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Just in time for Halloween comes a new documentary focusing on one of Earth’s most frightening treats — volcanos. Even better, swashbuckling director and writer Werner Herzog is the filmmaker, so it’s sure to be a hair-singing descent into the fiery heart of volcanos.
But, alas, Herzog has really just pulled a nasty trick on us. The legendary filmmaker’s “Into the Inferno” — not to be confused with the new Tom Hanks film “Inferno” — is actually a lazy, meandering mess that gives off no heat.
Herzog takes us to steaming, scary volcanic mountains in North Korea, Indonesia, Iceland, Ethiopia and the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu but never really connects them thematically or narratively. Often the volcanos are studiously ignored.
In North Korea, Herzog spends a lot of time discussing that closed society’s intriguing use of propaganda. In Ethiopia, he follows archeologists. And in Indonesia, we have an excruciating discussion with volcano tech monitors about electronic distance measurements and gas emissions.
These visits are interspersed by what could best be described as volcanic porn — nighttime shots of gorgeous lava as it oozes down a mountain or bursts like cheese bubbling on a cooking pizza, all set to opera or music by Verdi, Rachmaninov and Vivaldi.
“It is hard to take your eyes off the fire that burns deep under our feet”, Herzog intones in his dreamy German accent during such a sequence. “Everywhere — under the crust of the continents and sea beds. It is a fire that wants to burst forth and it could not care less about what we are doing up here”.
That’s promising stuff but then we’re off to another volcano and another pointless look at some feature of that country. In one — the barren, scorching Afar Region in Ethiopia — Herzog films a crew of archeologists hunting for remains of Homo sapiens. We watch a Western fossil hunter sift through dust for tiny fragments. “Are we ready to rock and roll? Let’s get brushes”, he says.
What does this have to do with volcanos? Very little. What does his investigation on Vanuatu about the cult surrounding the mythical figure of John Frum have to do with lava? Not much. The film pretends to be investigating indigenous spiritual practices around volcanos but simply never delivers. Instead of rock and roll, we get the brush off.
We even learn that a lot of “Into the Inferno” lifts from a couple of Herzog’s other films — “La Soufrière”, which looked at volcanic activity on Guadeloupe, and “Encounters at the End of the World”, about Antarctica.
It was in that latter documentary that Herzog met and befriended Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist from Cambridge University who acts as interviewer in the new film and whose book, “Eruptions That Shook the World”, inspired it.
This mix of old and new, and the mingling of friendship and filmmaking may be why “Into the Inferno” lacks focus. It sometimes seems like Herzog did a bait-and-switch — promising to make a volcano film and really just using that as an excuse to travel to some cool places with a pal.
That’s fine, but the documentary he made is unwatchable. The Tom Hanks film is probably a lot better.
“Into the Inferno”, a Netflix Documentary, is rated TV-PG. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes. No stars out of four.
According to the TV Parental Guidelines, a rating of PG-TV means parents may find material unsuitable for younger children.
By a twist of fate, there are two infernos you can submerge yourself in this weekend. You can either take the Dan Brown audio tour of Florence and Dante’s Divine Comedy in Ron Howard’s adaptation of the author’s “Inferno”. Or you can tiptoe around the edges of volcanoes with Werner Herzog, contemplating their mythic power in “Into the Inferno”.
If one must be sacrificed to appease the movie gods, it’s not a hard call. Whether that would be enough to finally extinguish Brown’s best sellers and their big-screen counterparts, however, is unlikely.
“Inferno” is the third Robert Langdon film, with Tom Hanks reprising the role of the Harvard “symbology” professor whose parlor trick is solving elaborate criminal plots by deciphering great works of art. If his exploits are to continue (and there is good reason to fear they might), I hope he’ll eventually be confronted with a puzzle that brings him face to face with a Rothko, leaving him utterly bereft of clues.
The first two Langdon movies (also directed by Howard) were cold, soggy soups of conspiracy that served up a very poor man’s Indiana Jones, minus the fun but plus a dubious haircut. The filmmakers have skipped one book in the series, perhaps wisely since Brown’s “The Lost Symbol” enlists Freemasons as its conspiracy-du-jour, following escapades with the Catholic church and self-flagellating albino monks in “The Da Vinci Code” and the Illuminati in “Angels & Demons”.
“Inferno”, a better, more simplified thriller than those films, trades less on the ancient mysteries of a shadowy organization than the familiar arch villainy of a megalomaniac — and a good one, at that. The reliably intense Ben Foster plays Bertrand Zobrist, a billionaire who, fearful that overpopulation will destroy humanity, wants to trim the herd by half with a virus that will unleash a modern-day plague.
Langdon’s role in the scheme isn’t clear. The film begins with him waking up in a Florence hospital, his recent memory wiped clean by a head wound and his mind haunted by apocalyptic visions. It’s that classic hangover with little to jog the noggin other than a mysterious bio-tube from the night before.
When a pursuer turns up and starts shooting, Langdon and the doctor on hand, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), flee and begin piecing together Zobrist’s plot, one concocted with heavy shades of Dante and Botticelli’s Map of Hell painting. They chase the virus while trailed by the World Health Organization (Sidse Babett Knudsen, Omar Sy) and a clandestine security firm (Irrfan Khan exquisitely plays its gentlemanly leader). (AP)
Langdon and Brooks dash through the Palazzo Vecchio, the Boboli Gardens and other starred attractions in Brown’s Florence guide book.
The opportunity to see Hanks traversing European capitals has been enough to make the Langdon films blockbusters. Along the way, Langdon — a bit of a drip — has not given Hanks much to work with. But slavishness to Brown’s text has finally given way in David Koepp’s script to an apparent understanding that the books don’t deserve such regard, or at least that few care anymore.
The benefit is that “Inferno” isn’t a burning heap of hogwash, like “The Da Vinci Code” was. It’s a lot more like a tweed-jacket version of Bond or Bourne or most any other thriller out there. But if Langdon is distinguished from the other globe-trotting saviors by his PhD, why aren’t his movies smarter?
“Inferno”, a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sequences of action and violence, disturbing images, some language, thematic elements and brief sensuality”. Running time: 121 minutes. Two stars out of four. (AP)
By Mark Kennedy