Although Venice, with its hordes of international tourists, would be a good place to release the virus so that it would be carried to all the corners of the globe, the virus is not actually in Venice, it’s in Istanbul at the Hagia Sofia.
The WHO guy has caught up with them again, but that’s not the worst of it. They get trapped in a basement with no way out but a barred window facing the plaza. A woman selling tourist trinkets agrees to a bribe of 100 Euros to help open the grating. Langdon pushes Sienna up and out the window to freedom. She turns and gazes back at him. Then slams the grate shut in Langdon’s face.
You see, she’s the dead terrorist’s lover, and wants to carry out his mission. She’s been using Langdon to find the virus so she can ensure that it is released. For the greater good.
Bad Guys Close In / All is Lost
The WHO guy captures Langdon. He wants the virus for himself to sell it on the black market, and he doesn’t care how much he has to hurt Langdon to get it. Sienna, meanwhile, makes contact with some fellow cultist in Istanbul, who outfits her with explosives. Nothing can stop her now.
Dark Night of the Soul
Before the WHO guy can hurt Langdon, the Indian mercenary turns up and stabs him to death, then, while arranging the body for the Italian police to find, explains in the politest most deferential way possible that all of Langdon’s experiences with Sienna since waking up in Italy have been illusions, carefully concocted to make him think he was helping save the world, when he was actually helping the terrorist cult find and release the virus. Langdon has been controlled like a puppet on strings.
Break into Three
Langdon, Elizabeth, and the Indian mercenary get on a plane to Istanbul. Langdon and Elizabeth have a sentimental chat about old times. He realizes that he had been with her in Italy when he had been kidnapped by the mercenary and injected with a chemical that made him lose some memories. She returns the treasured Mickey Mouse watch that he dropped that night. I guess all this gives Langdon some new hope or something. Gotta catch the bad guys before midnight!
The virus isn’t in the Hagia Sofia, it’s under it in a water system that is now used for musical performances because of its superior acoustics. And tonight there is a sold-out concert.
The finale is a showdown between the crazy cultists led by Sienna and the WHO, led by Elizabeth and Langdon. There’s a box that can contain the virus safely, but they have to find the bag containing the virus and get to it before Sienna sets off the explosives. Her first attempt to detonate the bombs fails because law enforcement has jammed all radio signals, so the fight gets very up close and personal. And splashy. Team WHO manages to get the virus in the box, but Team Sienna gets the box and tries to open it in the water. (A helpful red/orange/green light display on the outside of the clear box tells us how close they are to succeeding.)
I think Sienna and the mercenary both die, but whether they do or not, what matters is that the virus is contained and carted away for study, and Elizabeth and Langdon survive.
Langdon returns to Florence, where he mischievously sneaks Dante’s death mask back into the museum, to the hilarious delight of the Italian staff. The film ends with a dramatic spotlight on the plaster face. Disaster averted; humanity will not suffer Hell on earth.